In early 2020, when a new illness called COVID locked down the country and people were laid off from their jobs, the calls for help began pouring in at Housing Assistance. Already the “housing emergency room” for the Cape and Islands, the Housing Consumer Education Center faced unprecedented volume as people lost their jobs or had working hours reduced during the pandemic. Over the next 27 months, Housing Assistance prevented homelessness for a remarkable 1,764 households.
That means an average of slightly over two households per day were saved from the devastation and disruption of losing their housing. From March 23, 2020, through July 1, 2022, Housing Assistance distributed $9,919,497 (an average of $5,635 per household) to keep hundreds of renters and homeowners impacted by the pandemic in safe, stable housing.
But numbers only tell part of the story. For Andrew Biro, who moved to Pocasset shortly before the pandemic and lives in an accessory dwelling (ADU), the assistance meant everything. He lost his job at a marina during the pandemic and when supplemental unemployment insurance ended last year, he struggled to keep up with his bills.
“I’m 52 and I never thought I’d be asking for help just so I could keep a roof over my head,” he said. “The staff at Housing Assistance was like, ‘We know where you’re coming from.’ I hit this fork in the road and the people at Housing Assistance helped me get back onto the right course.
“They deserve a double pat on the back. When I called with questions, people were respectful and pleasant. When they lay their heads down at night on the pillow, I hope they have a good night’s sleep and they have sweet dreams because they deserve it with all the people they help.”
Sally Apy, who lives in an Edgartown apartment, was another emergency rental assistance recipient. She said pandemic aid made the difference in being able to keep her housing.
“It’s hard to ask for help, but in this situation, it was sink or swim,” she said. “When COVID hit, I was delivering flowers, which meant going door-to-door and being in close quarters with customers. That stopped and I was out of work and trying to figure out what to do next. “When I contacted HAC, there was so much understanding and compassion. It felt like we were all in this together. I felt very well supported by the whole process.”
For over a year, there was either a state or federal eviction moratorium in place, meaning the funds distributed also had a stabilizing effect on mom-and-pop landlords who may have otherwise been forced to sell their property.
Prior to the pandemic, Housing Assistance was already administering the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development’s RAFT (Residential Assistance for Families in Transition) and HomeBASE financial assistance programs. Housing Assistance also had its own private prevention program that had been in place for about 30 years.
“When the pandemic happened, there was a lull at first in client activity because nobody was leaving their home,” said Cassi Danzl, Housing Assistance’s chief operating officer, who rose through the ranks of the organization as she played an increasingly important role in its success during the pandemic. “Then we realized, this isn’t a two-week thing. We’re going to be dealing with this for a while. At the same time that businesses were struggling to survive the shut-downs of the summer of 2020, the housing market was taking off like lightning.”
Housing Assistance created and launched a workforce housing relief fund, to service households at a higher average median income (AMI) than the DHCD programs allowed.
“We were worried about people who had experienced a change in income because of a layoff or reduced hours,” said Danzl.
“Even though they were higher than 50% of the AMI, their income had changed, but their expenses had not. We were concerned about people in that bracket needing assistance and not being able to qualify for the state and federal programs that historically have given aid to folks under 50 or 30% AMI. As time moved on, DHCD launched a program that was for households between 50 and 80% of AMI, so we were able to use state funds for that population.”
Then came ERAP (the Emergency Rental Assistance Program), a federal pandemic relief program.
“The federal money was insightful in recognizing that there was a vast difference in housing costs across the country,” said Danzl. “A $5,000 benefit in Kansas was going to be very different from a $5,000 benefit in Boston or on Cape Cod. When they created the legislation, they put in a limit capping the number of months versus amount of dollars. That allowed us to backfill the rental cost with amounts that we had never seen before and may never see again.”
Danzl says her team worked extremely hard, knowing that if someone lost their home in this housing market, it was very likely that they would not be able to find another on the Cape.
“It was challenging to balance what had worked for the region for the last 30 years and what we were anticipating the region was going to need for the pandemic and then scaling that up,” she said. “It was kind of a thought experiment that was going to have very real and very significant consequences if we weren’t right.”