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For renters who are out of work due to coronavirus, fear of evictions is rising

But landlords say they have bills to pay, too, including their mortgages

Renters' rights groups in January rallied outside the State House to call for the return of rent control.
Renters' rights groups in January rallied outside the State House to call for the return of rent control.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/file

Alfredo Olguin opened an e-mail Tuesday from the landlord of the small East Somerville apartment building where he lives to find a blunt message waiting.

In underlined bold type, it said that “late rent payments from tenants due to the COVID-19 situation” would not be allowed. Landlords, it noted, have mortgage payments to make.

Welcome to another looming dilemma in the fast-unfolding coronavirus crisis: What will happen next month, and maybe the month after, when renters — out of work and strapped for cash — can’t pay up?

It’s a question being asked with greater urgency by tenants and apartment building owners all over Greater Boston, where sky-high rents are a source of stress for many people even under the best of circumstances.

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“We’re really concerned about this,” said Rachel Heller, chief executive of Citizens Housing and Planning Association, a group in Boston that advocates for affordable housing. “Incomes are dropping. People are going to have trouble. We’re hearing a lot of worry out there.”

For now, at least, the likelihood of immediate and widespread evictions appears relatively low.

Housing courts across Massachusetts have postponed non-emergency proceedings through at least April 22, and several major Boston landlords have agreed to halt most evictions for up to 90 days. Governor Charlie Baker said Friday that his administration will announce new plans in the coming days to protect renters and homeowners.

President Trump on Wednesday said the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which owns or finances millions of low-income apartments, would halt evictions at its properties, as well, though HUD Secretary Ben Carson later said he is still “working with Congress” on the details.

But moratoriums are typically brief. Landlords, tenant advocates note, have many ways short of a court-ordered eviction to make their tenants’ lives difficult. And even the generous ones ultimately have sizable bills of their own to pay; most depend on a regular flow of cash from tenants.

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“If renters don’t have money to pay rent, landlords don’t have money, either,” said Doug Quattrochi, executive director of the group MassLandlords. “That’s money that pays plumbers and electricians and mortgage bills. If they’re a senior on a fixed income, it might be how they buy food.”

Like so much else about the current health and economic emergency, what to do about rent is uncharted territory.

Boston officials are meeting every few days with the city’s larger landlords to try and sort out the many unanswered questions, said housing chief Sheila Dillon.

Several big property owners say they realize they’ll need to be flexible with tenants, given the unprecedented circumstances.

“People will be impacted, and I think landlords need to keep an open mind," said Bruce Percelay, chairman of Mount Vernon Co., which owns about 2,000 apartments in and around Boston. “You kind of have to take it on a case-by-case basis."

Indeed, several renters who replied to a Globe query said their landlords are offering flexible payment terms to tenants suddenly out of work.

GTI Properties, which manages about 400 apartments in the South End, has frozen rents for next year.

Others, though, appear to be taking a harder line. A Charlestown woman, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation, said she approached her landlord — after realizing she was going to lose most of her income as a fitness instructor — to ask whether he could cut her a break, or let her pay weekly.

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“He said, ‘You signed a lease, and you agreed to this. It’s your responsibility,’” the woman recalled. “Now I’m worried he won’t renew my lease when it ends in June. That’s my biggest fear.”

Some housing advocates are pushing for a statewide ban on evictions for as long as the crisis lasts. Legislation that’s been filed on Beacon Hill would prohibit evictions and foreclosures until the state of emergency is lifted in Massachusetts, a move which has the backing of tenants groups. Evictions that have already been processed in court are still being carried out every day, they said.

“We’ve gotten about 20 [eviction hotline] calls in the last 48 hours,” said Steve Meacham, organizing coordinator for the advocacy group City Life Vida Urbana, during an online meeting Wednesday. “People are being told they have to be out by the end of March.”

Quattrochi, of MassLandlords, said he wouldn’t defend landlords who are pushing out tenants at a time when people are being urged to stay home. But, he said, any longer-term solution must take the needs of landlords into account.

That’s why his group is advocating for income support — the sort of cash assistance to households that’s being discussed in Washington — or a rent guarantee from the state. That would help everyone pay their bills, he said. But the bill to ban evictions altogether, he said, goes too far, demonizing landlords and signaling to tenants that paying rent is optional.

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“We have no problem with a short eviction moratorium,” he said. “But the message this bill sends to people is basically that society is over.”

Whatever the solution, it needs to come fast, said Heller, who pointed out that the longer the emergency drags on, the more people it will hit, and the harder the discussions between renters and landlords will be.

“We’re not even really seeing the impact of this yet,” she said. “Most people have paid their rent for March. Maybe they can make it in April. But, May? June? We’re going to really see this affect a lot of people.”


Tim Logan can be reached at timothy.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.