Eviction bill bounces back and forth on Beacon Hill
House, Senate bills differ on how to pause the process
IT MAY BE the first test of the Legislature’s penchant for consensus on coronavirus-related bills.
The Massachusetts House and Senate agree that there should be a pause on evictions and foreclosures during the coronavirus pandemic. But what that should look like is raising thorny questions that have left the bill bouncing back and forth between the two chambers.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee released a version of the bill last Tuesday, to the consternation of advocates for tenants and struggling homeowners, who said the protections did not go far enough. The House then passed its version of the bill Thursday. The State House News Service reported that senators on Monday sent their bill back to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, presumably to be reconciled with the version that came over from the House.
Advocates for low-income individuals have been pressuring the Legislature to adopt something similar to the House version. A coalition of 200 unions and community organizing groups signed a letter asking Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Karen Spilka to adopt the House version, with some changes to make it stronger for tenants. (Although the group is asking for changes, advocates are acknowledging internally that the House version is the best bill they are likely to get.)
Joey Michalakes, a staff attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, said the notice to quit in itself is enough to scare some tenants into leaving. And Andrea Park, a housing attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said her group has heard from tenants who were being told to leave during the pandemic, because a court, before the pandemic started, had agreed that the eviction could go forward.
Park said at least 500 new eviction cases have been filed in housing court since March 16, and summonses are being mailed to tenants even though the cases will not actually be heard until the courts reopen for non-emergency matters.
Other differences between the bills relate to what types of evictions are considered exceptions and can go forward, and how long the moratorium will remain in place.
And even as lawmakers debate how to help financially struggling renters, they must also consider the needs of landlords.Doug Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords, said he is not opposed to a temporary moratorium on evictions, but protections need to be in place to make sure that landlords have enough money to continue to pay for municipal taxes (although some due dates may be postponed), utility bills, and maintenance. MassLandlords is advocating for a state-backed surety bond program, in which the state acts as a backstop, paying the landlord if a tenant defaults for COVID-19 related reasons.
“The difficulty is what happens when housing providers run out of money and what decisions are they going to make,” Quattrochi said. “I talk to some landlords who think it’s better to declare bankruptcy and walk away than try to maintain a property where no one’s paying and everyone’s flushing sanitary wipes down the drain.”