As Housing Crisis Deepens, Rental Assistance Programs Offer Support

by Ryan Bray
Rental assistance programs such as the one offered through the Homeless Prevention Council are helping support more and more families on the Lower and Outer Cape.  FILE PHOTO Rental assistance programs such as the one offered through the Homeless Prevention Council are helping support more and more families on the Lower and Outer Cape. FILE PHOTO

HARWICH – As the cost of food, housing and other materials continues to rise, more and more Cape residents are in need of, and qualifying for, assistance.

That includes local business owners who might not have been eligible for assistance programs a decade ago. One woman in Dennisport, who owns a business in Harwich, shared her story with The Chronicle on the condition of anonymity. She watched last year as her rent went up at her business and the cost of utilities doubled. On top of the rising costs, she still had to find a way to continue to provide for her children, including her 15-year-old son who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

“Everything was just normal and we were doing what we had to do,” she said. “Then life got more complicated. COVID hit, inflation.”

Typically, she said, summer business at the salon provides her with enough of a financial nest egg to help her and her family through the winter. But this fall, she said, “there wasn’t any extra.”

“I did the best I could with the money I had,” she said. “Even as a business owner here, with inflation and working full time and the kids in school full time, it just wasn’t enough.”

Having grown up in a conservative Italian family that took pride in working hard to make ends meet, the Harwich High School graduate said those values weighed on her as she tried to navigate and figure out her next move.

“My grandparents came through Ellis Island,” she said. “Taking any kind of help or charity was just not a thing that you ever did. You worked four jobs before you did that.”

But by the end of last summer, it became clear that she needed help. She said she fretted about the possibility of a winter without a home for her and her children, without food on the table. That’s when someone from the Homeless Prevention Council came into her salon and told her about the nonprofit’s rental assistance program, which recently had been expanded to help service qualified residents in Dennis.

She applied, and by September she had begun receiving financial assistance through the program. The council, which is based in Orleans, covers $350 of her $1,350 rent each month, which she said has been a “godsend” for her family.

“It’s been life-changing for us,” she said. “There’s been no worries about not having food in the house, no worries about [her son] not having his medication and the medical equipment he needs. I have a 13-year-old as well, so it’s nice to know they have what they need.”

As the cost of housing continues to rise on the Cape, these stories are becoming increasingly more common. The old perceptions of who applies for and receives financial housing assistance no longer hold up, with more and more working people and families qualifying for assistance. Ellie Zucker, director of program administration for HPC, said in Dennis, residents can make up to $69,608 a year to qualify for help.

“It’s not just people making $8 an hour,” the Dennisport woman said. “It’s people making $35 an hour and paying $3,600 a month for a house.”

HPC’s rental assistance program also serves communities from Eastham to Provincetown. The program is funded through housing authorities in each town and is administered by HPC.

When Zucker started with the nonprofit in June of last year, she worked with nine clients that were receiving rental assistance. Less than a year later, that number has grown to 34, she said.

In addition to an application, eligible residents must also provide supporting materials to HPC including a copy of their year-round lease and verification of their income. Zucker said some residents can start receiving assistance in as little as 48 hours, provided all of their paperwork is in order.

“With some people, when some of that money is freed up, they’re maybe free to take some classes so they can go out and get a higher-paying job,” she said. “The financial assistance helps them to work on their housing stability, whatever that might mean.”

Other towns administer their own rental assistance programs to help those in need. Tracy Cannon is the executive director of the Chatham Housing Authority, which manages programs in both Chatham and Harwich. The program is funded annually through the Community Preservation Act.

Residents can apply for the funding through the housing authority, and those that are eligible can receive up to $350 a month off their rent for up to three years, Cannon said. The most recent grant cycle awarded $150,000 for the program.

“In the last year we’ve definitely found more interest,” she said. “We’ve been filling up the slots. We’re actually pretty close to full at this point.”

Cannon and Zucker both describe their respective rental programs as “bridge programs” designed to give clients temporary aid while they work toward long-term housing stability.

“We do a lot of budgeting work with people,” Zucker said. “Some of the people want to move into homeownership eventually, so we work on the things they would need to do that, like correcting their credit, starting a savings account for a downpayment, maybe going to the bank and getting a pre-authorization certificate.”

The help the Dennisport woman gets from HPC has eased her family’s financial burden, but she said the agency also showed up for them in other ways. At Christmas, HPC provided a tricycle for her son, a gesture she said went above and beyond the terms of her rental assistance arrangement.

“They did that out of their own money and the generosity of their hearts,” she said.

As the housing crisis endures, she said she’s coming to know more and more people who are feeling the financial strain. But she wants people to know that there are options, and that help can be available to those who seek it.

“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “These people won’t judge you. They’re there to help you, and it took me a long time to learn that it’s OK to ask for help sometimes.”

Email Ryan Bray at