Baker faces test with eviction moratorium lifting

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – With housing advocates cautioning that thousands of Massachusetts residents will be at risk of eviction or foreclosure after a federal moratorium lifts this weekend, Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday sought to reassure residents that rental and mortgage assistance resources are available to help at-risk families and individuals.

A federal eviction moratorium imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is scheduled to expire on July 31, and housing advocates are urging the Legislature and Baker administration to take immediate action to assist low-income families who have faced financial hardship as a result of the pandemic.

“Tomorrow, the federal protections that are helping some people stay in their homes disappear. That’s going to make the situation far worse,” said Isaac Simon Hodes of Homes for All Massachusetts. “Again the choices: do people struggling as we try to come out of this pandemic get help? Or do they get eviction and foreclosure notices? We know the right answer.”

Hodes, the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, and other housing advocates gathered at the State House Friday morning to press the Legislature to pass legislation (H 1434 / S 891) that would put a temporary pause on evictions and foreclosures for the 12 months following the end of the state of emergency.

That bill, filed by Sen. Pat Jehlen and Reps. Frank Moran and Kevin Honan, would also prevent landlords or property owners from evicting a tenant who missed payments during the state of emergency unless both parties have exhausted all opportunities to obtain short-term rental assistance.

“The most important part of that bill could be done now by the administration and that is to get people help before they get to court and make the application simpler,” said Jehlen, who is the vice-chair of the Legislature’s Housing Committee. “It should be much easier for people to get the assistance they need and are entitled to and that would benefit landlords and homeowners as well as tenants.”

The state of emergency ended June 15 and Democratic legislative leaders have not signaled any interest in reimposing a state eviction moratorium.

Gov. Charlie Baker said a cross-agency team formed in October to work on eviction diversions as the state moratorium expired and has provided tenants and landlords with about $280 million in rental assistance via state and federal dollars.

Because resources were put into place early on, Baker said, the state witnessed a decline in the number of notices to quit, the first step in a dispute between a landlord and tenant, and a smaller number of people coming into the state’s emergency assistance program than a typical year.

“We had a big meeting actually yesterday to talk about the end of the moratorium and to make sure all our folks on the ground were properly prepared to deal with this if it turns out to be an issue that we need to work quickly to solve for folks,” he said at a Friday press conference. “The bottom line is, we did put a pretty significant diversion program in place and it’s worked very well and I think in some respects, we were ahead of the game among most states because we had a state program.”

Federal data released last week shows Massachusetts ranks third in the nation in distributing federal dollars for rental assistance, according to Baker.

The Baker administration has invested millions into an eviction diversion program that initially put $100 million toward emergency rental assistance, $12.3 million to provide legal representation to tenants and landlords during the eviction process, and $50 million for post-eviction rehousing.

The administration launched the Federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program in March that provides expanded rental relief to tenants alongside programs like Residential Assistance for Families in Transition and Emergency Rent and Mortgage Assistance.

The legislation advocates are pushing for also creates a “COVID defense” for tenants, where defendants would have complete defense in an eviction case if non-payment or missed mortgage loan payments were a result of financial hardship related to or exacerbated by the pandemic.

Calls to pass the bill come as the Legislature heads into its yearly August recess, a time when lawmakers take a break from major activity for at least a month. The bill is pending before the Housing Committee, headed up by Sen. John Keenan and Rep. James Arciero, and so far has not been scheduled for a hearing.

Andrea Park, a legal aid attorney with Mass Law Reform Institute, said the bill would create a “true eviction diversion” and institute federal guidelines on forbearance programs. Since the state eviction moratorium lifted in October 2020, she said, over 19,000 new eviction cases have been filed.

“We in legal aid are simply not, even at our increased numbers, we don’t have enough people to help all of those residents in need,” Park said. “And similarly, our colleagues who are working in rental assistance distribution are working day and night, but they can’t match the need, which has gone exponentially larger.”

Advocates also highlighted a letter that they plan to deliver to Baker, Senate President Karen Spilka, and House Speaker Ronald Mariano that urges passage of the legislation and calls attention to the thousands of residents at risk of eviction once the federal moratorium expires.

“We have welcomed statements of solidarity from elected officials over the past year, affirming their commitment to combating the economic disparities and systemic racism exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and unprecedented civil rights mobilizations,” the letter reads. “But those words will ring hollow if our Commonwealth does not take action to protect against the displacement of groups disproportionately harmed both by the pandemic and by evictions and foreclosures.”

Mike Leyba, co-director of City Life/Vida Urbana, said state data shows that a majority of people who apply for assistance are not receiving help in a timely manner. Between January and May, he said, up to 90 percent of applications for rental or mortgage assistance were not approved, according to data compiled by Home for All Massachusetts.

A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development said the majority of “true denials” are cases where tenants are over the income eligibility or are not at risk of homelessness or housing instability.

The Department of Housing and Community Development processed over 18,000 applications for rental or mortgage assistance between the end of May and mid-July, according to data shared with the News Service.

Of those applications, 48 percent were approved, 45 percent timed out because an applicant did not complete the application, and 7 percent were denied. The spokesperson said the department estimates about 80 percent of applications are submitted incomplete.

The Homes for All Data notes that denials can occur as a result of incomplete documentation, property owners unwilling to participate in the process, or if the tenant is over the income eligibility.

“This is not the time for waiting,” Leyba said. “There’s a lot of talk about RAFT, rental arrearage, and mortgage assistance, there is a huge problem with getting the aid out to families that need it. There are huge barriers to families who are looking to stabilize their housing.”

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