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Analysis shows additional strategies may be needed to connect tenants with rent assistance

Posted on December 7, 2021

By Matija Jankovic, Tom Hopper and Callie Clark, MHP’s Center for Housing Data

BOSTON – More than two months after the end of the federal moratorium on evictions, data indicate that many Massachusetts renters remain behind on rent and fear being evicted from their homes. 

As noted in our previous research brief, hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts renters report being behind on their last month’s rent, with an even greater number of renters anticipating being unable to pay next month’s rent. We found that these trends varied greatly along racial and ethnic lines—with Black renters experiencing housing instability at the highest rates across all groups. We also found that eviction filing rates vary from region to region—with Central and Southeast Massachusetts seeing the highest rates of eviction filings per renter households. 

This brief builds on these findings and explores differences in eviction filing rates across Massachusetts communities and evaluates the impact of rent relief programs, local eviction moratoria, and local support networks on these regional differences in eviction filing rates.   

Eviction filing rates and deployment of rental assistance are uneven

Data from the Massachusetts Trial Court show that some communities have seen significantly more eviction filings per renter household since the state eviction moratorium ended in October 2020. Patterns of high filing rates are clustered in Central and Southeast Massachusetts—Worcester and Bristol County in particular—while other regions have significantly lower rates overall, including much of Western Massachusetts and the North Shore. Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, as well as the suburban communities surrounding Greater Boston, all have relatively low rates of eviction filings compared to other highly populated regions.

We had expected to see higher rates of eviction filings in the Gateway Cities compared to the rest of the state, but the data show that some Gateways are doing much better than others. As noted in our previous brief, some Gateway Cities, particularly Springfield, Greenfield, Lawrence, Salem, and Lowell, stand out with much lower rates of eviction filings per renter households, while others, including Fall River, New Bedford, Worcester, Fitchburg, and Framingham have roughly twice as many eviction filings per renter household as those Gateways with the lowest rates.   

A variety of factors are likely influencing higher rates of eviction filings, including different rates of recovery in local and regional economies, robustness of local support networks, and variations in housing court processes and outcomes, which may be influencing landlord decisions to pursue eviction.  Another factor likely making a substantial impact is the distribution of state rent relief resources, which have been instrumental in preventing evictions and keeping vulnerable renters in their homes.

Data provided by the Department of Housing and Community Development’s (DHCD) Eviction Diversion Initiative tell us how many renters in each Massachusetts community have received state-funded rental assistance. This dataset is only representative of rent assistance dollars paid out via the state’s rent relief programs (including those using federal funds)—Rental Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT), Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance (ERMA), and Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). In addition, data provided by the City of Boston Rental Relief Fund (RRF) tells us how many renters in all of Boston’s neighborhoods have received assistance through the city’s local rent assistance program. While all local rent relief programs have been impactful in communities across the state, data on these programs is not centrally collected or reported and therefore are not included in our analysis. However, if any cities with local rent relief programs would like to share their data to be included in this report, please reach out to the Center for Housing Data. 

From the above map, higher rates of rent relief disbursement per renter household appear clustered around many of the state’s urban areas. In the Pioneer Valley, Springfield, Holyoke, Chicopee, as well as the surrounding communities in Greater Springfield have some of the highest rent relief deployment rates in the Commonwealth. On the North Shore, Chelsea, Lawrence, and Revere lead the region in the proportion of households receiving rental assistance funds. A constellation of communities across the state, including Greenfield, Fitchburg, Lowell, and Brockton also appear to have higher rates of rent relief disbursement compared to the rest of the state.

Of course, not all communities are experiencing the same level of need. Some suburban communities in the Greater Boston Area—such as Newton, Brookline, and Belmont—have low rates of rent relief disbursement per renter households but have not seen heightened rates of eviction filings over the course of the pandemic. Other communities seeing higher rates of rent relief disbursement—such as Brockton and Fitchburg—continue to experience high rates of eviction filings. Among the 50 largest communities in Massachusetts, Fitchburg is experiencing the highest rate of eviction filings at approximately 53 filings per thousand renter households despite a relatively high proportion of renter households receiving rental assistance, indicating that more outreach and rent relief intervention could be needed. 

Eviction filing rates show a relationship with rent assistance

Heightened eviction filing rates help us identify communities with tenants in need of additional support. Comparing rates of eviction filings with rates of rent relief disbursement can help highlight communities that have been successful in meeting the needs of vulnerable residents, while simultaneously shedding light on communities that still have work to do to connect residents with resources. 

As noted in our previous brief, the majority of rent relief applications are processed and paid out before an eviction case is filed in court. Keeping tenants housed while preventing evictions from being filed in the first place is the most favorable outcome—particularly because eviction cases are unsealed and even being listed as a defendant on an eviction case can impact a household’s ability to rent in the future, regardless of the legal outcome.

