The Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development has denied MassLandlords’ request to see where rental assistance was spent, or where applications were denied. The result is that $400 million of our public funds were spent in secret, with no public oversight. And worse, because many have applied for rental assistance and been “timed out” (a form of denial), the state could have corruptly or discriminatorily played favorites and gotten away with it.
The pandemic safety net for both renters and housing providers began in October 2020 with the state’s Eviction Diversion Initiative. The goal was to prevent evictions. A secondary goal was to stabilize mom and pop housing providers who were ineligible for the paycheck protection program, unemployment, and other pandemic relief. If the rent got paid, those of us who lived in and by rental housing could keep calm and carry on.
By all measures we have succeeded: Eviction filings are down 50 percent below pre-pandemic levels, and levies of execution (forced move-outs) are down 80 percent. The U.S. Treasury has cited Massachusetts for “promising practices.” Unlike states with a less-developed housing safety net, we in Massachusetts were able to roll out pandemic rental assistance relatively quickly.
This has been an unprecedented intervention in the housing market. The rental assistance roll-out deserves public scrutiny and collaborative improvement. Many of us have wanted to know: Did rental assistance land disproportionately on white people due to systemic racism? Why does it take regional administrators months to approve some applications, but only weeks for others? Are there aspects of the application that were implemented poorly, such that we need to work harder to help limited English proficiency residents, friends and neighbors without Social Security Numbers or households with children or disabilities? How has this impacted rents?
Why Do Landlords Care?
MassLandlords has repeatedly engaged the administration on these issues – a call with Gov. Charlie Baker on April 12, a letter to Secretary of Economic Development Mike Kennealy on July 9, emails back and forth with the administration’s general counsel and public records officer all year. We have also tried to engage with two of the regional administrators, Way Finders and RCAP Solutions.
On the one hand, the Baker administration and the regional administrators seem to share our concern that prior applications were problematic or handled problematically. In October, for instance, the state switched to a greatly streamlined central application, attempted to expand language access and eliminated a potential “black hole” for file uploads. And the state’s “time out” rate has declined.
But on the other hand, we are consistently stonewalled in our efforts to examine the past. We wanted strong enforcement of the state’s antidiscrimination protections so that no one slumlord could be used as an excuse to enact a second eviction moratorium or other foolish laws. We wanted equal housing opportunity so that all residents of color, of limited English proficiency or heavily preoccupied with children or disabilities could still get help. And we wanted the state to operate in a transparent way, free of corruption, fraud and abuse.
And if it turns out we fell short of our goals, we want to find those who we’ve let down and make reparations.
We’re Asking for Addresses, Not Names
We have written to the public records officer at DHCD three times, each time sharing a more advanced draft of the public records lawsuit that may be filed in Superior Court. Each time we have been denied on the basis of a 1988 advisory opinion that states “disclosure of the names and addresses of individuals who are receiving rental subsidies reveals intimate details of a highly personal nature.”
If we had asked for the names of renters who had received rental assistance, we might agree with the state that these should not be disclosed. But we have made it clear that we are asking for only three fields: the address of the applicant (where rental housing was to be provided), the date of the application and the status (whether approved, denied, or timed out).
An address is not enough to find the name of a renter who lived in an apartment up to 18 months ago. No one’s privacy is in jeopardy.
But an address is sufficient to meet two public objectives. First, we can compare the addresses of rental assistance applications to the court records to see how many asked for help but got evicted anyway. We wouldn’t have contact details for those applicants, but a judge could order the state to go back and try again. Second, we can compare the addresses to Census data to see whether or to what extent systemic racism still plagues us. Here too a judge could order any redress required.
Imagine we had $800 million worth of roads to pave, but the state chose to pave only half of them, and no one is allowed to know which roads or why. Well, that’s the same thing that happened with rental assistance. The need was close to $1 billion. The state has paid $400 million. And where, why and to whom is a secret. At least, that’s how the Baker administration wants it to be.
Doug Quattrochi is executive director of MassLandlords Inc.