Community-based organizations are made up of hard-working heroes. That’s the undeniable conclusion to take from the virtual forum the Boston Foundation hosted on May 25, 2023, to release the report Building a Better RAFT: Improving Access to Emergency Rental Assistance in Massachusetts
There were other conclusions and recommendations, too, supported by a presentation from the researchers at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) and by the experiences and observations shared in a panel discussion with representatives of those community-based organizations, or CBOs. Chief among their conclusions? Community voices must be at the table when designing policies and programs, and the system needs additional resources. More money budgeted for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) would allow trusted CBOs to be integrated into the work in a more formal way and enhance the program’s effectiveness. Researchers and practitioners also advocated for RAFT process adjustments to accommodate other difficulties applicants (and some landlords) may face, including language barriers, literacy challenges, nontraditional housing situations, deportation fears, disability, tech access, and more.
TBF Chief Program Officer Orlando Watkins welcomed viewers, expressing gratitude for the engagement and partnership that led to the report and the gathering, saying that both were emblematic of the Foundation’s commitment to elevating community voices and partnering to build a better community.
TBF Associate Vice President of Housing and Neighborhoods Soni Gupta then offered background on the Neighborhood Emergency Housing Support (NEHS) grant program
, managed by the Citizens Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), that formed the basis for the report. Witnessing how CBOs stepped up to help clients when the pandemic crash-landed here, CHAPA launched NEHS in December 2021, providing funding to 22 Massachusetts CBOs over the next six months to support efforts to publicize state and federal emergency housing payment assistance opportunities and help community members apply to them. (TBF and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay funded the program.)
MAPC Research Manager Jessie Partridge Guerrero gave an overview of the report, which drew on both quantitative and qualitative research to paint a vivid picture of the current emergency housing assistance landscape and, importantly, offer recommendations for making it more effective and equitable. Throughout the NEHS program, CHAPA surveyed participating CBOs and MAPC gained extensive insights from a stakeholder advisory group that included four of the state’s nine Regional Authorizing Agencies (which review and process every RAFT application), two landlords, and academic experts in the field. The on-the-ground observations of participants gave researchers insights into the cause of some anomalies, such as the massive disparity between the large number of people who need assistance and the small number who apply for it. Surveys identified immigration status and uncooperative landlords as top barriers. On the face of it, those barriers are puzzling since no proof of citizenship or documentation is required to apply for RAFT, and the whole point is to get landlords paid. Voices of experience, however, explained that materials were not accessible in enough languages, and even immigration attorneys discouraged clients from applying out of fear it would label them a “public charge” and threaten their status. Meanwhile, some landlords have language barriers and their own fears about sharing their documentation with government agencies.
Partridge Guerrero’s presentation returned to the high impact of CBO work with RAFT applicants and the importance of including participants’ input in program planning. She shared the report’s proposed policy strategies and recommendations.
CHAPA Director of Strategic Initiatives Maritza Crossen moderated a conversation with three community leaders about their experiences during the pandemic and as participants in the NEHS grants program. Each leader described the quantum-level capacity shifts their organizations were compelled to make to meet constituents’ needs early in the pandemic. None had been set up specifically to assist folks in applying for rental assistance. Still, because they were trusted in their communities, they were the organizations neighbors turned to when they needed help.
As Reverend Myrlande DesRosiers, Director of Everett Haitian Community Center, said, “You have to become what is needed in your community.” Recognizing the need to protect people who were vulnerable, the center’s staffers took on reviewing and rewriting unfair leases and provided wraparound services—all offered “in nontraditional hours, so people can access equitably the services they need.”
Asian Community Development Corporation Director of Community Programs & Design Jeena Chang recalled, “Metro Housing Boston recognized the language problem and reached out to Asian CDC for help. Once we kicked that off, the floodgates opened. In the first year and a half, we helped more than 750 families. Before the pandemic, we didn’t know how to help people with applications.”