Homelessness: The Pandemic’s Next Threat

By: Alan Pollock

Affordable housing.

With unemployment on Cape Cod standing at 28 percent and food pantries seeing unprecedented demand, it’s clear that many local families are on the edge financially. Without federal action, many of them will be facing the loss of their housing this fall. Given that uncertainty, local towns and housing groups are hurriedly knitting together a new safety net.

“With Federal Pandemic Unemployment Insurance ending this month and the eviction moratorium set to end in mid-October, many people who have never had to ask for help will do so soon,” said Alisa Magnotta, CEO of the Hyannis-based Housing Assistance Corporation (HAC).

People in need can access the state RAFT (Residential Assistance for Families in Transition) program, and those who do not qualify can apply for ERMA (Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance), a new state fund which was created this year to provide direct funding to eligible households that have suffered financial hardship as a result of the state of emergency put into place to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Magnotta said HAC is advocating for funding for the entire Cape and Islands region and urged people in need to contact her organization at 508-771-5400 or via www.HAConCapeCod.org. Since the start of the pandemic, HAC reports a 325 percent increase in foreclosure prevention requests and a 413 percent hike in requests for help with past-due rent, compared to the same time period last year.

The Orleans-based Homeless Prevention Council also urges people with housing needs to start by calling them at 508-255-9667 or by visiting www.HPCCapeCod.org. CEO Hadley Luddy said that for many Lower Cape families, the pandemic represents a “perfect storm” of challenges. The council has been receiving calls from both families and small business owners, “people who have not necessarily had needs in the past,” Luddy said.

Both HAC and the Homeless Prevention Council have taken part in a working group of the eight Lower Cape towns, which are collaborating to create a new emergency rental assistance program. Last week, Chatham selectmen, as part of the town’s affordable housing trust, voted to support creation of the program and to contribute $150,000. Focusing on pandemic-related needs, the program would operate for one year only, with income-qualifying families eligible to receive up to $6,000 over 12 months.

“We really want to make this program flexible,” Chatham Principal Planner Aly Sabatino told the board last week. The goal is for the program to kick in “after all other available resources are used,” she added. Key to the program is its use of a professional case manager to provide applicants with financial counseling and other resources.

Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said the program should be expanded to include mortgage relief for distressed homeowners. Chatham’s real estate market is currently booming, she noted. “I would hate to see that we would lose people that have been working and living in Chatham because of their mortgage,” she said. The board instructed staff to draft up a request for qualifications from housing groups seeking to administer the program in Chatham.

Chatham Housing Authority Administrative Assistant Tracy Cannon praised the town for taking action now, rather than waiting to find out how many local families are at risk of losing their homes.

“I don’t think we’ve even begun to see what’s coming down the pike, and it honestly terrifies me,” she said.

The good news is that resources are available for families in need. But navigating the alphabet soup of housing programs, and the related network of resources for food, child care and utility assistance, is no easy matter, Luddy said.

“The application process can be challenging,” particularly for seniors or people who lack technology skills, she said. Luddy urged people to call even if they don’t think they’re eligible for assistance.

While local banks have been doing their best to work with borrowers who are in trouble, it makes sense to consider adding mortgage relief to the rental assistance program, she said. At this point, there remains so much uncertainty about what happens when federal unemployment benefits end, when schools will reopen, and whether child care will be available to local workers.

“We’re all kind of on pins and needles,” Luddy said. “These are all questions we just don’t know the answers to yet.”

The Chatham Coronavirus Impact Fund, established in April to help local families suffering financially due to the pandemic, expects an increase in applications in the coming weeks, said Stephen Daniel, one of the fund's founders.

“The expectation's out there that demand's going to increase,” he said. “Fortunately we're in a position to be able to meet it, for the time being.”

The fund raised nearly $500,000 and has thus far benefited more than 600 year-round residents, helping with utility, rent, mortgages and car payments. Other than June, when $82,350 was disbursed, the fund has been awarding between $24,000 and $34,000 each month, providing a total of $163,509 through the end of July.

Daniel, who took part in the Lower Cape working group meetings, said he's asked town officials if there is a way to “triage” applicants to CCIF and other organization “to see if we can coordinate these various resource” and optimize the available funds.