Preventing a housing crisis in Lawrence

With the statewide eviction moratorium no longer in place, Gateway City residents face a new threat from the pandemic. In Lawrence, leaders are working together to mount an effective response. Jess Andors and Juan Bonilla from the local CDC, Lawrence Community Works (LCW), take a break from the all-consuming effort to share first-hand perspective. Jess, LCW’s executive director, explains that to understand the gravity of the situation, you have to appreciate how skyrocketing rents in Lawrence led to severe overcrowding before COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“Lawrence has a growing population; it’s a magnet for new immigrants. Many Lawrence residents work low-wage jobs and aren’t able to afford the rising rents on their own,” Andors says, and so families begin “doubling and tripling up” with others in apartments.

Overcrowding has obvious implications for public health with a disease that spreads quickly in cramped quarters, but it can also make it harder to resolve issues when families get behind on rent. Many vulnerable residents don’t have a direct relationship with their landlord. They aren’t on a lease. 

Juan, LCW’s deputy director, says the $171 million Governor Baker recently made available to help people remain in their homes is a great resource, but getting the money to the people who need it is challenging.

“My concern is the timing of all this,” he tells us. “We are coming on to winter months, we’re in the midst of the school year, and COVID trends are already on the way up. People are going to fall through the cracks,” noting that some residents won’t be able to qualify for rental assistance. And some will move out because “they feel like they have to.”

As temperatures drop, this is not the time to kick people on to the street. “We’re creating chaos here,” Juan warns.  

Fortunately, Lawrence is home to a constellation of nonprofits, businesses, and public officials that know how to join forces and help residents overcome adversity. 

“I never thought the Columbia Gas disaster would be good for anything,” Jess says, “But it created a community-wide response.” 

The same group of leaders that organized after the Columbia Gas explosion in 2018 quickly gelled to tackle the COVID-19 emergency. From housing and food access to community education and organizing, they have developed coordinated strategies and they’re working them together. 

Lawrence Community Works is referring residents to resources like Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) and Emergency Rent and Mortgage Assistance (ERMA). However, it is difficult to meet all of the need. LCW alone has a waiting list of 1,100 people seeking these funds.

Jess emphasizes how important municipal leadership has been. Lawrence acted to put in place its own evictions moratorium. And while it will expire this month, Mayor Dan Rivera is working to extend it for another six months. 

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