By Bob Katzen
A law that placed a moratorium on most residential, commercial and nonprofit evictions and foreclosures until October 17 has expired. The expired law allowed for emergency for cause evictions that involve allegations of criminal activity or lease violations that are “detrimental to the health or safety of other residents, health care workers, emergency personnel or the general public.”
Another provision prohibited landlords from charging late fees or sending reports to credit rating agencies as long as a tenant provides notice within 30 days of a late payment that their failure to pay was tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Baker has the power to postpone the expiration in increments of up to 90 days. The governor did not extend the moratorium and instead proposed a new $171 million piece of legislation he calls the Eviction Diversion Initiative designed to keep tenants safely in their homes and to support the ongoing expenses of landlords. Housing advocates said the bill does not go far enough and instead support a bill that extends the moratorium for one year after the state of emergency ends, freezes rents during that span and creates a fund to help financially distressed small landlords.
Provisions of the governor’s plan, according to the administration, include $100 million to expand the capacity of the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program to provide relief to renters and landlords impacted by COVID-19; $48.7 million to HomeBASE and other rapid rehousing programs for when tenants are evicted and are at risk of homelessness; $12.3 million to provide tenants and landlords with access to legal representation and related services prior to and during the eviction process, as well as community mediation to help tenants and landlords resolve cases outside of court; $6.5 million for Housing Consumer Education Center, the “front door” for those facing a housing emergency; and $3.8 million for the Tenancy Preservation Program to provide case management support and to act as a neutral party to help tenants and landlords come to agreement.
“The pandemic has created financial challenges for many individuals and families who are struggling with rent payments, and today we are pleased to announce a $171 million initiative to promote household stability, and provide more support for tenants and small landlords,” said Baker. “This strategy has been designed to be user friendly and easily accessible for tenants and landlords in need, and is comprised of new or expanded programs to help people stay in their homes … I am grateful to the court system and all stakeholders for their partnership in this effort in keeping all families and households stable throughout this pandemic.”
“Housing is a human right and, in the middle of this pandemic due to COVID-19, it is both a concern for public health and economic stability. We applaud the Baker administration’s commitment to launching this important initiative,” said Annette Duke, Senior Housing Attorney, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “A broad coalition has come together to support access to legal assistance in eviction actions in Massachusetts because such access will avert unnecessary evictions, displacement, and homelessness—and will prevent human and economic devastation. This initiative creates a path to housing stability that will strengthen all our communities.”
But not everyone is on board. Rep. Mike Connolly (D-Cambridge) supports the legislation to extend the moratorium. He called Baker’s plan “the barest layer of protection,” that won’t even come close to protecting the hundreds of thousands of renters at risk of being evicted due to financial setbacks resulting from COVID-19. “Just yesterday, the chief justice of the Trial Court said there could be up to 200,000 evictions pending, which is … just unfathomable,” Connolly said. “At this stage it has come down to: Do legislative leaders want to play an active role in crafting housing policy or not? And in this situation, it appears that the Legislature has really ceded its policymaking role to the governor.”
Connolly said that his gravest concern is that the state’s most vulnerable residents won’t know how to navigate the complicated legal system and will instead choose to leave their homes, thinking that to be their only option.
“The first and foremost message to get out there is, a notice to quit is not an eviction,” Connolly continued. “Getting a summons to appear for a trial date, that’s not an eviction. Being behind on your rent is not an eviction. So if you are struggling, reach out to government agencies, reach out to your local officials, reach out to community groups like City Life / Vida Urbana that organize and help connect local tenants to resources. And know that you’re entitled to a legal process—and that’s the hope.”
Lawyers for Civil Rights, the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, Rosie’s Place, Centro Presente, the Chelsea Collaborative, the Brazilian Worker Center, Family Nurturing Center, the Northeastern Community Business Clinic, and the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association joined forces urging the governor and Legislature to do more. They urge the administration to take immediate action to guarantee emergency housing stability during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are grateful for the recent infusion of $171 million dedicated to keep Massachusetts renters in their homes,” said a letter signed by all the groups. “We applaud this investment in tenants and landlords. However, in light of the scale and scope of the housing crisis, this is not enough. The coexistence of housing instability during a public health crisis places Massachusetts tenants in a dangerous position—particularly low-income families and tenants of color. We urge the commonwealth to enact the COVID-19 Housing Stability Act and extend the eviction moratorium, paired with additional rental assistance resources to provide direct support to tenants and landlords.”
Meanwhile, the administration rollout of the bill included a reminder to tenants that when the state moratorium expires, a moratorium established by the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) will become effective in the Bay State. Through December, the CDC moratorium will prevent evictions for non-payment for qualified tenants who submit a written declaration to their landlord. Courts will accept filings and process cases and may enter judgments but will not issue an order of execution (the court order that allows a landlord to evict a tenant) until after the expiration of the CDC order. Protection is limited to households who meet certain income and vulnerability criteria. Declaration may be found at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/declaration-form.pdf
Critics of the CDC moratorium say it has had only mixed success at keeping tenants in their homes. They cited multiple legal challenges to the CDC’s order and argued it is not dependable.
In order to ensure tenants are aware of available resources, the administration has kicked off a public information campaign, including a new option available to call the Massachusetts 2-1-1 information hotline. Operators for 2-1-1 are trained to answer questions and connect residents to the agencies that administer RAFT and ERMA. An easier path to important information has also been launched on the state’s website: http://www.mass.gov/CovidHousingHelp This effort also includes outreach through social media, videos, webinars and other mediums. All materials and messaging are available in multiple languages.