Preventing evictions, promoting housing stability

Preventing the upcoming housing crisis isn't impossible

THE PANDEMIC will have a lasting effect on our society that we can only begin to imagine. With over 150,000 Americans dead and counting, the psychological toll will be felt for a long time. But some of the pain that will likely come once the pandemic ends is avoidable. When Gov. Charlie Baker lifts the state of emergency and housing courts open back up, advocates and housing experts are expecting a tsunami of evictions to be filed. These evictions will have a long-term impact on our housing market, on our communities, and, most importantly, on the people who are evicted.

The numbers don’t lie. In Massachusetts, you are more likely to be evicted if you are a person of color especially if you are a black woman. According to an ACLU report from January, black renters in Massachusetts are 2.4 times more likely to have an eviction filed against them than white renters despite making up only 11 percent of the state’s renters. A more recent report from MIT and City Life/Vida Urbana shows that 70 percent of market rate evictions filed in Boston take place in Census tracts that are majority minority, despite the fact that these areas only make up about half of the city’s rental market.

Under current law, eviction records are public from the time they are filed, regardless of whether the case is with or without merit, and are permanently available regardless of the outcome of the case. These records, which can be misleading and have errors, are used as a “landlord screening tool” which can make it difficult for people to get a new apartment. Rebounding from an eviction is hard enough. Try finding housing, in an area with documented massive discrimination, with already existing pay and wealth gaps that places the average net worth of black Bostonians at $8.

Undocumented immigrants will also be heavily impacted. Tens of thousands of undocumented workers in Massachusetts lost their job due to the pandemic. Our undocumented neighbors were unable to receive state unemployment benefits or a federal stimulus check. Many have been forced to choose between paying rent or putting food on their family’s table. Adding to the stress of losing their jobs and worrying about rent, my office received reports of landlords illegally threatening to call immigration authorities on their tenants if rent wasn’t paid. If protections aren’t put in place, we will see mass evictions in our undocumented communties that could have major effects on our workforce and leave thousands of families with no place to live.

The housing issues highlighted by the pandemic aren’t new. Many of these issues have been raised by advocates for years. The solutions to the problems aren’t new either. There are a number of ways at both the state and local level that we can protect the most vulnerable once the pandemic ends and provide more housing opportunities for everyone moving forward.

The HOMES Act would allow eviction records to be sealed. This means close to 1 million people get a second chance. The act would protect children by preventing them from being named as defendants  in eviction cases, require accuracy from consumer reporting agencies and encourage people to pay judgments by allowing their records to be sealed within 14 days of paying off their judgment. Most importantly to those that will be evicted in this pandemic it will provide a lifeline and an end to the stigma because their records will be sealed.

Beyond the HOMES Act, we can do more to prevent eviction and provide housing stability. We can provide tenants with a right to counsel during eviction proceedings and give tenants the right of first refusal to purchase a unit or building if the current owner wants to sell.

A transfer fee on real estate transactions over $2 million could provide Boston with $168 million annually to help provide affordable housing. In Boston we’re also working on closing loopholes in the city’s condo conversion ordinance to expand the protections provided by the law. The state should also extend the eviction and foreclosure moratorium for a full year after the state of emergency ends as proposed by Representatives Mike Connolly and Kevin Honan.

Meet the Author

Lydia Edwards

City councilor , City of Boston
All of these solutions were proposed before the pandemic and could help thousands of people either stay in their homes or find a new one. Unfortunately, so far we have demonstrated that as a state we are either unwilling or unable to implement any of these solutions. Preventing the upcoming housing crisis isn’t impossible. The pandemic was largely out of our control. How we respond to it isn’t. We can and must do better.

Lydia Edwards is a Boston city councilor.