By Chris Lisinski
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JULY 31, 2023…..A pandemic-era program that paused roughly 10,000 eviction cases while tenants sought financial aid could return as a permanent tool if Gov. Maura Healey joins lawmakers in support.
The compromise fiscal year 2024 annual state budget approved by the Legislature on Monday revives “Chapter 257” protections. Anti-homelessness advocates say the protections are a key strategy to keep Bay Staters in their homes while landlord groups say tenants have exploited the program.
Language in the conference committee report filed Sunday night effectively mirrors the previous program, which lawmakers kept in place for much of the COVID-19 emergency before allowing it to expire on March 31.
“This program has been wildly successful and effective in keeping people in their homes and has helped avert the tsunami of evictions in the commonwealth that many have been concerned about since the 2020 pandemic started,” Rep. Aaron Michlewitz said Monday before the House approved the budget accord.
If the measure again becomes law, courts would be required to grant a stay in cases where a landlord is seeking to evict a tenant for failing to pay rent, the tenant did not pay due to a financial hardship, and the tenant has an application waiting review for relief money that could cover the back rent.
“It’s a very important tool for tenants and landlords who can resolve a case with rental assistance,” said Andrea Park, director of community driven advocacy at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “It’s obviously not everything we need to do to ensure people are not being displaced, but it’s something that was in place for several years and people had really come to rely on it, so we’re really grateful it was restored.”
The budget measure drew sharp criticism from Greater Boston Real Estate Board CEO Greg Vasil.
Vasil said his group supported Chapter 257 early in the COVID-19 emergency “because we were in a different place as a society.” They then backed allowing it to expire in March because, Vasil said, “rampant abuse by a number of tenants” began to take place as relief dollars dwindled.
Some tenants, Vasil said, filed new applications for aid to avoid eviction even after being denied relief dollars on multiple previous occasions.
“We’re starting to see [landlord] members that have had tenants like this that are starting to get into some financial troubles because they were owed literally tens of thousands of dollars in rent and [tenants] just continue to exist in the property and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Vasil said.
The final accord does not include Senate-approved language requiring applications for rental aid to be in “good faith” for a court to pause an eviction case.
Most state rental aid flows through the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program, and Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless Associate Director Kelly Turley said those applications can take “a long time” to complete and get processed.
Between when the temporary law took effect in late 2020 and the final report issued in November 2022, courts granted more than 9,000 continuances pausing an eviction case while the tenant involved awaited review of a rental aid application. Turley said she expects the total number of affected cases to be closer to 10,000 given that the law remained in effect through March.
Tenant advocates said there aren’t clear data highlighting what happened when Chapter 257 expired in the spring, but anecdotally, they said uncertainty has escalated.
“We’ve seen a lot of confusion on the part of both tenants and property owners around the status of their applications as well as fear that there won’t be enough time to have their rental assistance applications processed before an eviction is finalized,” Turley said.
“On the ground, we’ve heard from a lot of people, tenants and advocates and legal aid as well, asking when is this going to be reinstated,” Park added. “It’s really, really critically needed.”
The budget includes $190 million for RAFT, which Michlewitz described as “historically high.”
For part of the COVID-19 pandemic, households could receive a maximum RAFT benefit of $10,000, but that decreased to $7,000 on July 1 under a change previously approved in the fiscal 2023 state budget.
The new FY24 budget accord also embraced an expansion to the HomeBASE program designed to support families in the emergency shelter assistance system, which is facing a record level of demand amid an influx of migrants.
It would increase the maximum benefits from $20,000 over two years to $30,000 over two years, plus allow families to renew beyond the two-year period, according to Turley.
HomeBASE funds can be used to pay security deposits, utilities, furniture, travel and many other costs that pose obstacles for families trying to overcome homelessness.