As 2d COVID spike nears, ending eviction ban bad idea

Don’t kick people out of their homes in a pandemic

MASSACHUSETTS FINDS ITSELF in what looks like the early stages of a second coronavirus spike. Since the start of September, the state’s daily incidence rate has increased 118 percent. Our current 8.7 cases per 100,000 residents qualifies the whole state as high risk. With cooler weather more people are congregating indoors, where the virus spreads more readily. We have a respiratory illness getting the perfect conditions for community spread. We know that it is going to be a constant fight to keep our public health response out in front of this disease during the next six months. COVID-19 is far from done with us.

Yet at this moment where coronavirus is threatening to hit us as hard or even harder than it did this spring, the state’s moratorium on evictions and foreclosures is about to expire. Up to 200,000 households in Massachusetts face the immediate threat of displacement. It cannot be stated forcefully enough that housing security is the most fundamental protection we have against a highly contagious disease that requires people to practice social distancing. Basic, common sense public health practice should inform us this is the absolute worst time to have tens of thousands of people moving into cramped living conditions or facing the awful specter of homelessness.

Gov. Charlie Baker has indicated he will not exercise the authority to extend the eviction and foreclosure moratorium given to him by the Massachusetts Legislature, which means it falls to the Legislature to ensure the housing security that is a vital element of our defense against the spread of COVID-19. We need stability now more than ever. The pending tsunami of evictions and foreclosures threatens to hit us when we are at our absolute weakest point.

This disease also has become a crucible that tests what we truly value. Who are we and what do we care about? This is a moment where theory goes out the window and we have to prove ourselves. Too many people are sick and in need. Too many people have been left in economic limbo by a federal government that so far has refused to pass a desperately needed second pandemic relief package. If we choose to watch their suffering from the sidelines, then we’ll be defined by our indifference.

Democrats in Massachusetts talk a great game about standing up for the little person, about making sure those who have the least aren’t marginalized or forgotten. Well, those who have the least need us most right now. They are in imminent danger of losing their homes in the middle of a pandemic with winter rapidly approaching.

There are several bills on Beacon Hill proposing other vital protections for those facing eviction. The Housing Stability Act would provide truly comprehensive supports to renters, homeowners, and landlords. The Tenant Protection Act would lift the statewide ban on local rent control. The HOMES Act would seal past eviction records. But the moratorium is a measure on which the Legislature has already agreed. It is a measure that not only protects tenants, but also gives landlords mortgage forbearance which allows them to defray their costs during this crisis. Most of all, it buys us time to deal with the public health consequences of coronavirus and get economic relief to those who need it.

An emergency effort to trigger a floor vote to extend the moratorium made some progress in the House yesterday, but with top legislative leaders refusing to call for a formal legislative session, a final vote was not possible. Meanwhile, the editorial board of the Boston Globe, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley are all calling on Baker to extend the moratorium. We hope he heeds this urgent call to action in these final critical hours.

We appreciate the governor’s announcement of $112 million in new funding for rental assistance and other housing stability efforts. And yet, the governor’s math simply doesn’t add up. His administration says there will be direct finanical assistance “for up to 18,000 households.” But as we mentioned above, up to 200,000 households face the threat of eviction or foreclosure.

What the governor is putting in place is a good start, not a comprehensive fix for the problem. We saw a version of this last month when the state distributed extra unemployment funds from the federal government that ran out in one round of checks. Given the political situation in Washington, Massachusetts cannot assume a new round of federal relief is coming any time before February, if then.

The most vital point here is we must buy ourselves time. The more time we give state and local government to receive and distribute the federal relief that is key to helping the people hit hardest by this recession, the better everyone will be able to recover from it. Key elements of the governor’s initiative, such as legal representation, community mediation, and public education efforts are still “several weeks” away from being fully operational, according to the governor. It’s more a statement of intent, as is his proposal to mediate landlord-tenant cases. If you receive an eviction or foreclosure notice next week, these initiatives may arrive too late to help you.

The people unsure of whether they’re going to be able to keep a roof over their heads cannot afford a laissez-faire, “let’s see how it goes” approach. How it likely goes is tens of thousands of people get cast to the wind during a public health crisis. The courts are bracing for a glut of evictions. Baker just hired 15 retired judges to handle the anticipated caseload. It would make a lot more sense to allow the new funds to be deployed and to let all legal support and mediation programs to get up and running before we start throwing people out of their homes.

Meet the Author

Joseph Curtatone

President / Former mayor, Northeast Clean Energy Council / Somerville
Meet the Author

Mike Connolly

State representative, Massachusetts House
We should stress this is a statewide issue. We now have 63 communities in Massachusetts that meet the state’s classification of high risk. That’s up from 40 last week and 29 the week before. Somerville just joined those ranks. There are multi-community clusters forming in Greater Boston, the Merrimack Valley, the North Shore, the South Shore, Metro-West, Worcester and the Blackstone Valley, and Springfield and Pioneer Valley. The ability of those in dire economic need to find reliable work as the incidence of this disease rises all over the state is uncertain at best and unlikely for too many.

It doesn’t even take political courage to help these people, just human decency. Call a remote formal session of the Legislature and extend the moratorium. Rarely in public life will the opportunity to do the right thing present itself more clearly — don’t kick people out of their homes during a pandemic. That should not be such a hard ask in a state that espouses the all-for-one values we do in Massachusetts. It’s time to prove our mettle.

Joe Curtatone is the mayor of Somerville and Mike Connolly is a state representative from Cambridge.