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Perspective | Magazine

A tidal wave of evictions is forming. It’s not too late to stop it

A million New England renters may be dislodged, disrupting communities across the region. Massachusetts legislators have an answer, if they’ll act on it.

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Earlier this month, the Trump administration issued a historic moratorium that seemed to provide families with a reprieve from the looming threat of eviction. Unless federal and state policy makers act quickly, however, it will merely postpone the crisis that jeopardizes the health and economic well-being of an estimated 30 million to 40 million adults and children nationwide, including at least 1 million New England renters and their landlords.

The moratorium, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, freezes evictions for nonpayment of rent where tenants meet certain eligibility criteria. Without it, researchers predicted 11.6 million eviction filings nationwide by November, a number over three times what we might see during an entire normal year. But the order is only temporary and it does nothing to relieve the mounting rental debt or risk of foreclosure among property owners. Without emergency rental and mortgage assistance to supplement the moratorium, both renters and landlords will suffer severe financial harm, on top of the life-altering repercussions of eviction and foreclosure.

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In Massachusetts, the Guaranteed Housing Stability Act, which is pending in the Legislature, provides a measured path to recovery for renters and property owners. The act not only cancels evictions and defers mortgages, it also provides a recovery fund to assist property owners who sustained loss of rental income.

Without this urgent intervention, renters and landlords are running out of options. In July, 43 percent of renter families nationwide expressed little or no confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent. Unemployment rates remain at extreme highs, with over 1 million people unemployed in New England. Federal unemployment insurance has expired, emergency rental assistance programs are rapidly depleting, and illegal self-help evictions, where landlords bypass the legal process to force tenants out of their homes, are on the rise.

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Congress, meanwhile, is at an impasse. The HEROES Act — a bill that is endorsed by both housing advocates and property owner associations and would provide more than $100 billion in rent relief and extend unemployment insurance — sits untouched on Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s desk, as of this writing.

Some renters have avoided the eviction cliff — for now — by pushing the debt into their futures. Renters are taking on financial risk associated with borrowing from family and friends, using credit cards, or taking out loans to pay the rent. Families are shifting their food budgets toward the rent, with food pantry requests in Massachusetts up by as much as 931 percent.

But for most families, even these sacrifices are not enough to scrape the rent together. In the week leading up to the CDC moratorium, the Eviction Lab research group at Princeton University found that new eviction filings were well above historical averages in the majority of cities without moratoriums. Even after evictions, landlords may never see the months of missing rent payments, which will result in a cascade of negative repercussions for property owners and communities. Without rental payments, small property owners, who lack access to credit to cover emergencies, are at increased risk of foreclosure and bankruptcy. Utilities will find it harder to cover the cost of essential services, and property tax payments will be reduced, leading to shortfalls in school and government budgets, as well as the availability of community services. And this is all at a time of extreme demand for health and housing support.

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Evictions have the greatest impact on landlords and renters in communities of color. Black and Hispanic landlords are in greater financial peril and provided rent support to tenants at a higher rate than white landlords. In Boston, the percentage of Black renters in a community is a greater predictor of eviction filings than poverty. Coupled with widespread housing discrimination in the rental market, Black people are at extreme risk of housing instability and the social and economic inequalities it causes. In the early months of the pandemic, 78 percent of Boston eviction cases were filed in communities of color. Since tenants rarely have an attorney — not a single New England city guarantees tenants the right to counsel — the vast majority of cases (98 percent in Massachusetts) result in eviction judgments. Black and Hispanic families will be the first to lose their homes when the CDC and statewide moratoriums end.

Without government intervention to both end the eviction crisis with rental assistance and redress longstanding housing vulnerability among people of color, disparities will only deepen once moratoriums are lifted. Eviction, in particular, leads to long-term negative health outcomes for children and adults. It increases unemployment, residential instability, barriers to housing, homelessness, academic decline, and inability to access social services. Housing security is not only the keystone to our ability to control the pandemic, it’s also essential to resiliency in the post-pandemic recovery.

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It’s time every individual, in New England and across America, joins industry groups, housing advocates, and lawyers, among others, and demands that policy makers immediately stop the eviction crisis threatening all of us. Policy makers must bolster state and federal eviction moratoriums and swiftly provide the rental relief necessary to protect renters, landlords, and communities from harm. The HEROES Act at the federal level and the Guaranteed Housing Stability Act in Massachusetts include these critical interventions.

Once the current eviction crisis is addressed, every level and branch of government must seize this unparalleled opportunity to collaborate to permanently prevent housing displacement and its extensive harms. States can create affordable housing and livable wages and adopt eviction prevention measures. Legislators and courts can ensure equitable housing laws and processes.

Ultimately, our country’s stability requires that every adult and child have access to safe, decent, and affordable housing. The severity of the eviction crisis is unquestionable. Failure to prevent it is unconscionable.

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Emily A. Benfer is a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law and co-creator of the COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard with the Eviction Lab. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.


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