Remote negotiations underway on housing bill

Boston Statehouse
state house rep chamber_223334

BOSTON (SHNS) – Lawmakers tasked with finding compromise on legislation to pause evictions and foreclosures say they are optimistic they can achieve success within a matter of days, as they take a different — and even more private — approach than previous conference committees due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Senate President Karen Spilka and Gov. Charlie Baker have both said they hope the six-person panel can reach an agreement and prepare a final bill that temporarily bans housing removal proceedings for the governor’s signature by the end of this week.

Housing Committee Co-chair Sen. Brendan Crighton, his chamber’s lead negotiator, told the News Service that a one-week timeline is “certainly on the table.”

“We’re not too far apart,” he said in a Saturday interview. “There’s a strong sense of urgency both in the House and Senate to get things done and get something done quickly. Given the crisis we’re facing, we’re not able to meet as a group face-to-face, but there are not too many differences with the bill. At the end of the day, both branches want to keep everyone safely in their homes.”

Spilka and House Speaker Robert DeLeo voiced support more than three weeks ago for legislation “to address evictions and foreclosures in light of the COVID-19 crisis,” which they said in a joint statement would provide a “crucial safety net.”

The branches on Thursday opted to send competing proposals to a conference committee for resolution but both branches met briefly and adjourned on Monday, after no agreement was filed.

While leaders agree on the need for legislation, the two branches have been unable to find consensus on some of the important specifics. Advocates warn that hundreds of eviction cases have been filed since the COVID-19 crisis began, intimidating tenants even though a Trial Court order has postponed most hearings.

The version passed by the House (H 4615) explicitly covers both non-emergency judgments and default judgments, while the Senate’s bill (S 2631) only covers default judgments. Supporters of the House bill say that leaving some judgments uncovered may expose tenants to middle steps of the eviction process, which could create pressure for them to leave or other undue stress.

“Given the disparities and the vulnerabilities that many tenants find themselves in during this emergency situation, it’s important for us to say we’re going to put a halt or a pause on all of the different steps of the eviction process and all of the different avenues that can be used to put a tenant onto the street or pressure a tenant into abandoning their rights,” said Rep. Mike Connolly, who co-authored the original House legislation but is not a member of the conference committee.

Greater Boston Legal Services staff attorney Joseph Michalakes had warned this month that the original Senate version also failed to define no-fault evictions as non-essential, but he said the version that ultimately passed is a positive step that “builds on the House bill and will effectively pause evictions and foreclosure so people can stay in their home during this dangerous time.”

Another difference is that the Senate included a forbearance provision allowing homeowners to ask for a delay on paying mortgages, but that language did not include similar language.

Both bills suggest varying timelines. The House bill would impose a moratorium on non-emergency removals until 30 days after Baker rescinds his March 10 emergency declaration. The Senate’s version would expire 120 days after passage but would allow Baker to postpone its expiration in 90 days increments, so long as the ban does not remain in effect more than 30 days after the state of emergency ends.

In a Friday letter to conferees, Greater Boston Real Estate Board CEO Greg Vasil raised concerns that the Senate bill prohibits notice-to-quit efforts, which he described as “a key but preliminary part of any legal action.”

Vasil said property owners are also in dire financial straits, just as renters are, and urged allowing some mechanism to “get the tenant’s attention in a way demand orders cannot.”

“Let me be clear: This notice is a tool, one of many that are used in the too-often-contentious relationship between property owners and their tenants,” he wrote. “It DOES NOT mean the start of an eviction proceeding and, again, owners have no interest in leaving tenants with no home in this crisis or in trying to market or rent their properties in this crisis.”

On Saturday, Baker told El Mundo Boston that he wants lawmakers to send him a moratorium bill he can agree to and sign “by next week,” though he did not endorse either version. Spilka set a similar target in a video posted Sunday.

“This will protect renters, homeowners and small businesses, so we’re hoping to get that on the governor’s desk as well this week,” she said.

To achieve that timeline while maintaining social distance, the lawmakers involved have already spoken by phone several times since the conference committee was established on Thursday. The lead Senate conferee said that tactic is likely to remain in place.

“I don’t know of any conference committee that’s happened under circumstances like these,” Sen. Brendan Crighton, who co-chairs the Housing Committee, said in an interview. “Right now, we’re just trying to communicate as best as we can with the House. Right now, phone calls have worked and have been sufficient, but we’re open to other means of communication.”

“I just don’t anticipate at all meeting face to face, given the circumstances,” he added.

Conference committees under normal circumstances begin their work with all members in physical attendance. Joint rules agreed to by the House and Senate require that any conference committee meeting start open to the public, but lawmakers almost always vote to retreat behind closed doors after making opening statements. The actual meetings also give the media an opportunity to ask negotiators questions about important matters.

A spokesman for Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, the House Ways and Means Committee chair who is leading his branch’s negotiations, said the rules only require conference committee meetings to start in public but do not require the panel to meet.

“The Conference committee has not met but we have been talking to the Senate and are working on having an agreement in the near future,” spokesman Blake Webber wrote in an email, later adding, “We are still assessing our options on how to best to get a conference report filed though so no final decisions have been made yet.”

Michlewitz is working alongside Reps. Kevin Honan and Peter Durant, while Crighton is joined on the Senate side by Sens. Michael Rodrigues and Bruce Tarr.

Durant, one of two Republicans appointed to the committee, said he wanted negotiations to ensure that the bill does not incentivize “non-payments” of rent or mortgage.

“What concerns me is the balance in protections for both renters and landlords,” he wrote in an email to the News Service. “I am concerned in ways that missed payment for both rent and mortgages will be made up. I’m concerned that we are kicking the can down the road and if we’re not careful we may see an even bigger wave of evictions and foreclosures negating the protections we’re looking to enact.”

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