Mass. To Close Applications For Emergency Rental Assistance In April

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BOSTON (State House News Service) — The Baker administration will stop accepting new applications for federally funded emergency rental assistance next month, closing the door on a diminishing stream of money that advocates say has provided a "lifeline" to tens of thousands of families under financial strain during the pandemic.

Officials announced Wednesday that "on or around" April 15, Bay Staters will no longer be able to apply for housing aid covered by federal Emergency Rental Assistance dollars, which the administration expects it will exhaust before the June 30 end of the current fiscal year.

The impending change will close off the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), the Subsidized Housing Emergency Rental Assistance program (SHERA) and the ERAP-enhanced HomeBASE program. The state-funded Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program (RAFT), which Beacon Hill has targeted for a funding boost, will continue to accept applications after April 15.

Housing advocates are concerned the move will impose unnecessary disruption on lower-income households who are still struggling to recover from the damages wrought by COVID-19, and they are in the midst of a campaign pressing state lawmakers to intervene and replenish the pool of aid.

"These programs have been a lifeline to tens of thousands of people facing eviction and homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic," the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and National Consumer Law Center wrote in a joint letter. "The economic and health effects of the pandemic continue to rage, threatening vulnerable households across Massachusetts and disproportionately harming communities of color. Both programs must continue accepting application(s) without interruption to avoid further catastrophe."

With injections of money flowing from multiple federal relief packages, Massachusetts received about $843 million in emergency rental aid to help keep tenants housed amid a flood of housing insecurity and looming evictions.

Accounting for money already committed for future payments, about $201 million remains unspent from the Bay State's pot of federal rental aid funds, which Baker administration officials expect will be exhausted in the coming months based on the current rate of applications and payments.

Altogether, the administration said it has distributed more than $582 million in housing aid to about 72,000 households since the COVID-19 crisis began in March 2020.

The ERAP program offers more significant benefits on a longer-term basis than RAFT, making up to 18 months of funding available to cover rent arrears and future rent. Applicants must provide a statement attesting that they lost employment or wages or face increased expenses due to COVID-19, though documentation is not required.

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Even with RAFT still in place and in line to receive a jolt of additional state funding, Mass. Coalition for the Homeless Associate Director Kelly Turley said the forthcoming elimination of ERAP applications could result in many families in need falling through the cracks.

RAFT offers aid to households earning up to 50 percent of the area median income, compared to the 80 percent threshold under ERAP, and unlike the federally funded program, it caps benefits at a dollar amount -- $10,000 last year and $7,000 this year.

"We know that given the slow recovery emerging from the pandemic, in particular many low-income households that have been struggling for a long time with housing instability and communities of color have benefitted from ERAP in a way that RAFT hasn't been able to reach," Turley told the News Service.

Gov. Charlie Baker proposed adding $60 million to the state's RAFT account as part of a mid-year spending bill (H 4479). The House bumped that figure up to $100 million in its version approved last week (H 4532), though representatives rejected a Rep. Marjorie Decker amendment backed by advocates that would have effectively applied ERAP's looser eligibility requirements to the state's RAFT program.

Turley said supporters want to "use the existing state-funded RAFT program and be able to use it in a way that matches ERAP's target populations."

Advocates are hopeful they will have greater success in the Senate, which has not yet rolled out its own version of the spending bill.

Baker in his fiscal year 2023 state budget proposed $80 million in funding for RAFT, four times as much as the program's traditional pre-pandemic allotment, and sought to keep providing benefits of up to $7,000 per year.

At the start of the year, the administration implemented new eligibility and application requirements on ERAP and RAFT in an attempt to stretch out the hundreds of millions of dollars that remained available.

Massachusetts also sought to capitalize on additional federal dollars set to be redirected from other states that did not spend their emergency rental aid quickly enough, though the administration said it has not yet received an additional boost from the federal government after two reallocation rounds.

Other states that did get more money sent their way by the federal government have also announced they will soon close applications for the program, according to the Baker administration.

Written by Chris Lisinski / SHNS.

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