With the governor’s stay-at-home advisory now extended to May 4, the notion of “home” — of a safe and secure place to live — becomes ever more crucial. And today that means extending protections to both renters and borrowers in Massachusetts, allowing them a measure of security during these difficult times.
The Supreme Judicial Court took the first step when it essentially shut down courthouses to the public and made clear that all eviction hearings would be postponed. That’s been a huge relief, and that de facto eviction moratorium has now also been extended to May 4. But the breathing room that order has provided should not be used as an excuse to delay the kind of legislative action that needs to follow.
The recently passed federal stimulus package did contain some protections against evictions — but only for residents of federally subsidized housing, such as Section 8 voucher holders, and holders of federally backed mortgages. The latter in particular is no small thing, since it includes mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It will remain in place until the end of the national emergency declaration, but it also includes up to a year of forbearance, allowing mortgage holders to tack on those unmade payments to the end of their mortgages.
The federal bill will protect about 250,000 renters here in Massachusetts, according to the Renters Rising Coalition, a wide-ranging group that includes unions and social justice advocates. But the CARES Act still leaves gaps, especially for those in the private housing market — gaps that must be addressed by state lawmakers, here and elsewhere.
In a letter to Governor Charlie Baker and to legislative leaders, the group notes that some 400 new eviction cases were filed in state housing courts between March 16 and March 23, just prior to the shutdown.
“Tenants often don’t understand that they are entitled to a hearing,” said Lewis Finfer of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network. “They get that letter saying they have 14 days to move, and that puts pressure on people.”
The coalition supports one measure already filed by Representative Kevin Honan, chair of the Housing Committee, and Representative Michael Connolly, aimed at halting evictions and foreclosures for the duration of the governor’s declaration of a state of emergency. House Speaker Robert DeLeo indicated Tuesday that such protection from evictions is on the House agenda.
Late Tuesday, the Senate released its bill, which, according to a statement from the office of Senate President Karen Spilka, “will provide immediate peace of mind to renters and homeowners that they will not lose their housing due to immediate financial hardship during the COVID-19 crisis.”
But it also noted, “We continue to work with stakeholders, advocates, and our colleagues in government to address housing issues that unfold over the course of this public health emergency."
And that too will be crucial in the days ahead.
The coalition letter insists, “It is critical that any forbearance for homeowners is enacted together with protection for tenants, so that no vulnerable residents are forced from their homes or burdened with unsustainable housing debt when the public health crisis concludes.”
After all, those jobs that just disappeared aren’t all going to come back once the health crisis ends.
It’s also important to acknowledge the potential burden of delayed rental payments on landlords, not all of whom have deep coffers or federally-backed loans to give them temporary protection from foreclosure under the stimulus. The state should consider ways to shore up landlords who lack such financing.
Rental assistance programs, which did get a boost in the federal stimulus bill, will likely also need more state funds. Programs like RAFT (Rental Assistance for Families in Transition), which provide emergency rental assistance to prevent homelessness, did get a $5 million appropriation in the last emergency-funding bill here. But more will be needed in the days ahead.
There is no shortage of good will on Beacon Hill these days, even as lawmakers labor under a mountain of logistical difficulties to get things done. But there can be few higher priorities during these turbulent times than making sure people who are being told to stay home will still have one.
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