Court ruling, variant altering landscape on evictions

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – A growing chorus of activists and lawmakers want to see action at the state and local level to stave off a potential surge of housing removals, warning that tenants are more “exposed” in the wake of a new U.S. Supreme Court decision lifting a federal eviction moratorium.

Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who is also running for mayor, on Monday called for Mayor Kim Janey to implement an emergency citywide eviction moratorium after renters lost protections under the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s policy, which had been scheduled to run into October.

Stressing that elected officials “cannot wait,” Campbell warned that thousands of Boston tenants now face the risk of losing their residences amid ongoing spread of COVID-19’s more infectious Delta variant.

“Housing stability is essential to keep Bostonians safe and healthy, especially amidst this deadly pandemic,” Campbell said. “As the deadlier delta variant spreads, it must be our top priority to keep people in their homes and we cannot wait. I urge Acting Mayor Janey to enact a citywide eviction moratorium immediately and to expedite the federal rental assistance process in Boston to ensure those who qualify for the program receive the funds they need to stay in their homes.”

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled last week that the CDC overstepped its authority by issuing the new moratorium earlier this month, days after the previous policy lapsed. The court’s majority wrote that for a temporary ban on evictions to continue, “Congress must specifically authorize it.”

Unlike several other states, Massachusetts does not have its own state-level moratorium in place after Gov. Charlie Baker and legislative leaders allowed it to expire in October 2020. One protection, sometimes referred to as “Chapter 257,” remains on the books barring evictions from being finalized if a tenant has a pending application for rental assistance.

Housing advocates warned that the end of the CDC policy — which was more limited in scope than the Bay State’s original moratorium — leaves tens of thousands of renter households more vulnerable, while real estate industry leaders contended instead that little will change on the ground.

Andrea Park, a legal aid attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said Sept. 1 will serve as “another day that rent is going to come due” for families already in the hole due to the pandemic.

“People are absolutely exposed now,” Park said in an interview. “There are people who are behind on rent from COVID from last month, two months ago, last year. It’s another month that can pile up. Now that the CDC (moratorium) is not in place, to the extent that those were people who were being protected by the CDC, today or tomorrow or next week, their landlords can go to court and say ‘there’s nothing available that this tenant has told me they’re protected by, and I want them out.’ “

“Depending on the stage they were at in their case, they could be out fairly quickly,” she added.

Drawing from a combination of U.S. Census survey responses and U.S. Treasury rental aid data, the National Equity Atlas estimates that more than 100,000 Massachusetts households are behind on rent by a collective $307 million.

More than 21,000 cases to evict a resident for failing to pay rent have been filed since the state moratorium expired in October 2020, according to Trial Court data. Sen. Patricia Jehlen, who is pursuing legislation that would reimpose a temporary ban on executing evictions, previously said about 3,000 cases resulted in a full removal.

Landlord and real estate groups, many of whom were skeptical of or outright opposed to earlier eviction bans, said they do not believe the end to the CDC’s policy will trigger a rush of new removals.

Greater Boston Real Estate Board President and CEO Greg Vasil said he is “not sure that we’re going to see an uptick” in eviction cases filed.

“We’ve been functioning at our own rate here in Massachusetts anyway without our state moratorium, which was far more restrictive than the federal CDC moratorium,” Vasil told the News Service. “The safety net here is the courts. The courts are clearly not throwing people on the sidewalk. When people come in and there’s rent arrears, they’re trying to make sure they get access to the free money.”

Large tranches of untapped rental aid remain available for tenants and landlords from a statewide pool of more than $960 million. The Baker administration said it distributed $225 million through July to more than 35,000 households.

Nationally, only about 11 percent of the $46.5 billion Congress appropriated for rental aid has been distributed, the New York Times reported last week.

Advocates representing tenants and landlords said the state’s efforts to get funding into pockets has improved in recent months, but many renters and property owners remain unaware of the available support or unable to access it.

Park said the ongoing spread of the Delta variant combined with the impending end of enhanced federal unemployment benefits leave the fall “not looking good.”

“We shouldn’t just assume that the public health aspect of this and the need for action is over,” she said. “Beacon Hill and the governor — we need to act. This is still a crisis, it’s still inflicting a lot of trauma on people.”

The bill Jehlen filed alongside Reps. Kevin Honan and Frank Moran (H 1434 / S 891) would also require landlords to exhaust all rental assistance options before pursuing a COVID-related eviction case and order the administration to simplify the process to access aid.

Sixty-eight representatives and 14 senators co-sponsored one or both versions of the bill. The Housing Committee heard testimony about the proposal at an Aug. 12 hearing — a somewhat rare move during the Legislature’s traditional summer recess — but the bill has yet to move past the panel or earn public endorsement from legislative leaders.

President Joe Biden renewed his call for cities, states and local courts to step up after the Supreme Court scrapped the CDC’s moratorium, with press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday calling on all viable entities “to urgently act to prevent evictions.”

In New York, where the state’s eviction moratorium is set to expire Tuesday, Gov. Kathy Hochul and legislative leaders are discussing a special legislative session to address the issue.

Rep. Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat who filed the original moratorium bill last year and co-sponsored the new housing legislation, pointed to the potential action in New York and said “clearly, there’s more we can do.”

“I find it so incredibly striking that it really is the stated position of the White House at this moment in time that states and cities should take further action to compensate for the Supreme Court’s ruling and add additional layers of protection for vulnerable renters in particular,” Connolly said. “If it’s good enough for the Biden administration, it should be good enough for Massachusetts.”

Last September, one month before Baker opted not to extend the state’s eviction moratorium, federal Judge Mark Wolf allowed the policy to stand but expressed some concerns in his ruling about its long-term constitutionality.

A spokesperson for House Speaker Ron Mariano said Monday that legislative leaders “continue conversations with the Baker administration and experts to best understand barriers to accessing rental assistance” but neither supported nor opposed calls for a new state-level moratorium.

“In addition to allocating millions of dollars toward housing stability​ on top of the nearly one-billion dollars in federal housing aid, the Massachusetts Legislature also extended various COVID-related eviction prevention initiatives such as protection against evictions for non-payment of rent for those who have a pending application for rental assistance, as well as mandated enhanced communication to tenants about their rights,” Mariano’s office said. “Moreover, we renew our call for the Baker Administration to quickly distribute these funds and aptly address any implementation issues.”

Senate President Karen Spilka’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

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