The eye of a housing hurricane

State leaders must act now to head off crisis

WITH COVID-19 DEATHS and infections remaining low here, enhanced federal unemployment benefits continuing through July, and the state’s emergency freeze on evictions still in effect, it’s possible to believe that Massachusetts is rebounding better than the rest of the country.

But this is only the eye of the hurricane. The second half of 2020 risks becoming an unfolding catastrophe unless state leaders take decisive action before the end of July.

The key is to stabilize housing, now.

So far, the 30,000 undocumented workers in the state who were laid off during the pandemic have borne the brunt of the crisis. Without access to federal assistance, their families have been in dire circumstances. They are scraping by through the heroic efforts of friends, families, neighbors, charitable groups, and churches.

But on August 1, the problem escalates exponentially, when enhanced federal unemployment benefits end for hundreds of thousands of workers. Even with most employees returning to work, perhaps 120,000 households in the state will have trouble making their housing payments. A survey from the  MassINC Polling Group revealed that 29 percent of all renters surveyed had already missed a full or partial payment by the end of May. Young people, communities of color, service workers, and part-time employees have been hit particularly hard.

Our state’s prohibition on evictions and foreclosures during the state of emergency has kept this from becoming a more public tragedy. It has kept the issue off the headlines and the streets, but the bills are not going away. Monthly payments continue to pile up and will come due as early as October 17 when the Massachusetts eviction moratorium ends.

Our region’s dysfunctional real estate market made us vulnerable to the COVID shock. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimates that 21 percent of all working rental households in the state faced housing instability before the pandemic hit. Many families were already going into debt to make ends meet or choosing among basic needs.

Everyone hopes that the federal government will step in. Basic monthly income could be the best solution, but in 2020, Massachusetts can’t rely on federal help that may never arrive.

Beacon Hill has crucial opportunities to act before the end of formal legislative sessions on July 31.

One is the governor’s economic development bill. It already includes programs to support neighborhood stabilization, increase affordability around transit, create climate-resilient affordable housing, and invest in revitalization projects in Gateway Cities and other communities impacted by COVID-19.

It includes essential Housing Choice provisions that will give cities and towns the zoning and permitting flexibility they need to adapt to a real estate market that is changing by the day.

Separately, Reps. Mike Connolly and Kevin Honan filed a housing stability bill that would extend the state’s evictions and foreclosure moratorium for an additional 12 months and freeze rents. While this bill is sure to be controversial with real estate interests, requiring some form of “just cause” proceedings makes sense during this extraordinary time. As Ben Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The Commonwealth would surely pay more for uprooted families in terms of homelessness, public health, public safety, and worsening inequality.

It also makes sense to implement a “right to counsel” pilot program filed by Sen. Sal DiDomenico because research shows that tenants with attorneys successfully resolve their cases at much higher rates than those who self-represent.

Landlords, particularly small landlords, need to be supported as well. We cannot expect private citizens to solve the crisis by providing free housing. And that requires funding.

Many cities and towns have tapped into their Community Preservation Act or CDBG funds for rent stabilization programs, an impressive bottom-up response. Meanwhile, the Baker administration recently made $20 million available for emergency housing payments and the Legislature included another $20 million in a supplemental budget that the governor approved on Friday.

We can be proud of our local and state investments. Unfortunately, the need is likely to be still greater.

With the Congressional Budget Office projecting the nation’s unemployment rate to stay above 10 percent through December, we may need a total of $30+ million per month here in Massachusetts to avoid an evictions and foreclosure storm that may look more like the Great Depression than the Great Recession.

Meet the Author
The Legislature has the tools and opportunity to protect Massachusetts families from this slow-moving but terrible disaster. COVID-19 underscores how critical it is to have a safe and stable home.

André Leroux is the chair of the Medford Community Development Board and founder of Great Neighborhoods.