One housing advocate made it clear to lawmakers on Monday: without a pandemic-era policy pausing eviction cases while an application for aid is pending, "people would have been on the street."
Isaac Simon Hodes, executive director of the Lynn United for Change group, said the policy often referred to as Chapter 257 proved "absolutely critical" during its tenure, calling it a "common sense" measure that offers benefits to both landlords and tenants.
He described the case of a Lynn tenant, Yessika Ramos. She and her four-year-old son with special needs were only a day from being evicted when they connected with Lynn United for Change, which helped delay their removal thanks to the Chapter 257 protections, according to Hodes.
"We've seen so many cases where without that protection, people would have been on the street. With that protection in place, those people were able to complete the application process, the landlord was made whole, the tenants were stabilized, and it was a real success story," Hodes told the Joint Ways and Means Committee at the final hearing about the fiscal year 2024 state budget.
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Lawmakers and Gov. Maura Healey allowed the measure to expire on March 31, once again allowing eviction cases to move forward even if the tenant involved has an application out for financial assistance that could cover unpaid rent.
Although courts still have discretion to stay some eviction cases in the wake of Chapter 257's expiration, Hodes said that option is "just not adequate."
"The court is dealing with such a tremendous volume of cases. There's so much confusion in the process that — I was going to say it's sort of a crapshoot as to whether people would get that delay in the eviction or not, but it's not, because it's not random, right?" he said. "What we would end up with without Chapter 257 is a sort of reinforcement of the exact structural inequities that we've all been talking about for years now, where the people who would be most likely not able to access that kind of protection would be people who don't speak English as their first language, who are low income, who are people of color who were so panicked in court because of prior negative experiences with the criminal justice system, their or their families' experience, that they can't even explain the situation."
The campaign so far appears to have had an impact in at least one legislative chamber. House Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Aaron Michlewitz told the Boston Globe his panel's budget due to be released this week will resurrect and make permanent Chapter 257 protections.
"This was really effective in creating fairness within the process, in making sure that people got a full vetting of their application for rental assistance before any eviction process proceeded," Michlewitz, whose office did not respond to a News Service request for comment, told the Globe.
More on the housing crisis
With Massachusetts in the throes of a housing crisis marked by stratospheric prices and insufficient supply, public housing was another common theme at the last budget hearing of the fiscal 2024 cycle.
Donna Brown-Rego, executive director of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials' Massachusetts chapter, described her request to double public housing subsidies from the level-funded $92 million that Healey proposed as a "bold ask" but one that is necessary to cover existing needs.
"Local public housing is the state's most cost effective housing for low-income seniors, families and the disabled," Brown-Rego said. "At our requested level of funding, the average subsidy would amount to less than $357 per unit per month. This compares to shelter costs of approximately $3,000 per person per month, or long-term care in nursing homes averaging nearly $11,000 per person per month."
Advocacy groups including the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization have pressed for a significant injection into the state's public housing system, pointing to a 2005 Harvard study that estimated the true cost of operating state public housing was $105 million per year — or $184 million when adjusted for inflation.
"When Harvard did the cost study in 2005 and said the actual costs of operating housing authorities at that time was $115 million, housing authorities' operating budgets were $30 million. That is an incredible amount of disinvestment in the public housing system," said Kelley Cronin, executive director of the Acton Housing Authority and president of NAHRO's Massachusetts chapter. "We are still not at the $115 million that was identified 18 years ago as being necessary to properly run housing authorities."
Lawmakers dedicated the season's eighth and final budget hearing of the season to public testimony from advocacy groups or individual Bay Staters who did not get a chance to weigh in at previous hearings focused more on elected officials and state offices.
House Ways and Means Committee Vice Chair Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante said at the outset Monday that roughly 200 people had signed up to speak.
The public hearing took place two days before the House Ways and Means Committee is expected to unveil its rewrite of Healey's $55.5 billion fiscal 2024 budget bill. Representatives will get a chance to file amendments to the budget, and the Senate will roll out its own spending plan next month.
Around an hour into the hearing, only about a dozen representatives out of 35 on the committee and two of 18 Senate Ways and Means Committee members were present in person. Neither Michlewitz nor his Senate Ways and Means counterpart, Sen. Michael Rodrigues, physically attended the first few hours of the hearing.
Several speakers urged lawmakers to steer more funding toward support services for residents who are deaf or hard of hearing. A few residents who themselves are deaf said the struggles they encountered Monday testifying via a remote interpreter — which often resulted in several minutes of delay and sudden stops when the livestream cut out — reflected the obstacles they face daily.
Lori Siedman, director of deaf services at My Ombudsman, said she believes there is a sizable gap in available services for deaf-blind people such as herself. The Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, two separate organizations, "do not adequately provide services for that in-between when you are both deaf and blind," Siedman said.
"There is not a cultural understanding of my needs, and when I do advocate for myself, there is a lackluster response due to the cultural differences," Siedman told the committee via an interpreter. "These gaps do create many barriers, and it is difficult just to be understood as a deaf-blind individual and have equal access and equal support that other blind people do receive."
She urged the committee to add funding into the budget to hire additional specialists who are themselves deaf and hard of hearing.