Massachusetts Must Address The Housing Crisis

Housing, Racial Justice

Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) sent a open letter to the Governor and Commonwealth of Massachusetts demanding immediate state action to fix problems that are plaguing the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program, which provides emergency housing assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The systemic failures of the RAFT program are causing significant harm and distress to the low-income people and people of color that the program is supposed to be helping, in a manner that raises significant legal concerns, particularly around due process and Equal Protection. The following examples are illustrative of the problems that applicants are experiencing:

Maria R. is a 63 year old Latina woman who lives in Chelsea. She primarily relied on her adult children for financial support, but both of them have since lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Maria applied for RAFT with the assistance of a volunteer on September 29, and was not assigned a caseworker by Metro Housing until our volunteer followed up nearly a month later on October 28. A caseworker was then assigned, but since then, Maria has not heard anything from her caseworker nor about the status of her RAFT application. LCR contacted Metro Housing for an update on December 4, and as of today Maria’s case is still unresolved and pending review.

Tery M. is a 31 year old Latina woman who lives in Revere with her 7 year old son, is 4 months pregnant, and suffers from preeclampsia. She lost her job as a babysitter in March at the beginning of the pandemic. Tery applied for RAFT with an LCR advocate on September 9, and was assigned a Metro Housing caseworker shortly thereafter. In the interim, the LCR advocate increased the amount of RAFT funds requested on November 17, which was confirmed by Metro Housing 5 days later. After again inquiring about the status of her case on December 4, Tery’s RAFT application was finally approved for deposit on December 15. However, she will only receive the initial amount requested, not the increased amount, and no explanation was provided as to why.

Juanita W. is a 32 year old Black woman who lives in Roxbury with her 9 and 10 year-old daughters. She has been unable to work at her job as a manager at Wing Stop during the pandemic because she suffers from severe asthma and is unable to wear a mask for long periods of time. Juanita applied for RAFT with an LCR advocate on September 30 but was never assigned a Metro Housing caseworker. As of today, her case is still pending assignment to a caseworker for RAFT eligibility review.

Carlos P. is a 33 year old Latino man who lives in Revere. He owns a trucking company that has lost significant business due to the pandemic, and he has since struggled to pay his rent. Carlos applied for RAFT with an LCR advocate on September 9, and his case was assigned to a caseworker on September 11. Despite following up with the caseworker on three occasions and not being informed of any missing documents, Metro Housing management informed LCR on December 4 that the case was pending due to missing documents. After inquiring which documents were missing, it was confirmed that no documents were missing and that the application was sent for final approval. As of today, the application still has not been approved. 

Countless other RAFT applicants remain in administrative and procedural limbo without adequate notice. 

As these individual stories amply demonstrate, the way the RAFT program is currently being administered runs afoul of well-established legal protections. Many RAFT applicants do not receive any notice at all about the status of their application. Others only receive notice if they are fortunate enough to have an advocate such as Lawyers for Civil Rights who can proactively push for answers. And any communication that has sporadically occurred while an application has been pending for multiple months—has not been sufficient to meaningfully apprise impacted parties about the status of their application.  

Many RAFT applicants/tenants have relied upon the assurance that funds would be distributed in a fairly timely manner and have utilized this assurance to negotiate with their landlords to ensure housing stability as a cold winter approaches in the midst of COVID-19 infection, illness, and death. With no RAFT funds received—many landlords are increasingly turning to the eviction process after months of waiting on state action. 

The fact that the flaws in program administration appear to be falling most heavily on tenants of color—who are the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and the impending wave of evictions—underscores the equal protection problems.

In light of these problems, particularly with the CDC eviction moratorium set to expire at the end of December, the Commonwealth must take the following steps to ensure immediate compliance with well-established legal protections and requirements. Specifically, Lawyers for Civil Rights demands that the state:

Issue notice to all existing RAFT applicants by December 31, 2020 informing them of the status of their application. The notice must comport with due process principles and either: a) approve the applicant for assistance; b) notify the applicant if any additional information or documentation is required, and specify what that information is; or c) deny assistance if the application is complete and the applicant has been determined to be ineligible, and provide appeal rights with clear guidelines.

Going forward, any new RAFT applications should be processed within 10 days. Within that time period, applicants must receive notice of the status of their application, as set forth above.

Given the sensitive nature of this housing crisis, Lawyers for Civil Rights is requesting an emergency meeting with state officials to discuss these urgent legal concerns in greater detail and to explore whether an amicable, expedited and forward-looking solution is possible before proceeding with litigation against the Commonwealth on behalf of low-income people of color. 

The demand letter is available here.