New bill would extend eviction moratorium by a year

Housing court is estimating 20,000 filings when current ban lifts

REVERE RESIDENT Dolores De Blass has lived in the same apartment for 11 years and never had a problem making the $2,000-a-month rent, but then COVID-19 came along.

De Blass, her husband, her sister, son, and two daughters all tested positive in April. De Blass was in intensive care twice, and her sister was in a medically induced coma for two weeks from the virus. Between the illness and unemployment, the family was still able to pay the rent for April and May but they are $1,000 short for June.

Her landlord has said she “wants the money” and isn’t playing nice. De Blass said the landlord curses at them and sends threatening text messages. The landlord had the family car towed away and cut the locks on the children’s bicycles and removed them. They’re being threatened with eviction, despite a current statewide ban on expulsion that her landlord claims is “a lie.” 

For now, the law is on De Blass’s side. An eviction moratorium signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker on April 18 put all eviction proceedings on hold. Now, worried about an avalanche of evictions once state and federal eviction moratoriums end in August, lawmakers on Beacon Hill and at the federal level are calling for an extension of the eviction moratorium.  The big question is whether they can come up with a solution that safeguards tenants and homeowners while not driving landlords and banks out of business.

A new bill being filed later today by Reps. Mike Connolly of Cambridge and Kevin Honan of Brighton would extend the current eviction moratorium into next year – 12 months beyond whatever date the state of COVID-19 emergency ends. The bill would also freeze rents and prohibit foreclosures on homeowners.

“It would guarantee a full year of housing for all,” said Connolly, a progressive Democrat. “A housing court would not recognize a failure or inability to pay rent from when the COVID emergency started to one year after the emergency ends. That’s the starting point.”

The bill was written with the help of Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, the Chinese Progressive Association and many other housing advocacy groups. It would include just cause protection in the event a tenant impacted financially by the pandemic were to have a lease expire, and provide a local option for municipalities to extend those protections upon expiration.

Honan and Connolly are also proposing to compensate at least some landlords for the loss of rental income. They don’t know how much the bailout will cost or how much money will be available, but they are proposing using federal and state COVID funds and distributing the money under the oversight of an advisory board made up in part of representatives from the communities hardest hit by the coronavirus. The Executive Office of Housing and Community Development would allocate the funds. Landlords would be able to defer on mortgage payments for a year after the conclusion of the State of Emergency.

“Priority for such funds shall be given to owner-occupant landlords, elderly landlords on fixed incomes, non-profit landlords, and Massachusetts-based commercial landlords owning 15 or fewer units,” according to the bill.

“Big corporate landlords would be at the back of the line,” said Connolly. “Very small and working-class landlords would be at the front of the line.”   

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh supports Connolly’s efforts and is also calling on Baker to use his emergency powers to extend a moratorium on evictions, “for as long as it takes to stabilize housing here in the City of Boston and across the Commonwealth.”

On Thursday, Baker announced a $20 million statewide rental relief fund that will offer support for rent and mortgages to low-income households not currently covered in another assistance program.

The income threshold for eligible low-income families would be adjusted so that households within 50 to 80 percent of area median income could apply. The program will provide up to $4,000 to households who meet specifications for rent or mortgage payments going back to those due April 1. “We’re not in the position to make a decision about that today,” said Baker when asked if he would extend his current moratorium. 

Douglas Quattrochi of the trade group Mass Landlords said the smart thing to do would be to extend the eviction moratorium and come up with money to make all landlords whole. He called the disparate treatment of small and large landlords “ideologically motivated.”

“It not fair what they did with the current eviction moratorium and no funding,” he said, adding that many landlords are so frustrated that they weren’t included in the process that they intend to file eviction cases immediately after the ban is lifted. 

Greg Vasil, CEO and president of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, called Connolly’s proposed extension of the eviction moratorium “a kiss of death for all market rate owners, especially small owners.” Vasil thinks the approach is trying to sow division between large and small landlords. “We’re gonna let the little guys go but we’re going to penalize big corporate owners. You can’t look at it like that,” he said.  

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has already filed a bill that would extend the duration and reach of the federal eviction moratorium that was part of the coronavirus relief package signed into law this spring and is due to expire August 31. Sen. Ed Markey and Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Jim McGovern and Joe Kennedy are co-sponsoring the bill.

“Black & Brown communities are most at risk for eviction if we don’t extend this moratorium,” said Warren in a statement. “They’ve been hardest hit by COVID-19. Their businesses haven’t received as much relief. They’re more likely to have lost income, and less likely to have savings to weather the crisis.” 

There’s little hope of expanded relief from the feds. A $3 trillion stimulus bill that would include $100 billion in rental assistance was passed by the House of Representatives but remains stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.  

In some ways, the crisis hasn’t been as bad as many people thought. Most people have continued to pay their rent, aided by unemployment benefits and $600 weekly unemployment assistance checks, which are due to expire in July.

“The federal stimulus has been incredibly effective at getting money into people’s pockets and preventing the impacts from being much worse,” said Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, during a recent Boston Foundation webinar on housing during COVID-19.  

Rent and mortgage payment collections have “held steady,” according to Tom Hopper, director of research at the Center for Housing Data at the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, who also spoke at the webinar. 

But a new report from City Life/ Vida Urbana and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology paints a dire picture for what housing will look like in Massachusetts when the moratorium lifts.  

Over one-third of market-rate eviction filings occur in neighborhoods in which a majority of residents are black, even though 18 percent of rental housing is in those neighborhoods. The researcher said market-rate eviction filings are more likely to occur in Census tracts where there’s a larger share of black renters, controlling for other variables in predictive models, such as median household income. 

Researchers also analyzed court records filed in Boston Housing Court during the seven weeks between March 1, 2020 and the passage of the eviction moratorium on April 20, 2020, According to that data, 78 percent of eviction cases in Boston that were suspended due to COVID-19 were in communities of color.  

“Housing court is estimating 20,000 housing filings as soon as the moratorium on evictions is lifted Aug. 18,” said David Robinson of MIT, saying that a “tidal wave of evictions and foreclosures” are expected.