For many, the lockdowns during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic meant new hobbies, extra time with loved ones, and much-needed time away from the stress of work and school. However, this somewhat idyllic version of the lockdowns were far from the harsh realities experienced by those who could not afford to take a step back from their daily routines and responsibilities. While some took up baking, others picked up extra shifts. While some reveled in the extra time away from work and school, others took on the responsibilities of homeschooling their children on top of their own responsibilities.
This slew of added stress and responsibilities caused many families to fall behind on rent and utility bills that piled higher and higher as time went on. Navigating the additional crises brought on by the pandemic caused immense difficulties for families across the country. In response, emergency rental assistance was provided by the federal government and has resulted in 4.7 million payments made during the pandemic to help people avoid evictions.
Out of these millions of payments, 80% were delivered to very low-income households, many of which included women and people of color. Rental assistance has allowed for some of the country's most vulnerable households to maintain their safety and security during the turbulence of the last few years. However, the federal rental assistance came to an end on April 15th, and while the program has provided significant and urgently needed aid, its termination deprives families of maintaining their stability and security.
The federal rental assistance program has provided aid to households across Massachusetts, and its termination has resulted in many repercussions. In Massachusetts, 600 million dollars in rental assistance was given to over 74,000 households, each payment made throughout the pandemic representing a family in need. While the assistance provided has been vital to keeping many families afloat, there are many more out there still just as in need.
While working as an intern for WATCH CDC (Waltham Alliance for Teaching Community Organizing and Housing), I have seen first hand the wide variety of challenges families have faced during the pandemic and the immense remaining need for assistance. During the final week of the rental assistance program, WATCH continued to file applications on behalf of tenants, each with their own stories and challenges.
As many of WATCH’s clients work in the service industry, they were hit especially hard by the wave of job loss across the country. Even those who were lucky enough to keep their job during the pandemic were forced to put their health at risk to continue working and often tested positive for Covid-19 as a result. This brought on added financial difficulties for families that pulled them further and further away from housing security.
Suzi Solomon, WATCH’s Director of Housing Services, stated that the pandemic has drastically amplified the need for rental assistance, “These people were already struggling to get by and even one medical bill could force them to choose between feeding their family and paying the rent. This is not just a cliché - it's real.” Solomon’s first hand experience assisting families in submitting their rental assistance applications has shown her the immense amount of need in the community.
In part, this need was met by the federal rental assistance program which Solomon stated had a “tremendous” impact on the residents of Waltham. Karla Ortega, a Case Manager at WATCH, echoed Solomon’s message stating that the impact of the federal assistance has “been huge” as many of the families WATCH works with make only $100 or $300 a week. While to some this income may reflect a lack of work ethic for those applying for rental assistance, in reality low-income workers have immense drive. Ortega emphasized that WATCH’s clients, “are used to work as many have two or three jobs to pay their rent.” She continued, stating that the need for rental assistance amplified by the pandemic is “about not being able to find a job” as the many businesses are cutting costs in order to stay afloat.
In addition to those suffering from job insecurity, many others who sought rental assistance come from some of the most vulnerable populations. Ortega stated that those most impacted by the rental assistance were “single parents, people that got COVID and couldn't work, mothers with little children, and people who suffered domestic violence, both men and women” demonstrating the host of non-financial issues WATCH’s clients and others have faced. While the program only offers financial assistance, its impact goes much further, giving families safety, security, and comfort.
While the time away from work and school was somewhat welcomed and involved an easing of responsibilities for many of us, this was far from the reality of many tenants. Despite the immense impact of federal rental assistance, the future for tenants still in need is uncertain. Losing this program pushes many closer to extreme housing insecurity and homelessness, along with the added burdens these situations bring outside of housing. Carlos Vivar Wong, WATCH’s Financial and Job Clinic Coordinator, stated that since the program has ended “landlords will also now have the ability to take tenants to court and will cause greater stress on these families.” Vivar Wong’s concern for the future outcomes of tenants demonstrates the various new obstacles they face and the ripple effect caused by the program’s end.
During the initial lockdown when we were confined to our homes and isolated from others, many tenants faced losing the one place they could exist in comfortably. The risk of losing one's home has only continued to increase throughout the pandemic and many are still suffering the consequences today. In the wake of the federal assistance ending, many tenants are without the help they need to stay afloat and support their families. Faced with the remaining need in the community, Solomon reflected on what now must be done stating that, “It’s easy to look away and to not think about their problems, but you will be a better person and feel more connected to your community and to the world if you try to help instead.” Going forward, we can all do better, pay more attention, and be more involved since securing the safety and comfort we all feel in our homes should never be a privilege.