Lynn’s Antonia De Leon fears she and her family would not have been able to stay in their home without the emergency rental help during the pandemic.
They never defaulted on rent before the pandemic, De Leon said, but when COVID-19 struck, her husband lost his restaurant job and she had to move to a new, lower-paying job.
De Leon and her family turned to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), which provides up to 18 months of rent arrears and future rent assistance for renters financially impacted by COVID-19.
“If it wasn’t for this program, I would have been able to walk the streets with my family, homeless,” De Leon, speaking to Spanish through an English interpreter, told a crowd of lawyers and reporters outside the State House on Tuesday. “There are many families who need this help, but sometimes their stories go unheard.”
After Friday, Massachusetts residents will not be able to apply for housing assistance backed by federal ERA dollars, which the Baker administration says are dwindling and likely to expire before June 30.
Families in need can still turn to the state-funded housing assistance program for families in transition — which will receive a $100 million boost under a supplementary budget signed by Gov. Charlie Baker on April 1 — but housing advocates warn that the Alternative will not suffice the scope of the need as the COVID-19 threats still exist.
ERAP offered broader benefits with looser eligibility requirements, allowing households earning up to 80 percent of the area’s median income to apply, compared to the 50 percent threshold in RAFT.
Andrea Park, head of community-based advocacy for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, cited De Leon as an example, saying the Lynn family was not eligible for RAFT, although they still struggled to make ends meet.
“If this program ends on Friday, she will not be eligible for rental assistance starting next week,” Park said. “What will happen to Antonia and many like her?”
“Many of us only got sick with COVID in February, and I think as much as we want that in the rear-view mirror – and we’re making great progress on that – we need to remember that there are still people who are really struggling, to get back on our feet,” Park added. “This is an emergency program. There is still emergency money that we have available.”
Since the ERAP program began in March 2021, the Baker administration has distributed more than $600 million to 74,200 households, according to a spokesman. Officials projected last month that the state had about $200 million in unspent federal rental assistance money, which the administration expects to be exhausted by the end of the fiscal year at the current rate of applications and payments.
The additional budget, which increased RAFT funding by $100 million, also extended pandemic-time eviction protections through March 31, 2023, which require the courts to stay any non-payment of rent proceedings if a tenant has a has a pending aid application.
Protesters on Tuesday renewed their call for lawmakers to tap about $2.3 billion in remaining funds from the state government’s American Rescue Plan Act or a developing tax revenue surplus to maintain expanded emergency housing assistance.
“All those words that we’ve heard about the importance of frontline workers, about people finally making the connection between health and housing, about racial differences and economic differences — we’ve heard a lot of nice remarks from the governor and from the legislature,” Lynn said United for Change Empowerment project leader Isaac Simon Hodes. “This is where the rubber hits the road. Cutting a program like this will only exacerbate those differences.”