As debate grows about whether the state should extend the ban on evictions in Massachusetts, one of its largest landlords said Monday that it will do so on its own.
WinnCompanies, which owns and manages more than 6,500 apartments at 51 buildings across the state, said it will halt all evictions at its properties through the end of the year for tenants who are struggling to pay rent.
It’s a notable move from the state’s biggest operator of affordable housing, though it’s not yet clear if any other large landlords may follow suit.
“Compassion for our residents is not optional; it has been a founding principle of WinnCompanies’ culture and operations for 50 years,” chief executive Gilbert Winn said in a statement. “We believe it is vital to take a leadership role in response to this crisis.”
Housing advocates and some politicians have grown increasingly alarmed at the prospect of a “tsunami of evictions” this fall, when federal and state moratoriums — enacted during the initial outbreak of COVID-19 — will come to an end. Couple that with the end of expanded unemployment benefits that pay many laid-off workers an extra $600 per week, and, by some estimates, 120,000 households in Massachusetts are in danger of being unable to keep up with rent and mortgage payments.
That has prompted a quickly growing push to extend the eviction ban — which in Massachusetts is set to end Aug. 18 — or provide state, local, and federal funding to help make up for lost rent. Bills to do so are pending before both Congress and the state Legislature, but their prospects remain unclear.
On Monday, Winn announced it will not launch eviction cases in Massachusetts against tenants who fall behind on rent and can document “virus-related financial hardships.” Instead, the company said, it will help tenants access whatever relief programs may be available, and work out deferred payment plans.
“We are committed to working with each household to create a realistic payment agreement that is sustainable and achievable,” Winn said.
Evictions based on criminal behavior or safety concerns would still go forward.
The Boston-based company manages more than 105,000 units in 23 states and is one of the leading operators of both affordable and military housing in the country. Most of its portfolio in Massachusetts is publicly subsidized affordable housing, though it also operates about 1,400 market-rate units.
Those types of subsidized units, studies have shown, have relatively high rates of eviction, largely because — by definition — their residents tend to be lower-income. A recent study by tenant advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana and researchers at MIT found that 70 percent of eviction filings in Boston from 2014 to 2016 were from subsidized affordable housing. A city study last year found that the median rent owed by a subsidized tenant facing eviction was just over $1,700, compared with more than $4,000 in market-rate units.
That same City Life study found that evictions in Boston are overwhelmingly concentrated in neighborhoods with large Black and Latino populations — many of the same places that have been hit hardest by the pandemic and related job losses.
The collision of a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and now a looming housing crisis has some lawmakers pushing for a solution that goes beyond what individual landlords can do.
Last week on Beacon Hill, a pair of House Democrats filed a bill that would block evictions for 12 months while providing some help to small landlords to cover lost rent. In Washington, Senator Elizabeth Warren filed legislation that would halt evictions nationwide for 12 months, and Senate Democrats tried to pressure Republicans to vote on a bill already passed by the Democratic-controlled House that would extend federal moratoriums while also providing $100 billion in rent relief.
Meanwhile, Governor Charlie Baker last week announced $20 million in new funding for rent relief programs in Massachusetts, while Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has set aside $8 million to help struggling tenants in the state’s largest city keep up with rent. Other cities and towns have launched similar programs.
Winn said it’s essential those programs continue.
“As job and income losses continue to destabilize families and communities across Massachusetts, it is critical that city, state, and federal governments continue to reinvest in these rental assistance programs,” he said. “The public sector must continue to strengthen and sustain these important safety net programs.”