Governor Charlie Baker has signaled that he’s ready to end Massachusetts' toughest-in-the-nation ban on evictions next month, but said he is working with the state Housing Court to soften the blow for renters at risk of losing their homes.
At a news conference in Lowell Wednesday, Baker suggested he won’t extend the moratorium — which since April has blocked all eviction filings statewide — when it expires Oct. 17. Instead, he wants to devise a system that protects both renters and landlords.
“We would really like to see if we can put a plan together to make sure that we can do, with the courts, what needs to be done to ensure that people are protected with respect to their housing,” Baker said. “But the longer this thing goes on, the deeper the hole gets, not just for tenants but also for landlords, especially small landlords..who . . . have in many cases already run out of rope.”
Baker’s office did not respond to questions seeking more details on that plan, or say whether he has made a final decision on the moratorium, which the governor can extend while the state’s COVID-19 emergency continues. But people familiar with the discussions say a new approach could include mediation and some kind of system to prevent a flood of eviction cases when courts reopen. That would likely be coupled with additional rental assistance or other funding from the state.
“There’s a lot of moving pieces,” said Joe Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, whose group has been involved in preliminary conversations. “I think, in his mind, maybe he has a couple of weeks to figure this out.”
In April, with Baker’s support, lawmakers hurriedly passed an eviction ban that housing advocates hailed as the strictest in the country. They credit it with delaying perhaps tens of thousands of evictions over the past five months. In early September, the Trump administration followed suit, with the Centers for Disease Control barring many evictions nationwide on public health grounds through the end of the year.
But the federal ban, which is based on keeping people in their homes to limit spread of the coronavirus, faces legal challenges. So does the Massachusetts moratorium, which is the subject of lawsuits by landlords who say it forces them to provide housing with no compensation. Earlier this month, a federal judge warned Baker against extending the ban indefinitely. Baker’s comments Wednesday suggest he won’t, though he didn’t explicitly rule out an extension.
His preferred solution appears to be a combination of modified court rules — like what happens if a tenant facing eviction misses a virtual court hearing — and extra funding for programs such as Rental Assistance for Families in Transition, which helps people who fall behind on rent. The administration, court officials, housing advocates, and some landlords have been hashing out details for several weeks, with 25 to 30 people joining a virtual meeting as recently as Tuesday.
But those talks have been complicated by the recent death of the Supreme Judicial Court’s chief justice, Ralph Gants. He played a key role in trying to ensure that at-risk tenants were informed of rental aid programs, said Stefanie Coxe, executive director of the Regional Housing Network, a group of nonprofit housing providers.
“The chief led this effort, and his loss is tremendous,” Coxe said. “But the work is still continuing under Paula Carey,” chief justice of the Trial Court.
But one form of support the courts can’t provide is money — which tenants and landlords agree would make the most difference.
Every month, more tenants are falling behind on rent. A report Wednesday from the Boston Foundation estimated 18,000 households could face eviction in Suffolk County alone when back rent eventually comes due.
And as Coxe and other advocates point out, existing state programs — such as RAFT, which offers up to $4,000 a year for rent — are designed for one-time emergencies, not months-long economic crises. Without more resources, it will be hard to craft a plan that works for tenants and landlords alike, said Doug Quattrochi, executive director of Mass Landlords.
“It’s very frustrating. We have said from the beginning that none of this would be necessary if we would come together and guarantee this housing for people,” said Quattrochi, whose group has proposed issuing state bonds for rent relief. “It’s within our ability pay for it.”