End of eviction moratorium brings worry

Federal measure expires August 1; advocates fear displacement deluge

ANXIETY IS HIGH among tenants, landlords, and housing advocates as the midnight Saturday expiration date for the federal eviction moratorium looms, but what the end of the tenant protection will actually mean is uncertain.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed a nationwide moratorium on evictions 11 months ago. The state had earlier put in place its own stricter ban. The state measure, which precluded landlords from filing nearly all eviction actions, expired in October, but the federal ban remained in place until now.

More than 100,000 tenants in the state are behind on rent payments, and landlords have made more than 18,000 eviction filings since the state ban expired, according to Homes for All Massachusetts, a statewide coalition of groups working to half displacement of tenants.

Still, a relatively small number of renters have evicted so far – 2,760 since the state ban lifted in October. While weekly case filings peaked at 830 in early December, the highest weekly number of eviction orders issued for non-payment of rent since the moratorium was lifted was 106, during the week of March 7.

Andrea Park, a housing attorney for the Mass Law Reform Institute, said the federal moratorium was not a blanket ban on evictions, but allowed renters who met certain criteria such as having lost income due to the pandemic or being at risk for homelessness fill out a declaration that would protect them from eviction. Renters could still be taken to court if their landlord challenged the declaration, but even if the tenant lost the case they couldn’t be removed from the unit until the moratorium expired.

“It’s going to be a lot of chaos in the courts,” Park said of the August 1 expiration. She predicts that landlords will be seeking permission to move forward with cases that were paused or to remove tenants whose evictions were approved by courts but who were previously shielded from action. Those landlords who held out on evictions due to procedural hurdles will likely go forward once the moratorium ends.

“The timing couldn’t be worse,” said Doug Quattrochi, executive director of the landlord trade association MassLandlords. He doesn’t see eviction bans as an effective solution to the housing crisis, but he does worry about people losing their homes just as the pandemic ramps back up. “If you believe that stopping evictions is a public health requirement then it doesn’t really make sense to be taking it down tomorrow as [the Delta variant] is spiking,” Quattrochi said.

The end of the moratorium doesn’t mean the end of all protections for renters at risk for displacement. Legislation passed at the end of last year keeps renters who have a pending rental assistance application from being sued for non-payment of rent until the application is decided.

Theoretically, millions of dollars should be flowing to at-risk renters. Massachusetts has received, or is expecting, over $900 million in federal relief for housing assistance. Under the Emergency Rental Assistance program, low-income renters who were financially impacted by the pandemic should be eligible for up to 18 months of rental arrears.

That is the type of policy that Quattrochi thinks legislators should focus on. “The CDC eviction moratorium was never tied to a solution,” he said. “It said: you can’t evict anyone, but we don’t know how you’re going to pay for all this housing.” Landlords still had to pay mortgages, insurance, taxes, and make repairs, but without rental payments they didn’t have the income to do so.

Emergency rental assistance hasn’t been flowing very freely. In May, the state reported that 6,022 of the 8,146 households that applied for rental or mortgage assistance, or about 74 percent, were denied.

“It’s been hard,” said Park. “Our administrative agencies were asked to go from what was a $20-million program,” she said of state-based programs launched in response to the pandemic, “to $800 million.” Agencies are under pressure from the public to move quickly and from the government to stay in compliance with rules and prevent fraud.

Given how dire situation is for many tenants, Park wonders if some of the checks that are in place could be waived to streamline the process. “Let’s make this look more like disaster relief,” she said. “I think they can be careful while also being faster.”

Another issue, says Sen. Patricia Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, is that many tenants aren’t applying for relief. Some don’t know it’s available and others don’t have the capacity to take on a lengthy application process, she said. Jehlen is sponsoring legislation that would aim to get people assistance before they go to court, saving both the landlord and the tenant time and money. It would also work to make the application process more accessible.

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Quattrochi said MassLandlords wrote a letter to Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Mike Kennealy identifying flaws in the current system, including bias against people of color and non-English speakers. He said the application is lengthy and requires people to submit a Social Security number and other documentation that not all renters have. He said a public records request revealed that, in May, over 5,000 applications were closed due to a lack of information.

“It’s hard to get some of the documents. People don’t have some of the documents,” said Jehlen. “If you don’t have internet, or you aren’t good at [using technology], it’s very daunting, especially if you don’t speak English well.”