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As eviction ban continues, small landlords feel the squeeze

Protesters at a rally  in front of the State House in support of a bill that would freeze evictions for 12 months in Massachusetts.
Protesters at a rally in front of the State House in support of a bill that would freeze evictions for 12 months in Massachusetts.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Marie Baptiste owns a rental property in Randolph. A nurse at a hospital in Fall River, she kept her old house when she moved to a newer one several years ago, figuring the rent would help her pay the bills when she retires.

Lately, though, she’s had to pull money out of her retirement savings to cover the mortgage, property taxes, and insurance because her tenant stopped paying rent last fall, Baptiste said, well before the COVID-19 pandemic.

She says the tenant owes her nearly $19,000, but because of a freeze on evictions during the pandemic, there’s nothing she can do about it now. Baptiste’s tenant, who asked that her name not be used, said she stopped paying rent in November because the house had fallen into serious disrepair, including water damage and an infestation of rats. Baptiste disputes those claims, saying the tenant is to blame for most of the problems.

No matter what the reason for the lack of payments, the bills keep piling up.

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“It’s all backwards,” Baptiste said. “You have no way out. I don’t know if I’m going to lose everything I’ve worked so hard for.”

The roiling debate about Massachusetts’ eviction moratorium — which Governor Charlie Baker last week extended until mid-October — has focused largely on renters, hundreds of thousands of whom have lost work over the last few months and face rent bills that many can’t afford. But landlords, especially small ones who provide the bulk of modestly-priced rental housing in Massachusetts, say they need help, too.

Stuck between tenants who can’t, or simply won’t, pay up and banks that still expect mortgage payments every month, many landlords say the eviction moratorium puts them in an impossible spot. They don’t want to evict tenants in the midst of a health and economic crisis. But they also don’t want to go broke.

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“Landlords are getting squeezed,” said Mike Hoefling, who owns a pair of three-family buildings in Worcester and has several tenants who are out of work. “They’re not getting rent on one side, and on the other, banks are asking for their money.”

It’s a dilemma with potentially far-reaching consequences.

About a quarter of all housing in Massachusetts is in small multi-family buildings, the three-deckers and six-unit apartment buildings that dot urban neighborhoods across the state. Many are owned by landlords who lack the resources of big national apartment operators and who often charge lower rents than those in large complexes. With few or no employees on the payroll, most got little help from the Paycheck Protection Program or other coronavirus aid.

Even by mid-May, according to a survey conducted by the trade group MassLandlords, about 20 percent of rent payments statewide were late. Housing advocates warn that many more renters could fall behind when the $600-per-week expanded federal unemployment benefits expire this week.

In that same survey, one-fifth of landlords said they didn’t know how they will pay their bills this year. If the eviction moratorium stretches on, and there’s no help forthcoming for property owners, many will have to sell their buildings, or lose them to foreclosure, said MassLandlords executive director Doug Quattrochi.

“You might have a quarter of mom-and-pop landlords exit the industry,” he said. “And the most likely scenario is big investors buy those buildings, terminate the leases, and renovate them or make them into condos.”

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Even the loudest voices in support of the moratorium agree that scenario will only exacerbate the region’s housing crisis. The fate of renters and their landlords are closely linked, said Lisa Owens, executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana, and everyone’s hurting.

“We’re all in this together,” she said. “Yes, we do have to support our small landlords. They’re struggling just like their tenants.”

That has some people pitching proposals they say offer hope for both sides.

In Washington, House Democrats included $100 billion in rental relief for tenants — and by extension, their landlords — in the coronavirus stimulus package they passed in May. Both tenant advocates and large apartment trade groups are pushing for that money to be included in the version now being crafted in the Senate, though its prognosis is uncertain.

Closer to home, Baker has released $38 million in rental and mortgage assistance since the pandemic began, and when he extended the moratorium last Tuesday, he pledged to keep looking for funds as the crisis continues.

More controversial is a bill before the state Legislature’s Housing Committee that would freeze evictions for 12 months and create a fund to help small landlords who lose rent as a result. Tenant groups are pushing hard for it, with hundreds of people rallying at the State House last Wednesday.

But landlords note that no money has been allocated for the fund, and they worry that when lawmakers write next year’s budget, they’ll have other priorities. More concerning to them are clauses that would freeze rents for 12 months, and allow cities and towns to require so-called “just cause” for evictions even after the coronavirus emergency ends.

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“This bill would paralyze the real estate industry,” several state trade groups wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “It will have a lasting negative impact that will extend far beyond the timeline outlined in the legislation.”

Quattrochi’s group is pushing help of a different kind: state-issued bonds that would guarantee unpaid rent for landlords, in exchange for an agreement not to evict. Funding, they suggest, could come from a 1 percent surcharge on the sale of single-family homes, which could raise roughly $1 billion over three years. has been looking for an influential sponsor on Beacon Hill, Quattrochi said, but has yet to find one.

PJ Szufnarowski and her husband, John Sheldon, outside their home in Brighton.
PJ Szufnarowski and her husband, John Sheldon, outside their home in Brighton. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

That approach makes sense to PJ Szufnarowski.

She and her husband own three condos in Allston that they rent out along with the ground floor of their two-family in Brighton. The income helps them pay their bills — especially now that Szufnarowski’s business selling paintings of Boston landmarks has tailed off because of the pandemic. She says they’re fortunate that their tenants have continued paying rent in full, and on time.

Even if the payments were late, Szufnarowski said, she wouldn’t move to evict. But, she said, the costs of this crisis can’t be borne entirely by landlords like her. The eviction moratorium, with no relief in sight, is starting to make it feel like that’s the plan.

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“This feels like an outright attack on landlords,” she said.

Baptiste is one of two plaintiffs in lawsuits filed in state and federal courts that seek to overturn Massachusetts’ eviction moratorium, on the grounds that it unfairly takes away landlords’ property rights.

She already had filed eviction proceedings against her tenants in Randolph and was between hearings in the case when Housing Court closed in March. A month later, the Legislature voted to freeze nearly all evictions. As of Aug. 1, she said, she’ll be $21,000 in the hole on a house that was supposed to help her fund a comfortable retirement.

In her more frustrated moments, Baptiste said, she’d just as soon let the place go ― hand it over to her tenants and walk away.

“It would be the best thing,” she said. “I wouldn’t have to pay the mortgage and the taxes. I could move on with my life. But I can’t.”


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