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Mass. lawmakers reach deal to block nearly all evictions during coronavirus crisis

A vote could come as soon Thursday, sending the measure to Governor Charlie Baker.

Renters' rights groups in January rallied outside the State House.
Renters' rights groups in January rallied outside the State House.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Lawmakers on Beacon Hill have agreed to a measure that would block nearly all evictions in Massachusetts during the coronavirus crisis, and could vote on it as soon as Thursday.

A committee of House and Senate lawmakers said Wednesday that it has come to terms on a compromise version of the bill, which would prohibit landlords from filing eviction cases against renters or small businesses, and banks from foreclosing on mortgage-holders, as long as Massachusetts remains in a state of emergency. The House quickly adopted the bill late Wednesday and a vote in the Senate could come Thursday. If approved, it would then go to Governor Charlie Baker for his signature.

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“This legislation will offer much needed relief to thousands of renters, homeowners, and small businesses across the Commonwealth," said Representative Aaron Michlewitz and Senator Brendan Crighton, who helped steer the bills through the Legislature. "It is our hope that the Legislature will approve this bill and send it to the governor as quickly as possible.”

Since the start of the coronavirus crisis and the widespread layoffs that followed, tenant advocates and community groups have been arguing for a moratorium on evictions. They want to prevent vulnerable tenants from being pushed out of their homes if they can’t pay the rent. Court-ordered evictions have largely been on hold since state Housing Courts closed in mid-March, but those courts are now scheduled to reopen in early May, while the effects of the economy’s forced shutdown are likely to continue well beyond that. Tenant groups also note that landlords have continued to file new eviction cases — counting more than 600 such filings statewide since courts closed — an action which often scares tenants into leaving on their own and threatens to create a wave of evictions when courts reopen.

The bill that emerged from the conference committee Wednesday would prohibit those filings, blocking even the early stages of an eviction case, and would extend protections not just to residential tenants but also to many smaller commercial tenants.

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“We are very pleased with the bill, given how big a burden this is for tenants and homeowners,” said Lew Finfer, codirector of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network in Dorchester, in an e-mail.

Real estate groups had pushed back on some of the bill’s more aggressive protections as it moved through the Legislature, saying commercial leases should be treated differently than residential contracts, and noting that initial eviction filings are sometimes the only way to force difficult tenants to negotiate. Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said some apartment-dwellers are hosting parties despite social distancing rules currently in effect, putting other tenants at risk, and that this bill may make it harder for landlords to prevent that type of activity.

More broadly, Vasil said, the law will make it harder for landlords to operate in Greater Boston, and make them less likely to build much-needed new housing.

“We all know we need more,” Vasil said. “I just hope this is not going to hurt us with that.”

With the Legislature meeting in informal session, a measure can be held up if even one lawmaker opposes it, but both the House and the Senate have passed versions of this bill in recent weeks with no opposition. Baker has supported enacting a halt to evictions, but has said little about specifics, leaving details to legislative leaders.

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