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Feared Evictions Pushed Back As Rental Aid Trickles Down
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December 24, 2020

GREENFIELD – Nobody in Franklin County has been evicted since the state moratorium ended two months ago, but the sheriff’s office continues to serve pre-eviction notices and court summonses while trying to connect tenants with as many resources as possible.

“It is very troubling, because we are obligated to follow the law, but we try to be humane as well,” sheriff Christopher Donelan told the Reporter. “We can slow the process down, but ultimately we’re required by law to serve the papers by the court.”

According to US Census Bureau statistics, 6.7 million people are at risk of eviction in the coming months nationwide. In Massachusetts, that includes about 146,000 renters and homeowners.

For six months between April and October, housing courts in Massachusetts shut down following a state-ordered halt to all “non-essential” evictions, which expired on October 17. Since then the Franklin County sheriff’s office has delivered dozens of pre-eviction notices and at least 54 “summary processsummons and complaints,” court orders requiring tenants to appear in court on a specific date. Alongside these notices, the sheriff’s office provides information about rent relief programs, legal aid, and food assistance.

“We’re a very compassionate county, I believe,” Donelan said. “Our approach from the very beginning was to contact all the attorneys and social service agencies in Franklin County who assist renters when they’re in trouble.”

The largest available pool of assistance is the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program, originally designed to provide one-time financial aid to families facing homelessness. During the pandemic, the upper limit for RAFT has been increased from $4,000 to $10,000.

Governor Charlie Baker’s Eviction Diversion Initiative, introduced after the state moratorium ended, pledged $100 million to the RAFT program, as well as $12.3 million towards legal aid for tenants and landlords and $50 million towards emergency rehousing.

Community Legal Aid (CLA), which provides free legal service for low-income defendants in central and western Massachusetts, was one of six such organizations in the state to receive funding under the Initiative. With the additional money, the organization has been able to add 20 more caseworkers to their staff of about 100.

“We are taking in every eviction case that comes to us now, which is huge and expansive and exciting,” said Jennifer Dieringer, CLA’s managing attorney for Franklin, Hampshire, and Berkshire counties. “RAFT funding is helpful, but it’s not a forever thing, and at some point these folks are going to be on their own,” Dieringer said. “There are still gaps, and I think for us what we see in our evictions cases is that there is always something underlying the eviction issue.”

With the additional case managers, Dieringer said CLA can now help defendants with other forms of assistance, such as assistance in accessing food stamps, veterans’ benefits, or addiction services.

Meanwhile, all housing court hearings for the four western Massachusetts counties are taking place each day on one busy Zoom session, with the same judge, clerk magistrate, and housing specialist overseeing all cases. Dieringer said the online format is slowing down the process, and complicating their work.

Waiting For RAFT

On Monday, seven housing court summonses were issued for residents at King Pine Apartments, a subsidized housing complex in Orange. Among the residents who received the court orders was Autumn Upham, a co-organizer of the Black Lives Matter marches in Greenfield and Turners Falls this summer.

“I was a waitress and made decent money before this,” Upham said. “COVID has put me in this spot, for sure. Unemployment is nothing close to what I’m used to making.”

With two children to take care of, Upham said that half of her post-COVID income was going towards food until she was approved for food stamps last month. After she fell behind on rent payments, King Pine’s management company, Schochet Companies (a.k.a. Federal Management Co.), contacted her about applying for emergency rental assistance.

“They have reached out a couple times advising me about RAFT, and then asking if I had applied, which I told them I did,” Upham, who has lived at King Pine for four and a half years, told the Reporter. “I’m not sure if they have to send out these summons for eviction just because of protocol, or what.”

According to Dieringer, even if an eviction case is resolved, whether through full payment, negotiations, or mediation by the court housing specialist, it can still leave a mark on a tenant’s record, making it harder to secure housing in the future.

“There seems to be a disparity across the state to how RAFT has flowed,” said Schochet Companies chief operating officer David Flad. Schochet manages King Pine on behalf of its owner, the national faith-based organization Retirement Housing Foundation (RHF).

King Pine was originally two adjacent complexes: Pine Crest Apartments, which catered to low-income residents, and King James Court, reserved for the elderly and disabled. The two were officially combined in 2019 after RHF received $11.6 million from MassHousing through state income tax credits, bonds, and loans to renovate and preserve the 234-unit complex. The non-profit owns nearly 200 subsidized housing communities nationwide.

