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What to do if you can’t pay for your housing

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Many housing advocates predict a wave of evictions and foreclosures due to nonpayment once the moratorium lifts.  Adobe Stock

More than 900,000 people have filed unemployment claims in Massachusetts since the pandemic began. While unemployment benefits, savings, and assistance from a variety of sources have helped many people keep up with their rent or mortgage, thousands more are unable to make payments. Nonprofits and government agencies, as well as federal and state policies, are in place to support renters and homeowners during the coronavirus crisis.

Massachusetts has a freeze on evictions and foreclosures that is set to expire either on Aug. 18 or 45 days after the COVID-19 state of emergency is lifted, whichever comes first. The moratorium may be extended if necessary. But many housing advocates predict a wave of evictions and foreclosures due to nonpayment once the moratorium lifts. 

“The Eviction Lab of Princeton University found that there were 309,000 rent-burdened households in Massachusetts in 2016, meaning they were spending more than 50 percent of their income on rent,” said Matt Pritchard, president and executive director of HomeStart, a nonprofit agency. “At that time there were 43 evictions per day in the state. Now, we have 900,000 unemployed in the state. If only 2 percent of that group is evicted in the next year, we would see more than 90 evictions every day. That’s the big picture issue we’re facing.”

 Steps to take if you can’t pay your rent

While renters are protected from eviction and landlords are not allowed to charge late fees during this emergency, there are steps renters must take to protect themselves.

“First, you need to communicate as soon as possible with your landlord,” said Chris Norris, executive director of Metro Housing|Boston, a nonprofit agency. “Everyone has been impacted by this somehow, so most landlords are understanding.”

Renters need to notify their landlord in writing and explain in detail why they are unable to make their payment, said Sheila Dillon, Boston’s chief of housing and director of neighborhood development.

Metro Housing has a template for the landlord letter, but Norris emphasizes that tenants must send a new one every 30 days. 

“It’s very important to be specific about why you can’t pay, such as someone in your household is sick, your children are home and need more food, or you lost your job and are not getting unemployment,” said Gabriela Cartagena, one of the Northside organizers for the City Life/Vida Urbana nonprofit organization. “Keep a copy for yourself and send one to your landlord.”

Next, Norris recommends making a partial payment or saving money to make it easier to repay what you owe in the future. Rental assistance programs are also available.

 “The Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program has received 3,125 pre-applications since Governor Baker’s emergency declaration in March,” said Norris. “That compares to 1,719 households receiving RAFT funds in all of 2019.”

In May 2020, Metro Housing distributed $775,000 in RAFT support. 

“Don’t wait until the eviction moratorium ends to try to get caught up on your rent,” said Chrystal Kornegay, executive director of MassHousing, a quasi-public agency. “It’s better to avail yourself of rental assistance, because it can be very hard to catch up and pay back several months of rent.”

In addition to the RAFT funds, Boston’s Rental Relief Fund has provided $8 million so far to tenants for up to three months of rent payments, said Dillon.

 “Don’t leave your apartment even if you receive an eviction notice, because that is just the start of the process,” said Dillon. “Tenants have rights, and the city can help them. There are often ways we can work things out if everyone communicates.”

Steps to take if you can’t pay your mortgage

For homeowners behind on their payments, the advice is similar: communicate early.

“Call your lender,” said Kornegay. “Don’t stick your head in the sand. This happens all the time, and lenders know how to work with people. No lender wants to foreclose on someone, especially during this crisis.”

Forbearance, which refers to pausing your mortgage payments, is an option mandated by the federal government’s CARES act and by Massachusetts. 

“Depending on who owns your loan, you can put your loan on hold for 180 days and extend that for another 180 days as long as you can prove that you’ve lost income related to the virus,” said Kornegay. 

Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration negotiated with 12 of the largest lenders in Boston to provide at least three months of deferred mortgage payments for their borrowers followed by an affordable repayment plan, said Dillon.

The eviction and foreclosure moratorium means that lenders cannot report late payments to credit bureaus, and they can’t charge late fees, said Dillon.

“If you have a MassHousing loan with our mortgage insurance plus (MI Plus) program, you can have six months of your principal and interest paid if you have lost your job,” said Kornegay. 

While nonprofits and government agencies can support tenants and homeowners, the first step for both groups is direct communication. 

“Every renter and homeowner and should be in dialog now with their landlord or lender to seek a solution to their situation as soon as possible,” said Dillon.

Resources for renters and homeowners

Boston Home Center for homeowner questions: (617) 635-4663, Ext. 3 

Boston Office of Housing Stability

Fannie Mae Here to Help 

MassHousing

Metro Housing|Boston

HomeStart and rental eviction hotline: (857) 415-2900

City Life/Vida Urbana Hotline: (617) 934-5006 (English) or (617) 397-3773 (Spanish) 

Citizens Housing and Planning Association 

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