Among cities with the highest populations of renters, Springfield, Holyoke, Lawrence, Chelsea, and Chicopee rank highest in the state for rent relief disbursement. These communities are experiencing diminished rates of eviction filings, suggesting that filings can be reduced by connecting as many households as possible to rent relief. However, since communities have different numbers of households struggling to pay rent or at risk of eviction, what might be considered a high rate of rent relief disbursement in one community may not be enough to meet the needs of another.  

Nearly the same proportion of renter households in Fitchburg, Brockton, Haverhill, and Lynn have received support though state rental assistance programs, but the rate of eviction filings among these communities varies significantly. The rate of eviction filings in Fitchburg, for example, is nearly triple the rate of filings in Lynn. Since the COVID-19 recession has had a varied impact on communities across the state, coming up with a plan for recovery that best suits each community’s needs requires a holistic approach that leverages local support networks while acknowledging potential shortcomings and maintains consistent protections for vulnerable residents.

Communities that have taken proactive steps to protect at-risk tenants and distribute rental assistance funding have seen diminished rates of eviction filings across the board. Lawrence, for instance, established a 60-day local moratorium on evictions and foreclosures in the early days of the pandemic, more than two months prior to the June 2020 statewide moratorium on evictions. In combination with a local moratorium, Lawrence tenants have accessed rent relief funds at the second highest rate in the state, which is reflected in diminished rates of eviction filings. Similarly, Malden implemented a local moratorium on evictions in order to divert landlords from taking tenants to court and steer them toward pursuing assistance through rent relief. Malden also created a local rent relief program using federal COVID-19 aid funding and partnered with local non-profits to provide legal aid to tenants in housing court.

Partnerships with local non-profits have been instrumental in connecting tenants to resources. In Boston, the citywide Rental Relief Fund administered by several local non-profits has made major progress helping tenants at-risk of evictionconnecting over 4,600 households across all the city’s neighborhoods with over $25.7M in local rental assistance funding. Including assistance through RAFT, ERMA, ERAP, more than 13,000 Boston residents have been connected with over $80M in rent relief. In Hampden County, the local non-profit Way Finders has made exceptional progress distributing state rental assistance funds at the highest rate in Massachusetts and has helped provide their community with legal resources in housing court. As evidenced by these examples, local support networks, municipal leadership, and high-capacity non-profit organizations are critical to building connections between available resources and tenants who need them.  

Next steps for Massachusetts

Envisioning a path forward for our state requires identifying communities that are falling behind while learning from communities that have come up with proactive solutions to protect tenants, slow evictions, and access large sums of rent relief funding. Communities that we believe need more attention in terms of eviction prevention and rent assistance distribution include Fall River, New Bedford, Framingham, Brockton, Worcester, and Fitchburg. Considering the success of local eviction moratoria in cities like Malden, Somerville, Salem, and Boston, taking similar steps to slow down eviction filings in communities with many tenants at risk of eviction could be a strong intermediate step while doing more to connect tenants with available rent relief resources. 

While city-level efforts to slow eviction filings have been successful, such as the various local eviction moratoria implemented in cities including Malden, Somerville, Salem, and Boston, it is unclear if these efforts can provide longer-term protection to tenants at-risk of eviction. As of Nov. 29, the City of Boston’s eviction moratorium has been overturned by a state housing court, citing that the ban on eviction executions exceeds the powers of municipal government. The legal standing of other local eviction bans may very well be put into question following this decision, potentially opening the door for new waves of eviction filings in some communities.

The absence of a federal moratorium on evictions—as well as the absence of statewide and local moratoria—puts tremendous pressure on rent relief programs to keep people in their homes. Preventing evictions before they are filed in the first place through the distribution of rent relief is currently the most effective path toward addressing housing instability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Identifying ways to better support and boost the capacity of non-profits, municipal governments and local support networks should be a top policy priority. Having more robust local and regional support networks will help to connect even more residents with the state’s ample rent relief resources.

It is clear from our analysis that there is significant work that still needs to be done to connect tenants with available resources. The Legislature needs to ensure that emergency resources remain sufficient and strengthen state laws to ensure that tenants are never at risk of eviction for COVID-related rent arrears if they are eligible for emergency rental assistance. While a great deal has already been accomplished in Massachusetts, improvements to existing programs and processes will be critical as we hone our approach to housing stability for the duration of the pandemic.

For additional information about this brief or upcoming topics, contact Matija Jankovic


Also from MHP's Center for Housing Data: 

DataTown - Demographic and housing data visuals for all 351 Massachusetts communities. This user-friendly site allows you to compare communities, print out the graphics for presentations and download the supporting information in excel.

TODEX - Transit-Oriented Development Explorer maps housing densities around all 261 Greater Boston transit stops. Like DataTown, TODEX is easy to use. You can print the graphics, explore the methodology and access the GIS files to explore or use the data for your own work.