As coronavirus cases continue to fall and the economy brightens for the moment, some communities in Massachusetts are bracing for a new threat: a surge of evictions that could push thousands of people from their homes. A disproportionate number will be Black or Latino.
Even with rampant unemployment in the state, most residents have been able to stay put, thanks to enhanced unemployment benefits and a state law banning evictions during the pandemic. But those protections are slated to end this summer — putting roughly 120,000 households at risk of being unable to make their housing payments, according to a study by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.
“The situation is looking really dire,” said Lisa Owens, the executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana, a tenants’ rights group. “We are facing what could be dramatic levels of homelessness, and neighborhood and citywide instability.”
A new report from City Life and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests something even more troubling: These evictions are likely to strike Black communities hardest, coming in the wake of a virus that has disproportionately sickened Black residents and in the midst of a national uprising over the legacy of racism. The researchers found that in Boston between 2014 and 2016, an outsize number of eviction filings occurred in communities of color, even after controlling for income.
The rate of eviction filings in nonsubsidized apartments in Roxbury, for example, is seven times greater than in Allston/Brighton. Nearly 90 percent of Roxbury residents are people of color, while Allston/Brighton is 62 percent white.
“The share of Black renters in a neighborhood is a better predictor of market rate eviction filings than income, rental burden, or other economic factors,” said David Robinson, an MIT researcher and coauthor of the report.
Many residents of Mattapan, Dorchester, Roxbury, and Hyde Park, where eviction filing rates were highest, are already living closer to poverty, with lower median incomes than the city as a whole and dramatically less accumulated wealth. (Boston infamously has a racial wealth gap that can almost seem like a typo: a median net worth of $247,500 for white households and $8 for Black ones.)
Decades of government-backed redlining and discrimination in Boston prevented Black families from moving into certain neighborhoods for much of the 20th century. The state and federal governments then systematically disinvested in the neighborhoods these families were allowed to live in, housing experts said. Meanwhile, in recent years, a wave of new investment in some of those same neighborhoods has driven rents upward, pushing out some lower-income tenants and burdening those who’ve stayed.
So when the coronavirus hit, many families simply had no safety net in case of disaster. And advocates say without state and federal action, Massachusetts could see a “tsunami of evictions,” as Owens put it — especially among Black and Latino tenants who were already being squeezed.
Jade Brooks, who is 22, is one; she lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Mattapan with her mother and 8-year-old cousin. The complex, with its balconies overlooking landscaped courtyards, was sold and renamed “SoMa Apartments at the T” in 2018. The rent went up to match the fancier name.
Brooks hopes to one day be a social worker, and enrolled at Framingham State University to study psychology. But when the rent on the family’s apartment went up, she dropped out of school to help her mother pay the bills.
The family struggled to pay $1,810 each month; they joined a tenants’ association organized through City Life and did not pay the higher monthly rent of $2,075. The management company took the family to Housing Court earlier this year, but the eviction moratorium stayed the proceedings.
An already precarious situation became untenable when Brooks’s mother lost her job because of the coronavirus.
“There’s no way for us to pay the full $2,075 without going hungry,” Brooks said.
For now, the family has scraped together the money to pay $1,810 each month; Brooks has taken on extra shifts at Mass. General, where she works as a phone operator.
But when she looks ahead, to the end of the moratorium and to the eviction proceedings that will likely follow, she worries. To move to a new apartment, the family would need to save thousands of dollars for a security deposit, first and last month’s rent, and other fees — money they almost certainly will not have.
“We really don’t have anywhere else to go,” Brooks said.
A few floors up, Annie Gordon also fears she will be kicked out, after living in the building for 44 years. Gordon, who is 69, raised her son in her two-bedroom apartment; she knows the local grocers and takes the bus a short distance to her church each Sunday.
But she is on a fixed income, and couldn’t pay the higher rent even before the virus hit; now a family member she relied on for help paying bills was laid off because of the virus.
And so, in the middle of the pandemic, with Governor Charlie Baker begging people over the age of 65 to stay home, Gordon found herself researching how she would enter a homeless shelter.
