Most of us in the legislature are committed to making sure that no one in Massachusetts lacks food, shelter, or health care. And we are doing a lot to fill possible gaps in the safety net. But it is hard to know whether we are doing enough to support those who have lost income due to the COVID-19 recession.
We know that a lot of people are out of work. And we know that the federal government has so far kept many afloat through extended unemployment benefits.
We don’t know how many are falling through the safety net. The restaurant and hospitality businesses that have been hit hardest are characterized by low wages and sometimes pay employees off the books or without documentation. Those employees cannot collect unemployment insurance.
The situation is moving too fast for reliable surveys and those working off the books or without documentation are not on the economic radar. Some have attempted economic modeling of income replacement needs, but these models involve a lot of guess work and are highly uncertain.
The only real information we have comes from our secondary safety net — the food and shelter programs that support those who cannot make ends meet.
Case load increases in these programs demonstrate a huge expansion in need. For example, the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership estimates a tripling in the number of families served by the RAFT program in greater Boston. The RAFT program provides rental assistance for families in transition.
The expansion of need is concentrated in the immigrant neighborhoods where people are most likely to be working in low wage hospitality jobs, often without documentation and without access to unemployment insurance. In East Boston, the case load is on track to rise by 20-fold from fiscal 2020 to fiscal 2021. It is already up by a factor of ten comparing only the first six months of fiscal 2021 to the full 12 months of fiscal 2020. Chelsea is on track to rise 10-fold, Everett 5-fold.
As dramatic as these increases are, they understate the need. Some people are unaware of available benefits. Some are uncomfortable with applying for benefits. Some are unable to apply due to cognitive or language barriers.
The legislature has dramatically increased RAFT funding and is committed to providing supplemental funding to meet emerging demand. In addition, we have attempted to make sure that all eligible persons are able to apply. We have required that landlords seeking evictions for non-payment provide notice of available assistance and that courts delay eviction proceedings to allow tenants to apply for assistance. We have provided increased funding for the service organizations that process assistance applications to keep the backlog in applications down. The courts themselves, working with the Baker Administration, have created an Eviction Diversion Initiative.
The rate of new filings for eviction offers a metric of the adequacy of our assistance. So far, we have not seen an explosion in attempted evictions. We imposed a complete but temporary moratorium on eviction filings when the epidemic hit but that moratorium expired in October. There was a brief increase in new filings immediately after the expiration, but that increase has not been sustained. In fact, new eviction filings in the first four weeks of 2021 were 23% below filings in the first four weeks of 2020.
The lack of a surge in new eviction filings is encouraging on its face but there are multiple possible explanations. Our expanded rental assistance programs may be making a big difference. Landlords may be making compromises with tenants, knowing that the rental market is very soft. Or, less encouraging, many tenants may just leave when threatened with eviction so that no actual eviction filing occurs.
Results from the City of Boston’s census of homelessness should appear shortly. But that survey will only identify the street homeless. How many families are doubling up with friends or relatives creating ideal conditions for transmission of COVID?
We have put a lot in place to help people and we are watching and listening carefully for signs of unmet need.
Safety Net Expenditures in the FY2021 Budget
- $180 million for Emergency Assistance Family Shelters;
- $135 million for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP);
- $50 million for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT), as well as emergency changes to the RAFT program to increase the maximum amount of rental assistance that a household can receive from $4,000 to $10,000 and allow eligible households facing a housing crisis to access both RAFT and HomeBASE;
- $80 million for public housing subsidies;
- $56 million for homeless individual shelters;
- $13 million for homeless student transportation;
- $12.5 million for the Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP), which provides rental assistance to people with disabilities;
- $11 million for Department of Mental Health Rental Subsidy Program; and
- $8 million for unaccompanied homeless youth.
- $30 million for the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program;
- $13 million in Healthy Incentives Programs to ensure vulnerable households have continued access to food options during the pandemic; and
- $1.2 million for Project Bread to support the Child Nutrition Outreach Program and the Food Source Hotline.
- Child Care
- $25 million for a new Early Education and Care Workforce and COVID-19 Supports Reserve
- Rate increases for early education providers
- New reserve to cover parent fees for families receiving subsidized childcare
- $15 million for Head Start grants;
- $10 million for EEC Workforce Higher Education Opportunities;
- $2.5 million in early childhood mental health grants;
- $11 million for child care resource and referral agencies; and
- Establishes the Early Education and care Economic review commission to review childcare funding and make recommendations on policy changes to expand access.
Source: Joint press release of the Speaker and the Senate President, December 4, 2020