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COVID-19 response watch: Suggestions on using CPA for rental assistance

Posted on March 25, 2020

(Note: This is the first in a series of updates on state and local responses to housing issues related COVID-19. Go to our COVID-19 file for ensuing reports).

BOSTON --- Ever since the coronavirus crisis brought everything to a screeching halt, the MHP community assistance team has been following and weighing in on policy ideas to help state and local government keep people in their homes and facilitate the continued development of affordable housing.

For the next few weeks, the MHP community assistance team will attempt to provide periodic updates on legislation they’re watching and guidance on how existing tools can be adapted to bring short term relief to people who are danger of losing their homes. Here's an update on some of the top issues we're following:

Using CPA for rental assistance

MHP has been working with the Community Preservation Coalition to issue guidelines on how Community Preservation Act funds (CPA) can be used to provide rental assistance. This is a question many of communities have been asking given the number of residents who have lost wages due to business closures.

In a newsletter issued today, the CPC Coalition confirmed that providing rental assistance is permitted, something that was clarified when the law was amended in 2012. In concert with the CPC newsletter, MHP released these suggestions to help communities use CPA funds for rental assistance.

In a a meeting this week, MHP community assistance team members discussed communities that use CPA for rental assistance now and observed most are long-term programs, often tied to the duration of a 12-month lease, with funds paid to the landlord.

MHP also discussed a federal relocation act guideline that considers assistance given for more than 12 months to be permanent, which would be another reason to make sure that rental assistance tied to COVID-19 be short term. Another potential hurdle is that using CPA funds requires the approval of the municipality’s decision making body such as town council or town meeting.

Guidance for resuming municipal government

Following his declaration of a state of emergency, the Baker-Polito Administration announced an emergency order modifying the state’s open meeting law. A few days later, the Massachusetts Municipal Association followed up a useful explainer on how municipalities can function and hold meetings.

Nevertheless, much of local government remains in limbo and is seeking guidance on process deadlines once the state of emergency is lifted. In the housing world, this is a specific concerns for zoning boards of appeal and developers working on Ch. 40B land use permits for mixed-income housing.

The state Legislature is currently discussing a bill that would provide guidance to all boards, commissions, offices, registries, agencies and authorities on the scheduling of hearings and time periods for required actions. We’re hearing talk that there is a proposal to suspend all deadlines for 45 days  following the termination of the Governor’s March 10 state of emergency. But last time we looked, final language was up in the air so watch this space and MHP’s twitter account for updates.

Tracking all bills related to COVID-19

MHP Director of Policy Callie Clark recommends checking out the MassTrac, which is providing a free blog that is tracking all bills filed related to the coronavirus. Since March 24, 50 bills have been filed related to the pandemic. InstaTrac, Inc., publishes MassTrac, which is a legislative tracking information service.

Town tidbits

Per Daria Gere of the Waltham Alliance for Teaching, Community Organizing and Housing (WATCH CDC), the Waltham City Council voted this week to use $150,000 from its general reserves for rental assistance and plans to couple this with $100,000 more in CPA funds.

Gere said Waltham has experience using local funds for rental assistance. The city uses HOME funds has a first/last security deposit program funded through HOME funds. WATCH uses city CPA funds to fund a rental voucher program and uses private donations and foundation grants to support a tenant assistance fund.

According to the CPC Coalition newsletter, other towns that use  or have used CPA for rental assistance are Somerville, Martha's Vineyard and Gloucester (until 2015).

Why MHP community assistance is doing this

This effort is in keeping with MHP’s community assistance mission of helping communities create affordable housing. Since 1986, MHP’s community assistance has provided support and technical assistance to over 335 communities.

That said, MHP has no playbook for providing technical assistance during a pandemic. Many of the tools and resources we rely on are geared for the long-term and require local approvals, which is not a recipe for the quick delivery that’s needed now.

Therefore, MHP’s purpose in this periodic report will be to identify policy possibilities, raise questions, offer guidance when appropriate and report when waivers or changes have been made to facilitate the delivery of funds to the people and neighborhoods that need it most. If you have a question or issue you’d like us to track, email Katie Bosse at