As concerns mount about a potential wave of evictions this fall, Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday extended the state’s ban on evictions and foreclosures into mid-October, citing the ongoing health and economic crisis set off by the pandemic.
The ban, which was set to expire Aug. 18, will remain in effect until Oct. 17, buying time for tenants as the state slowly starts to recover economically from the impact of COVID-19-related shutdowns. The measure blocks nearly all eviction cases from being filed in the state’s housing courts.
“The extension I am declaring today will provide residents of the Commonwealth with continued housing security as businesses cautiously re-open, more people return to work, and we collectively move toward a new normal,” Baker wrote to the Legislature.
In April, Massachusetts was one of many states to temporarily block evictions to help combat the spread of the coronavirus by ensuring that people could stay in their homes. In other states where such bans have ended, eviction cases have increased.
Housing advocates and courts here have warned that Massachusetts could see as many as 20,000 cases filed when the ban ends, especially if the economy does not improve and the expanded unemployment benefits passed early in the pandemic wind down, as they are scheduled to do.
That has prompted a broad campaign on the issue in recent weeks, with housing advocates and Democrats on Beacon Hill urging Baker to extend the moratorium — which under state law he can do for up to 90 days at a time.
Tuesday’s move was a sign that Baker heard that call, said Lisa Owens, executive director of the Boston-based tenant advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana.
“The governor listened to the voice of the people across this state,” Owens said. “We had hundreds and hundreds of people calling and e-mailing, and really made the point that, with 20,000 evictions looming, the state needed to do something.”
But landlord groups have argued the blanket freeze on evictions is especially harmful to small-property owners, who are now stuck between tenants who can’t, or won’t, pay rent and banks that expect them to keep up with the mortgage payments on their buildings. Some, such as the group MassLandlords, are seeking programs that would guarantee rents if tenants can’t pay due to COVID-19.
“Mom-and-pop housing providers are largely cut off from financial assistance,” said MassLandlords’ executive director, Doug Quattrochi, during a recent webinar. “The situation for small housing providers, who actually provide about two-thirds of the housing in Massachusetts, is ruinous.”
Two landlords have filed lawsuits in state and federal courts seeking to overturn the moratorium, entirely, with hearings scheduled in the coming weeks. Their lawyer, veteran real estate attorney Richard Vetstein, was quick to note the extension does nothing to resolve their concerns.
“See you all in court!” he posted on Twitter Tuesday in response to news of the extension.
Other real estate groups said they could support the continued ban as an incremental measure, but that any longer-term approach must include financial support for tenants and, by extension, their landlords.
Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said the amount of money that would be need will probably have to come from Washington.
“It’s time for us to look south to the Beltway,” Vasil said. “They need to step up for building owners. That’s the sort of thing that needs to happen.”
In his statement, Baker acknowledged landlords’ concerns, urging tenants to continue to pay rent despite the moratorium — as surveys and industry data suggest the vast majority are doing. And the governor noted the $20 million he announced last week to help fund rent-relief programs, along with $18 million the state pumped into similar housing programs in thespring.
“Between now and October 17, my administration will assess whether additional federal and state resources should be made available for this purpose,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, a bill filed in the Legislature would extend the moratorium for at least 12 months and set up a fund that could help property owners. The measure, filed last week with more than 90 House and Senate cosponsors, is set for hearings this week, said Representative Kevin Honan, one of its lead authors and cochair of the Legislature’s Housing Committee.
Advocates are planning a rally at the State House Wednesday to support that bill, though real estate groups have come out against it. With lawmakers’ formal session set to adjourn at the end of July, the bill’s prognosis is unclear.
Whatever thesolution, the state needs to come up with a longer-term approach to the looming rental crisis, said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.
Based on current unemployment data, his group estimates 125,000 households in Massachusetts — including 68,000 renters — will struggle to make housing payments if expanded unemployment benefits expire this month. When the eviction moratorium inevitably ends, many of those people will owe a lot of money to their landlords, Draisen said, adding that now is the time to figure out how to manage that.
“At some point there will be a cliff,” he said, “and the real question is, when that cliff comes, will people be back at work and will they have been working long enough to catch up on rent? We need to find some way to give tenants a permanent way to handle this.”