The state Senate is poised to vote soon on a bill that would stop many evictions in Massachusetts during the coronavirus crisis. But advocates for both tenants and landlords say the legislation doesn’t go far enough to deal with the challenges facing many renters.
A key Senate committee voted unanimously on Tuesday night to advance the bill, which would block many court-ordered evictions for 90 days and prevent landlords from charging late fees for missed rent payments tied to the COVID-19 crisis. It could go before the full Senate by next week, and, if approved, would then go to the House and — assuming passage in that chamber ― to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk.
“We’re trying to keep people in their homes,” said Senator Brendan Crighton, who is leading the bill’s push in the Senate. “It’s a public health issue right now. We can’t be telling people, ‘Stay in your homes,' and on the other hand be pushing them out into the street.”
The measure arrives as April rent checks are due for many tenants across the state, and amid growing cries for help from community groups and advocates who fear the coronavirus crisis and resulting widespread job loss could put thousands of families at risk of losing their homes.
In that context, said Lisa Owens, executive director of the Boston-based tenant advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana, the measure falls short. It would expire after just 90 days, even though the economic damage suffered by working-class families is likely to take much longer to repair. And while it blocks judges from ordering someone out of their home, it doesn’t prevent landlords from filing eviction cases in court, a move that often sends worried tenants packing.
“A lot of people think you have to leave right then,” said Owens, whose group has counted more than 460 eviction filings in the two weeks since housing courts closed. “That causes undue panic at a time when people have enough things to be confused about.”
Practically speaking, most evictions are on hold. State housing courts are only hearing emergency cases until at least April 22.
A more aggressive bill, filed last month in the House, would institute a full moratorium on evictions for as long as Massachusetts is under a state of emergency. It was referred on Monday to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing.
Landlord groups have blasted that measure, which they say could create criminal penalties for landlords who initiate eviction proceedings. The Senate bill, one group said Wednesday, is more palatable, even if it fails to address the root of the region’s looming rental crisis: The fact that many people simply won’t be able to pay their rent until the economy recovers.
“Long-term, we’re going to deal with the aftermath,” said Doug Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords. “Under this, when the state of emergency ends, you can start evicting people again. But I don’t think anyone expects the economy will just go back to the way it was before. It’ll take years for people to get back on their feet.”
One possible solution, Quattrochi said, could be state funding to cover unpaid rent. That would protect tenants from eviction while providing landlords with income. His group is trying to rally support for that idea on Beacon Hill, though no legislation has yet been filed. Other groups, including the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations — which represents nonprofit affordable housing developers — are calling for boosts to state rental assistance programs.
“We also want to make sure that we don’t have a wave of evictions the moment the moratorium is lifted,” wrote Joe Kreisberg, president of MACDC, in an e-mail.
Crighton acknowledged that not everyone is satisfied with the Senate bill, but he said it’s an effort at consensus that can pass quickly, far faster than the typically years-long process involved in getting a law through on Beacon Hill.
“We recognize the urgency of situation,” he said. “Not everyone is going to be 100 percent happy with this, but we need to keep people in their homes.”