Tales from the legislative trenches
The sausage-making behind the eviction and foreclosure moratorium
RESPONDING TO THE fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, the Legislature recently passed and the governor signed an eviction and foreclosure moratorium law. It enables people who are unemployed or lost income to postpone paying their rent or mortgage for housing, or rent for a small business. They cannot be evicted or foreclosed on for 120 days or 45 days after the declaration of emergency ends for our state, whichever is sooner.
I was one of many involved in the push to get this bill across the finish line. It wasn’t always easy. There were several moments along the way when I worried that our legislative campaign might unravel. But as I’ve learned over many years, those ups and downs, including crisis moments that look like they might imperil the whole effort, are often part of the story in any foray into the give and take of politics.
With more than 1 million people unemployed in Massachusetts, a number likely to rise further, the emergency relief provided by the bill was much needed, and it’s just a start. For tenants, we need additional legislation giving them a very long time to pay back the rent they’re unable to pay during this period. Hopefully the state and federal government will also pass emergency rent subsidy funding to help tenants afford these rents. Other tenants rights protections like a “just cause” eviction law are also needed.
I was proud to represent my organization, Massachusetts Communities Action Network, in a planning group with organizers from City Life, Lynn United for Change, Springfield No One Leaves Coalition, and legal services lawyers from Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and Greater Boston Legal Services that coordinated some aspects of the organizing campaign to pass the state moratorium bill. Many other community groups worked on this and many unions supported this campaign.
At first the legislation seemed to be stuck with no movement. Then the Senate reported out a bill, which was a good start. But that legislation wasn’t strong enough because it still allowed landlords to send tenants eviction notices and file eviction cases in court even if the courts were not allowed to hear the cases. This is a serious problem as landlords had filed over 700 eviction cases since March 13, and too many tenants, not knowing their rights, think they are “gone” and must move when they get such a notice. We don’t want people moving around during the coronavirus crisis or ending up homeless or desperately working to get money to pay the rent and maybe exposing themselves and others to the coronavirus.
We worked with community, labor, religious, and faith-based groups to sign on to a letter asking the Legislature to pass and the governor to sign a moratorium bill. In the 30 hours we allowed groups to respond, over 200 community, housing, labor, and faith-based organizations signed on.
The House stepped up two days later and passed a very solid bill. There was some tension for me before that when a staffer to a powerful lawmaker member chewed me out for being quoted in an article published before they had voted saying that I hoped the House “would be strong on this.”
There’s a tightrope that community groups walk to be respectful of powerful legislators but also being willing to push publicly and privately for what your organization believes needs to be done. It worked out in this case because the House had been strong on the issue and passed a strong bill, for which we are grateful to members and Speaker Robert DeLeo.
Back in the Senate, from meetings we had there, it seemed like they still wanted to go forward with the bill allowing landlords to send tenants eviction notices and file them in court. The bill was coming up the next day for a vote in the Senate, which would first hold a closed-door caucus at 11:00 a.m. We scrambled to get calls into senators that night and the next morning urging them to modify the bill. We breathed a sigh of relief when, under Senate President Karen Spilka’s lead, the Senate passed a strong bill without the provision allowing sending and filing of eviction notices and cases. But differences in the bills passed by the House and Senate still had to be resolved by a House-Senate conference committee.
That’s when another problem emerged. I was at home at 8:00 p.m. one night after a day in my office with social distancing when I got a call from a Senate staffer saying someone was tweeting that people should assemble that weekend outside the Senate president’s house to protest. What an unwanted distraction when the Senate was moving in the right direction. We called the two organizations the tweets were being directed to and asked them to ignore the call and certainly not to retweet call for protest.
I’m now a senior citizen, and very much a 20th century guy, so the word tweet evokes some kind of party noisemaker when I hear it. But I knew enough to understand this was a brush fire we needed to put out. A person I reached out to at one of the groups being encouraged to protest at Spilka’s house vaguely knew the person who fomented all this. She called him and convinced him to stop it. Another mess avoided and the senator whose staffer called me was no longer potentially mad at us, to say nothing of the entirely counterproductive conflict with the Senate president we were able to head off.
All that was left was for the House to take a final procedural vote and it would be passed. Victory seemed assured. That all blew up when Rep. Shawn Dooley, a Norfolk Republican, blocked the final House vote. Because of the coronavirus, the Legislature had been meeting in informal sessions that don’t require members to all show up and crowd the chamber, where staying six feet apart from anyone would be impossible. But in informal sessions a single legislator can block movement on a bill.
How long would Rep. Dooley hold this up?
The next day we breathed another sigh of relief as Rep. Dooley abandoned his position and the bill passed the House. He said he didn’t like parts of the bill but knew, overall, it was needed. And other Republicans hadn’t opposed it. Three days later Gov. Baker signed the bill into law.
The behind-the-scenes drama brings us once again back to Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of Germany in the late 19th century. He said then, “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.”
That’s still true today, but we have to eat and we need to pass much-needed laws.
Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident and co-director of Massachusetts Communities Action Network, a statewide federation of faith-based community improvement organizations.