At the beginning of the month, Monica missed making April’s rent payment for her Jamaica Plain apartment. A graduate student and mother, Monica — who didn’t want her last name used for fear of alienating future landlords — had taken a census job to help pay the bills. But that fell through amid the coronavirus crisis, and she hasn’t been able to find other work.
On Friday, she came home to a letter in the door from her landlord, saying she had 14 days to pay up, or face eviction. Since then the landlord has called and e-mailed several times. She’s not sure what to do.
“I need funds and there aren’t any,” she said Wednesday. “I can’t pay the rent, and there’s no way to know how long this is going to go, or where that money is supposed to come from.”
Courts in Massachusetts have halted most eviction and foreclosure rulings in light of the public health emergency. But that hasn’t stopped some landlords from pressuring tenants who can’t pay the rent by sending threatening letters and launching cases in Housing Court, even if a judge won’t rule on them for weeks or months.
Now debate is coming to a head on Beacon Hill about the rights of tenants and landlords under the current public health and economic conditions. House and Senate lawmakers this week are negotiating a bill that would either halt eviction proceedings entirely, or allow cases to proceed all the way up to a judge’s ruling.
That’s a crucial distinction, advocates for both tenants and landlords say, one that could have long-term implications for housing across the state.
Many renters respond to letters like the one in Monica’s door by simply packing up and leaving, unaware that in Massachusetts only a judge can order them out. Winding through court often takes months, and that can buy time to work out a solution or find someplace new to live.
“Out of fear or panic, people just leave. We see that happen a lot,” said Helen Matthews, spokeswoman for the tenant advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana.
But landlord groups say the ability to threaten eviction is a crucial negotiating tool, a way to bring tenants to the table to work out a compromise that will keep renters in their homes and property owners solvent. Wiping them out would set a dangerous precedent, said Skip Schloming, of the Small Property Owners Association.
“It’d be a message that you don’t have to pay your rent, because you can’t be evicted,” Schloming said. “Practically speaking, you wouldn’t have to pay anything.”
Urgency around the issue is growing. As of April 5, about 31 percent of households in 13.1 million apartments surveyed by the National Multifamily Housing Council had yet to pay this month’s rent, up from 18 percent last April. As the crisis and resulting job losses drag on, many expect that figure to grow, and pressure to quickly mount on landlords who need those rent checks to pay bills of their own.
As the crisis began in mid-March, the state moved quickly to close housing courts, effectively halting most court-ordered evictions and foreclosures. It has since extended the closings into early May. Federal and state housing agencies have ordered a stop to evictions in affordable housing units they helped finance, and the Boston Housing Authority, among other public housing providers, has said it won’t evict tenants except for safety reasons during the crisis.
But there’s nothing stopping private landlords from filing eviction cases in court. Indeed, City Life and other tenant groups say they’ve counted hundreds of so-called “notice to quit” filings in housing courts since rulings were halted nearly four weeks ago.
Allowing those filings to continue needlessly scares tenants in a time of crisis, said Joe Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, and risks setting off a flood of evictions when the health emergency is over.
“Some tenants will leave now,” Kriesberg said. “And then you’ll have hundreds if not thousands of evictions queued up the moment the moratorium is lifted.”
But Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said any eviction cases filed now are likely to take months to make their way through court, even after judges rule on them. In the meantime, court-supervised mediation can continue by phone. He said his group — which represents apartment building owners and other large landlords — would support “notice to quit” letters that make it clear that people won’t actually be pushed out during the crisis. But it says a blanket moratorium on all proceedings would go too far.
“We don’t want people getting put out on the street,” Vasil said. “But phone mediations? We think that’s a good thing, and that should continue to happen."
These sort of nuances are getting hashed out on Beacon Hill, where House lawmakers last week passed a measure that would halt all eviction filings until 30 days after the coronavirus emergency is lifted. That bill is before a key Senate committee, which last week supported more modest legislation that would simply block court-ordered evictions.
Negotiations over the final package were underway Wednesday, with the Senate committee poised to vote Thursday on a measure that would bar landlords from sending notices to quit, as the House version does. But with the Legislature meeting in informal session, under the rules a single lawmaker could hold up any bill.
Governor Charlie Baker has said little on the subject in recent days, noting that with housing courts closed, no one will be pushed out. He’s deferring to legislative leaders for a more permanent solution.
As for Monica she said she’s glad she won’t be evicted immediately, and she’s hoping it will buy her time to sort something out. But she keeps getting calls and e-mails from the landlord. And she has a lot of other things to worry about right now.
“How am I supposed to pay them when I don’t even know how I’m going to pay for food? That’s insane,” she said. “They don’t have to be so aggressive.”