Boston – A new report from The Boston Foundation, Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay outlines lessons learned during COVID-19 through the administration of the state’s primary emergency rental assistance program, Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT), by community-based organizations (CBOs). The report, Building a Better RAFT: Improving Access to Emergency Rental Assistance in Massachusetts, finds that RAFT and other programs played a crucial role in housing stability during the pandemic and highlights numerous ways in which the system could work more efficiently and effectively. Specifically, the research highlights the work of trusted CBOs who were able to connect with residents often left behind by traditional outreach methods.
“Community-based organizations are critical allies for families in need of emergency housing, but too often, they and the families they serve are battling systemic barriers that block access to programs at the most critical times,” said Maritza Crossen, director of strategic initiatives of CHAPA. “We can better leverage and support the work of CBOs and other community partners to ensure resources get to families more quickly and from trusted organizations in their community."
The research found that CBOs are often the first place people go when they need help paying rent, accessing food, or getting healthcare. Throughout the pandemic, CBOs shared information about emergency rental assistance, translated application materials, facilitated communication between property owners and tenants, helped people submit complete applications, and worked with the agencies that administer emergency rental assistance on behalf of the applicants they assisted. This help was critical, especially for applicants of color, immigrants, and those for whom English is a second language.
“Community-based organizations should be at the table to help design the RAFT program and its implementation. They see firsthand how the program works and doesn’t work for their clients, and they know how dire the need is for many of them — even those who can’t apply due to unnecessary barriers. Their clients trust them, and they have excellent ideas for how RAFT could be improved to help keep more people in their homes," said MAPC Research Manager Jessie Partridge Guerrero. “The CBOs, RAAs, landlords, and tenants that we interviewed for this research have incredible energy and passion for this work. If these critical stakeholders are engaged in program design, they can help transform RAFT into a truly equitable, effective, life-saving program.”
After identifying common challenges faced by participants and CBOs, the report suggests the following policy recommendations to ensure all who require rental assistance receive it:
“No single solution will solve every issue with emergency housing, but our experiences with expanding RAFT and other programs during the pandemic have helped bring us a greater understanding of the solutions that together can transform the system into one that responds more quickly to urgent needs, especially for communities and households most marginalized,” said Soni Gupta, Associate Vice President of Programs at the Boston Foundation.
At the height of the pandemic, Massachusetts received over $800 million from the federal government for emergency rental assistance. These funds helped more than 100,000 households stay in their homes. With federal funds depleted, eviction filings up 68% over last year for nonpayment of rent, and the need for funding for CBOs, there is a great need for increased investment from the state. The paper suggests increasing funding to $250 million, with a $10,000 cap for tenants each year and direct funding provided to the CBOs for their work in this program.
“Housing stability is foundational -- foundational for our region's families and foundational for our economy,” said Sarah Bartley, vice president of Housing and Homelessness at United Way of Massachusetts Bay. “At a time when the cost of housing is already an insurmountable burden for thousands of Massachusetts families, it is critical that we do not exacerbate that burden by making rental assistance programs inaccessible. Removing barriers to access includes allowing people to apply in their own language and offering support to file the application and documentation requirements. Supporting trusted, community-based organizations will make the RAFT program both more effective and more equitable.”
This research builds on CHAPA’s Neighborhood Emergency Housing Support (NEHS) grant program, which operated from December 2021 through May 2022. The NEHS program provided funding to 22 participating CBOs across Massachusetts to support efforts to get the word out about state and federal emergency housing payment assistance opportunities and help community members apply to these programs. The NEHS program was a direct response to the need for dedicated funding for CBOs to support their communities during the unprecedented housing and economic instability brought on by the pandemic.
The Boston Foundation is one of the most influential community foundations in the country. Partnering with community members, donors, the public sector, businesses and nonprofits, we aim to repair past harms and build a more equitable future for our city and region. Supported by the Annual Campaign for Civic Leadership, we publish research into current critical issues, convene people in public forums to discuss the city’s agenda and the region’s trends—and use our shared knowledge to advocate for public policies that promote equity and opportunity for everyone. TBF is also one of New England’s largest grantmakers, supporting nonprofits in Greater Boston through our endowment and working closely with our donors to support nonprofits locally, nationally and internationally.
Citizens’ Housing & Planning Association (CHAPA) is Massachusetts's leading statewide affordable housing policy organization. Established in 1967, CHAPA advocates for increased opportunity and expanded access to housing so every person in Massachusetts can have a safe, healthy, and affordable place to call home in their chosen communities. For more information, visit www.chapa.org.
The United Way of Massachusetts Bay exists to build more equitable communities, together. With over 85 years of local impact in eastern Massachusetts, we work with and for our communities to build economic prosperity and enable everyone—across races and ethnicities—to share in the knowledge, wealth and resources available. We believe that the key to unlocking opportunity is uniting people, and we bring together individuals, community leaders, corporate partners, legislators and organizations to build a powerful engine of change.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council is the regional planning agency serving the people who live and work in the 101 cities and towns of Metropolitan Boston. Established in 1963, MAPC includes a diversity of planning disciplines, spanning public health, data, climate resilience, affordable housing, public safety, and more. MAPC is governed by representatives from each city and town in the region, as well as gubernatorial appointees and designees of major public agencies. MAPC’s regional plan, MetroCommon 2050, guides the agency’s work in engaging the public in responsible stewardship of the region’s future.