“When you have to go through something like this — and being a little older, too — you think about it sometimes to the point that you can get panic attacks,” said Gordon, who is a team leader of the building’s tenants’ association and hopes to meet with the management company to negotiate.
Corcoran Management Co., which oversees the complex, declined to comment on specific tenants.
“After the moratorium, it’s typical business as usual,” said Keith Driscoll, a spokesman for the company.
So far, the state has managed to ward off a tenancy crisis, housing experts say, because of federal aid and the strongest moratorium law in the country. After the state passed the law on April 20, evictions filed in state housing court fell to just a handful each week for health and safety reasons, according to data tracked by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership.
And although over 1 million people in Massachusetts have filed for unemployment since March, most tenants continue to pay rent. Surveys of apartment-building owners find that 80 percent or more of rent payments remain on time.
“We’ve been really protected from the impacts of this crisis,” said Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, during a recent Boston Foundation webinar on the issue. “The federal stimulus has been incredibly effective at getting money into people’s pockets and preventing the impacts from being much worse.”
But the enhanced federal unemployment benefits expire in July, and there’s little sign of another round.
The state eviction moratorium is set to end on Aug. 18. Housing advocates have begun lobbying Governor Baker to extend it; a spokesman for Baker declined to comment on the prospect of doing so.
In Massachusetts, Cambridge Representative Mike Connolly and Representative Kevin Honan, the Brighton Democrat who cochairs the Legislature’s Housing Committee, are preparing legislation that would extend the eviction moratorium by 12 months while providing mortgage deferment and funding for small landlords who lose rental income.
The city and state have tried to help in other ways, setting aside pockets of money to help renters. Boston launched an $8 million fund to help residents stay current on their rent, and the Baker administration boosted its main rental relief program, known as RAFT — Rental Assistance for Families in Transition — by $5 million in March. The governor also plans to pump another $10 million in federal stimulus money into emergency rental and mortgage relief, a spokesman said.
That won’t be enough, said Sheila Dillon, chief of housing for Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. But, she noted that anything policymakers can do now to help keep renters current should help delay, at least, the wave of evictions that’s on the horizon.
“We have to get as many people as we can caught up on their rent, so we’re not completely overwhelmed when the moratorium ends,” she said.
And that money has helped people stay afloat — for now. Magalie Gabriel, a 26-year-old renter in Brighton, was furloughed and then laid off from a vendor at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. She didn’t have the money to pay for her room; her parents, who work as dishwashers in Miami, had no money to send her. She panicked, until her landlord sent her information about Metro Housing Boston, a partner in the city’s rental relief fund. Demand was so high that the group had to do a lottery in the first round. Through it, Gabriel received enough money to stay in her home.
But the need, for both homeowners and renters, is enormous, much higher than what the city or state has pledged. The gap between what laid-off workers will earn on regular unemployment and what they need to pay for mortgages and rent is $128 million per month, MAPC estimates.
The size of that number underscores that help for landlords is essential as well. Landlords have mortgages and property taxes to pay, of course, and many smaller landlords provide the sort of lower-cost rental housing Massachusetts desperately needs, housing experts said. If they’re squeezed, they might sell or lose their buildings in foreclosure.
“If you’re really stressing small landlords, and their buildings get bought by big corporate owners, you’re going to see a decline in that naturally affordable housing,” said Tim Reardon, director of data services at MAPC. “That will have consequences, too.”
The problem, in its enormity, requires federal help, city officials and policy experts said. Last month, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion stimulus bill that would include $100 billion in rental assistance, and ban all evictions for 12 months. But the plan has made little progress in the Republican-led Senate.
Without rental relief or an extended moratorium, tenants in Boston are dreading the next few months. Gordon, who has lived in her Mattapan apartment for decades, thanks God each morning for granting her another day in the home that she loves. But she doesn’t have a plan for paying the outstanding rent.
“I don’t see a way,” she said, shaking her head. “I just don’t see a way.”
Tim Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.