With thousands of people across Massachusetts facing potential homelessness after the statewide eviction moratorium ends Saturday, there is no perfect solution, no surefire way to prevent the pain and hardship of displacement.
The Baker administration’s Eviction Diversion Initiative is a good-faith start at solving the problem. What it needs is more money and more time — time to get the word out, time to hire those who can help implement it, and perhaps even time for Washington to get its act together and help with that additional funding.
The statewide eviction moratorium passed by the Legislature in April effectively prevented newly unemployed renters from being tossed out onto the street for nonpayment of rent. The state’s highest court, meanwhile, also ordered its own temporary halt in eviction proceedings in the spring in response to the pandemic. Landlords, on the other hand, still had mortgages and bills to pay.
Governor Charlie Baker extended the eviction moratorium once, with the most recent deadline set for Oct. 17 — and with US District Court Judge Mark Wolf warning in a case challenging the moratorium, “The length of time for which the moratorium is in effect will be relevant to whether it continues to be constitutional.”
But Baker said Tuesday that his own belief, that “the longer the moratorium stayed in place, the bigger the hole people would have to work themselves out of,” was driving the new deadline more than Wolf’s threat.
And so, over what Baker described as a six-week process, the administration, working with court officials — first with the late Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants and then with Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey — came up with a multi-pronged approach to dealing with what could be a flood of new evictions after the moratorium comes to an end.
“We do expect a significant influx of cases we’re going to have to deal with,” Carey said in an interview. “It could be anywhere from 25,000 to 200,000. We just don’t know. . . . Obviously no one wants to have widespread homelessness."
The governor’s plan provides some $171 million toward the effort, $100 million of that for the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program, $48.7 million for HomeBASE and other rapid rehousing programs for those who do get evicted, and $12 million for legal services and mediation services — to help tenants and landlords work out plans outside of the court system.
Housing advocates are grateful, but they also know that $100 million for the RAFT program won’t go far if the problem is as big as they believe it is.
In one recent study on the economic impact of the pandemic, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimated that “45,000 renter households will not have enough income remaining to cover the cost of both housing and basic needs.” That number, they noted, doesn’t include contract or seasonal workers or undocumented workers.
As Lewis Finfer, co-director of Massachusetts Communities Action Network, pointed out, “$100 million is a lot of money” but, with RAFT now providing up to $10,000 a year per renter, that would still cover only 10,000 to 12,000 people.
In a letter to the governor, the Citizens Housing and Planning Agency, which includes both housing advocates and landlords, pleaded for at least $175 million in new RAFT funding.
But the other big issue is simply time — time to get all the people in place who can help head off a tsunami of evictions by informing tenants of the program. Carey estimated it would take 30 to 45 days to get the housing specialists who will be an important part of the mediation process on board. Recalled judges will take less time, she said. Volunteer lawyers are being enlisted by the Boston Bar Association to help triage cases. The availability of already hard-pressed legal services lawyers to see them through is still an unknown factor, and so is the timing around when new evictions cases will make it to the courts.
There is nothing sacred about that Oct. 17 date by which the governor has chosen to end the eviction moratorium, especially now that a plan has been fleshed out to cope with its aftermath and the benefits of another short delay to get the program up and running outweigh concerns about renters getting further into debt. In fact, the parallel federal moratorium set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for tenants who meet its criteria doesn’t end until the end of this calendar year (which will protect some renters in the Commonwealth). Wouldn’t it make sense for the state and federal measures to end at the same time?
Whenever the moratorium ends, there will be the inevitable pain and confusion — but both could be mitigated by a good public education program, more money, and a little more ramp-up time. The governor could — and should — make that happen.
Correction: An earlier online version of this editorial stated that the governor extended the eviction moratorium multiple times. The text has been updated to indicate that the governor extended the eviction moratorium once, not multiple times.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.