Mayor Kimberley Driscoll

Hoping to preserve housing stability in its neighborhoods, the city of Salem recently launched a service to help tenants and landlords navigate rental challenges before tenants face eviction and disputes wind up in court.

Partnering with the Essex County Bar Association, the city has created the Salem Housing Stability Service to help lower-income tenants and their landlords as they contend with the pandemic’s fallout, rising housing costs, job insecurity and inflation. The service, which launched on March 23, includes a website, a telephone hotline and drop-in sessions with an attorney who can provide information about rental programs and other resources.

“We know that so many of our residents are struggling with housing insecurity challenges,” said Mayor Kimberley Driscoll. “There’s just a lack of inventory, and what is available for rentals is very, very expensive. And with some of the federal subsidies that were in place during the pandemic — during the heart of the pandemic — beginning to run out, we wanted people to be armed with information, both tenants and landlords.”

When residents struggle to pay rent, landlords struggle to pay their bills, for property taxes, building maintenance and other expenses. Officials said the problem has worsened over the past two years. Jane Guy, Salem’s assistant community development director, said her staff were getting more calls from residents seeking assistance to avoid eviction or find housing.

“It’s a bad situation for everybody,” Guy said. “And a lot of people just don’t know where to turn — tenants and landlords alike.”

Through the new service, renters and landlords can attend in-person sessions staffed by an attorney at two alternating locations, four times a month, with assistance in English and Spanish. A live hotline is available during the in-person sessions, or a message can be left off hours. Given the sensitive nature of these landlord-tenant situations, all interactions are kept confidential.

The service provides information about rental assistance, past-due notices, the eviction process, eligibility for subsidized housing, apartment safety issues, and the proper handling of security deposits. The service doesn’t provide legal advice or representation, just information and resources to help people to determine their next steps and avoid the courthouse when possible.

“We know that if you’re struggling, obviously, to pay rent, there are also challenges around food and health and education supports,” Driscoll said. “So if we can keep people stabilized within a housing environment, we think there are a lot of wins in our community overall.”

To pay for the service, Salem is using $30,000 from a Community Development Block Grant available through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. The money will fund Salem’s contract with the Essex County Bar Association, as part of an open-ended arrangement to run the service until the funds are spent. Guy said she is hoping the money will last for at least a year, and officials said they hope to find ways to fund the service beyond that.

A recent housing production study helped give the city a better understanding of the challenges faced by tenants, Driscoll said, and the urgent need for this program.

“We wanted to get this up and running, and learn how it’s working — what is working, what might not be working, and then go from there,” Driscoll said. “But I do think that housing stability services are going to be needed beyond the life of this contract, and so we want to work to continue to refine it, and put us in a position to meet the needs of our community members.”

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