The 2020 Greater Boston Housing Report Card, Part 1: Stability In the Era of COVID-19

Part 1 assessed households’ ability to pay rents and mortgages, the prospects facing lower-income households at the end of the eviction and foreclosure moratorium and some innovative responses from municipalities.

June 23, 2020

The 17th annual Greater Boston Housing Report Card from the Boston Foundation was scheduled to be released this spring, with a forum in May to discuss two issues that burned hotly in Boston only six months ago: The sore lack of sufficient housing stock for low- and moderate-income folks in Greater Boston, and the traffic and commuting situation that was choking us with congestion. How might transit-oriented development tackle both those problems to transform our region?  

But suddenly, the roadways, subways and commuter trains became relative ghost towns. Would housing near transit hubs have the same value? No one is throwing out the idea, but with many unable to work, housing stability is seriously at risk for many residents of Greater Boston. The research team made a quick shift and took a laser look at the present through a series of briefs and webinars. 

Aerial shot of a densely housed neighborhood in Charlestown

Webinar #1, held on June 23, focused on the basic issue of stability in light of the COVID-19 crisis and what might follow (read the accompanying report here). It’s an alarming picture.  

At first glance, it’s surprising how many people in the Commonwealth have been able to keep up to date or at least make partial payments on their rent or mortgages, despite spiking unemployment. Tom Hopper, Director of Research and Analytics at the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, presented the research brief and shared slides that illustrate the housing situation in the region. Survey data showed only 10 percent of respondents failed to pay any rent (or answered “unsure”) as recently as June. Hopper and other analysts chalk this up to the swift application of direct federal and state aid for people, with stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits and benefits for those normally outside of unemployment insurance coverage. This support has allowed the whole system to stay afloat: Tenants pay landlords who can then pay mortgage holders or utilities or other creditors, who can keep people employed. 

The alarming news is in looking forward to the time when financial supports stop. People may still be out of work but now face rent (and maybe back rent) and other bills with no income at all. On July 31, key CARES Act programs end, including expanded unemployment assistance and the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses. August 1 rent is due the next day. Making matters worse, the moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent (and forbearance of foreclosures on mortgages) is scheduled to end on August 18. 

Among renters who are current on payments, 22 percent of those surveyed do not expect to be able to pay more than four months of rent, and only 55 percent of respondents anticipate being able to pay more than six months of rent. In a worst-case scenario, the most vulnerable among us will not be able to remain housed, and may end up on the streets, in shelters or doubled up in crowded housing situations.  

Unsurprisingly, that vulnerability is not evenly distributed among the population: Struggles to pay rent and the insecurity that comes with that fall largely on renters of color and those under 30 years of age. A deeper look at equity is the topic of Greater Boston Housing Report Card webinar #2. 

Speakers at the first webinar included: Tom Hopper, Director of Research and Analytics, Mass Housing Partnership (Presenter); Soni Gupta, Director, Neighborhoods & Housing, The Boston Foundation (Moderator); Ryan Dominguez, Policy Analyst, Citizens’ Housing & Planning Association; Lydia Edwards, Boston City Councillor, District 1; Domonique Williams, Deputy Director, Office of Housing Stability, City of Boston; Clark Ziegler, Executive Director, Mass Housing Partnership.