I-Team: Resources for landlords and tenants struggling to pay bills

I-Team

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – The 22News I-Team discovered that hundreds of eviction notices are piling up in western Massachusetts, despite a federal moratorium against evictions still in place.

“Throughout the Commonwealth, there is an overwhelming demand and need for resources,” said Keith Fairey, the CEO of Way Finders. The organization provides housing counseling, financial education, employment training, affordable housing development and management, rental assistance, homelessness prevention services, neighborhood revitalization, and community building. 

But, there is free financial and legal help available to both landlords and tenants who need some help paying the bills during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Help for Tenants

A state moratorium on evictions ended on October 17th, but there are programs that can help people stay in their homes. The Massachusetts COVID-19 Eviction Diversion Initiative was created to help during the pandemic.

Part of this includes Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, or RAFT. This helps keep families in their homes by providing up to $10,000 in assistance. Funding can be used for a variety of needs, including rent or mortgage payments, security deposits, or other expenses. Households with incomes up to 50 percent of Area Median Income (AMI), or 60 percent of AMI for people who are at risk of homelessness because of domestic violence, are eligible for assistance.

The Department of Housing and Community Development launched a new center earlier this year to help speed up RAFT applications.

“Tenants can get resources prior to even coming to court, which could potentially even solve the issue,” Michael Doherty, Clerk Magistrate of the Western Division Housing Court told the 22News I-Team.

The Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance Program, or ERMA, can also help low-income households pay their rent or mortgage. ERMA can provide rental and mortgage assistance to households who have been impacted by the crisis and may not be eligible for RAFT. This program is available for households within the 50-80 percent range of AMI. 

“Everyone knows when they are starting to have trouble paying the rent, or meeting their mortgage,” said Fairey. “I encourage folks not to suffer in silence, not to think it’s some personal failure and not reach out for help. There’s help here.”

Another issue for tenants, Trial Court data shows that 99 percent of defendants represented themselves in court.

“The court system is set up for attorneys to navigate,” said Rose Webster-Smith, the Executive Director of Springfield No One Leaves. “It’s not set up for regular people to navigate.”

Webster-Smith’s organization helps people who are dealing with evictions navigate the legal system.

The COVID Eviction Legal Help Project provides free legal help to people facing eviction throughout the state. Locally in western Massachusetts, that agency is Community Legal Aid.

To qualify, you must be under 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines and the eviction must be directly related to COVID-19.

“If you are choosing between paying rent and putting food on the table, you don’t have money to go out and hire an attorney,” said Webster-Smith.

Massachusetts Defense for Eviction, or MADE, also can help tenants by guiding them through the legal side of the eviction process for free.

Help for Landlords

It’s not just tenants that need help right now. RAFT can help landlords who own less than 20 units pay their bills.

“They can go to our website and fill out an application on behalf of their tenants, if their tenants are having trouble paying rent,” said Fairey. “This is something that we need to support the whole housing system.”

“I think we have to be very conscientiousness of landlords and property owners – they have bills, also,” explained State Representative Bud Williams.

There is help available over the phone for tenants and landlords by dialing 2-1-1.

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