The City Council Committee on Housing and Community Development held a virtual Zoom meeting on April 9 on two different hearing orders that have been filed regarding assistance for those facing eviction, displacement, and who are in need of rental assistance.
Councilor Ed Flynn filed an “order for a hearing to discuss ways to support tenants facing eviction and displacement,” and Councilor Lydia Edwards filed an “order for a hearing regarding the creation of temporary rental assistance to support residents impacted by COVID-19.”
Councilor Edwards pointed out that ”this is not a new conversation for many…” as “many people are already dealing with a 6, 7, 8 alarm fire and this pandemic poured gasoline on it,” she said. This hearing was the first of many conversations that will help the City “hopefully come up with additional resources to not only deal with this pandemic, but the housing crisis moving forward,” she said. “We cannot continue the way we did before this pandemic.”
Councilor Ed Flynn said that over 16 million Americans have filed for unemployment over the past few weeks. “This hearing would be a good vehicle to discuss how we can continue to protect tenants,” he said. “I still believe that this is an important conversation to have and I suspect it will be one we will continue to discuss in our city.”
The $3 million in City funds to help residents pay rent “is just the tip of the iceberg,” said City Councilor Kenzie Bok. “This comes on top of a situation where people were not able to keep stable housing,” she said. She added that recently released data show “an enormous, off the charts application for SNAP benefits.”
“Big pieces of this are going to have to be done at the federal and state level,” she continued, but she said the Council will do “what we can to push some of our larger agendas around tenants rights.”
Dominique Williams, Director of the Office of Housing Stability, said that 4,467 households had applied to the rental relief fund as of April 8, and the city is targeting those relief funds to those who are either not eligible for unemployment benefits or whose titles would mean that they would not receive enough money to pay their rent.
Due to the number of applicants, Williams said they decided to hold a lottery, and “[the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND)] is working very hard to find additional funds,” she said.
Taylor Cain, the Director of the Innovation Housing Lab, said that the housing lottery form is available in six different languages, and they are also thinking about households who don’t have “reliable access to the Internet.”
DND Housing Policy Manager Tim Davis said that the federal CARES Act “provides significant resources which will keep many renters stabilized.” He also said that Black and Latino Bostonians are most likely to be in jobs where they will be laid off.
Additionally, “we are concerned that unemployment benefits will not do enough” to help the city’s 18,000 undocumented workers. “We are already working to add additional funds to the $3 million,” he said.
He said they figured that the $3 million would go to between 700 and 800 applicants. “We’re still waiting to figure out exactly how this is going to play out,” he said, “considering we don’t even know how long this crisis is going to last.”
DND has also screened out tenants who are not from Boston to “ensure that the resources are going to the right folks. We really just want to stress that this money is not directed towards the landlord,” he added,” so as to not “penalize the tenant for the landlord’s inaction.”
The lottery ended at noon on April 10, and the goal after the lottery is to get the payments issued before May 1, said Katie Forde, Operations Manager for the Office of Housing Stability.
City Councilor Julia Mejia asked what would be done for the residents who enter the lottery but do not win. Forde said that the city is “tracking people to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks,” and staff across DND who speak multiple languages have been engaged and will be in touch with those residents.
Some public comment included concerns about undocumented immigrants and language barriers when it came to the application, as well as the short window of time for people to apply for this round of funding.
“Our focus has been on the work of this fund and we know that there’s that need out there and some people might fall through the cracks and that is on us,” Forde said. “We want to make sure that this is a fair and equitable process.”
Councilor Edwards said that the City Council will have a “follow up conversation on this exact fund. The questions don’t end today and the concerns don’t end today because the crisis doesn’t end today,” she said. “There’s lessons we can learn as we go along.” She said she believes the people working in the city departments are “doing the best they can,” and that she will make sure that the working session related to these hearing orders is interpreted to reach the most residents. “This is the beginning of a conversation,” she said.