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Plans to block evictions anew gather momentum in Mass. and nationwide

Then-Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren walked with members of Culinary Workers Union Local 226 on a picket line outside of Palms Casino Resort on February 19 in Las Vegas, Nev.
Then-Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren walked with members of Culinary Workers Union Local 226 on a picket line outside of Palms Casino Resort on February 19 in Las Vegas, Nev.Mario Tama/Getty

Amid growing concern about a wave of evictions that could hit cities nationwide this summer and fall, momentum is quickly growing to block them, perhaps for months to come.

In Washington, Senator Elizabeth Warren filed a bill Monday that would halt nearly all rental evictions nationwide through March 2021. Meanwhile, on Beacon Hill, lawmakers are preparing to file a measure that would stop evictions in Massachusetts for another 12 months.

Backers of both bills point to the coronavirus pandemic, which is surging in many parts of the country even as new cases slow in Massachusetts, and the resulting recession, which has pushed tens of millions of Americans out of work. Now, Warren said, is no time to end eviction moratoriums that have helped renters weather the crisis so far.

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“This economic crisis is also a housing crisis,” Warren said in a conference call Monday with the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “We need some short-term, emergency solutions to make sure families can stay in their homes.”

So Monday she and Democratic colleagues in the US House of Representatives filed bills that would block nearly all evictions for nonpayment of rent through March of next year, and prohibit landlords from charging fees for late payment. It comes as a moratorium on evictions in federally-financed housing is set to expire next month and many states are starting to reopen courts and lift temporary halts on evictions they imposed at the start of the pandemic.

“Without a quick and significant federal intervention, there will be a wave of evictions,” said Diane Yentel, president of NLIHC. “Really the wave has already started. Our work now is to prevent it from becoming a tsunami.”

In cities like Boston, that wave will likely hit hardest in lower-income and largely non-white neighborhoods. A report issued Sunday by tenant advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana found that evictions in Boston were far more common in Roxbury, Mattapan, and parts of Dorchester and Hyde Park than in neighborhoods with larger white populations, even after accounting for income disparities. And that was before a pandemic that has hit especially hard in those very same neighborhoods, noted City Life executive director Lisa Owens.

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“The worst may be yet to come,” Owens said. “The looming eviction crisis sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic will disproportionately impact communities of color.”

Whether these arguments will prevail in Congress remains to be seen. Large real estate trade groups have opposed broad moratoriums, with the National Apartment Association saying Monday that bills like Warren’s — which includes no relief for landlords if tenants can’t pay — only address “half the problem.”

“Such moratoria are nothing more than quick, politically popular proposals,” said Bob Pinnegar, president of the apartment group. “Owners cannot absorb the expense of delinquent rent payments.”

It would be better, Pinnegar said, to provide rental relief funds that help tenants pay their bills, and landlords keep the lights on. The Democratic-controlled House has tried that, too, adding $100 billion in rental relief to a $3 trillion stimulus package it passed in May. That bill has languished in the Republican-led Senate, enough so that House lawmakers held another vote on the housing measures Monday as a way to pressure Senate Republicans to move on it.

Meanwhile, state-level moratoriums have ended in 25 states, and eviction filings are quickly mounting. Tucson, Ariz., is seeing more than 50 new eviction cases a day, Yentel said, while Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, expects more than 2,200 new cases in coming days.

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Massachusetts has the strongest moratorium by some estimates, but it is set to expire on Aug. 18. Housing advocates are starting to lobby Gov. Charlie Baker to extend it; his office has declined comment.

Two House lawmakers — Representative Kevin Honan, a Brighton Democrat who chairs the Legislature’s Housing Committee, and Rep. Mike Connolly, of Cambridge — are planning this week to file a bill that would extend the moratorium by 12 months while also providing aid for small landlords who lose rental income. On Monday, for the first time, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh lent his support to that bill, saying the moratorium should be extended “for as long as it takes” to deal with the impacts from the pandemic.

“Housing stability has never been more important,” Walsh said. “We need to do everything we can to support our residents through this crisis.”

Walsh also noted that it’s important to help small landlords, who still have mortgages, property taxes, and other bills to pay -- and risk losing their buildings.

That’s a crucial point in any negotiation, said Peter Shapiro, a longtime Boston housing counselor and small-property landlord. He’s been working with the trade group Mass Landlords to push a bill that would have the state guarantee rent for landlords who don’t evict tenants who can’t pay. Without some sort of backup, he said, many smaller landlords — who often charge lower rents than institutional investors with newer buildings — could go bust if tenants can’t or won’t pay rent for months to come.

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“This is a real business failure for people,” he said. “You’ve got a dire situation on the owner side, too. If they get abandoned, you’re going to lose a lot of owners. You’re going to change the industry.”




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