According to Flad, of the 26 subsidized housing communities Schochet manages in New England, 15 are dedicated to elderly and disabled tenants who receive Section 8 subsidies; the remainder have been “significantly economically impacted” by the pandemic.

“We’re in the affordable housing business, and our goal always and forever is to preserve tenancy,” said Schochet president and CEO Richard Henken. “We deal with folks who have fallen on hard times, and we do everything in our power to work with them.”

In Massachusetts, Flad said, rental assistance appears to be inconsistently distributed. “Some got RAFT money in July and August without being threatened with eviction,” he told the Reporter, “but places like King Pine have a very high percentage of folks who have- n’t been able to get RAFT money.... King Pine is one of the properties where we’ve been watching delinquencies very closely. The numbers are starting to creep up.”

Upham said she receives rental subsidies through Section 8, but without regular income, she was simply unable to keep up on her portion of the payments. She is not alone: according to Flad, 28 households at King Pine are behind on rent.
“I feel like something like that may be hard on some people, mentally, who are struggling so badly right now,” Upham said. “If I didn’t feel like I was going to get the help from RAFT, I’d be a mess right now after receiving that summons.”

Maintaining Tenancy

“Industry wide there are lots of landlords like us who really work hard to maintain tenancy and take care of folks,” Henken said. “In this world, nobody wants a vacancy.”

A federal eviction moratorium enacted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), set to expire on December 31, will be extended through January if the omnibus relief package approved by Congress on Monday becomes law. The protection offered by the CDC is limited; to qualify, tenants must file an affidavit testifying that they are pursuing all available forms of emergency aid.

The bailout bill also includes $25 billion for rental assistance, $600 one-time direct payments to individuals, and a $300 per week increase to unemployment benefits. As of Wednesday the outgoing president has threatened to veto the bill unless the individual checks are increased to $2,000.

At the state level, the budget finalized last week includes an additional $55 million for RAFT, and protects any tenant seeking assistance through the program from eviction. It also allocates an additional $4.75 million for housing counseling.

Locally, resources and personnel brought together through the Opioid Task Force have shifted to help address the new crisis created by the pandemic.

“We had the relationships and public health model from fighting the opioid crisis,” Donelan explained, “and we pivoted to COVID with the same people, the same relationships, and the same models.”

As sheriff for 10 years now, Donelan said homelessness in Franklin County seems worse today than when he was first elected. “I think a lot of this has to do with mental health and substance abuse issues,” he told the Reporter. “With the Opioid Task Force, we’ve been working hard to support homeless shelters and warming centers, to at least keep them safe and alive during the winter.”

While the court system is not an ideal means of dealing with the compounding crisis, Donelan said helpful staff members from the Greenfield Court Service Center and CLA have been working to get information and resources to people in need before they lose their homes.

“So far we haven’t had that dilemma, because the judges have been very compassionate, and the courts,” Donelan said.

Still, a backlog of pending eviction cases is sitting in the Western Housing Court. 800 cases were in the pipeline before the moratorium was enacted last April, according to housing court clerk Christina Thompson, and fresh filings are being added each week.

This month, for example, another notice to quit was sent to a resident of the Leisure Woods Estates mobile home park in Orange, bringing the total number of pre-eviction notices there to 12. Before his tenure as sheriff, Donelan was a state legislator who sat on the Massachusetts Manufactured Home Commission, and he said he remembers receiving complaints from residents of Leisure Woods.

“I can say this company that owns Leisure Woods is a notoriously nasty landlord, with a long history of not-nice behavior,” Donelan said. “It wouldn’t surprise me that they would take advantage of the pandemic to get these people out of there.”

Though any potential evictions at Leisure Woods are subject to review by a Mobile Home Rent Control Board in Orange, recent requests to that board and the Orange selectboard for information on the pending cases have gone unanswered.

The patchwork system of efforts to bridge the gap between tenants and landlords appears to be holding up – at least for now. But if the housing court begins sending his office notices to carry out evictions, in Orange or elsewhere in Franklin County, Donelan says he will have no choice but to comply.

“Housing insecurity is bad for everybody,” Donelan said. “To me it’s all a huge moral dilemma all wrapped into one. Evicting anybody, any time, is a bad thing. ”

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