With Massachusetts housing courts set to reopen next week, a growing chorus of state and local officials are urging Governor Charlie Baker to extend the state’s strict ban on evictions, at least until eviction-prevention measures Baker rolled out on Monday are fully up and running.
Attorney General Maura Healey on Friday became the latest to call for an extension, saying the $171 million plan Baker set up to blunt a feared wave of evictions is a good step, but won’t be ready in time to help struggling tenants when courts around the state reopen starting Monday.
“We need the time to do this right,” Healey said in a statement. “Too much is at stake when it comes to the health and safety of our residents.”
The process of hearing and ruling on eviction cases in Massachusetts has been effectively frozen since March, first because courts were closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and then, since April, because of an emergency state law halting nearly all evictions. That measure expires Saturday and, while Baker could extend it, he has said he won’t, instead announcing a package of rent relief and new programs he said should fend off many evictions while allowing the courts to function.
But, pointing to studies by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council that suggest 45,000 laid-off Massachusetts residents could struggle to pay rent in October alone, many housing advocates say that Baker’s $100 million in rent relief — about $35 million of which had previously been announced — will fall far short of what’s needed.
And they’re concerned that other programs — legal aid, housing counseling, mediation between tenants and landlords — won’t be in place before Monday.
The Baker administration, though, is pressing ahead. The governor on Tuesday said extending the moratorium would amount to “letting the problem fester.”
“The longer the moratorium stayed in place, the bigger the hole people would have to work themselves out of,” he said.
So now eviction cases will move forward, though no one’s yet quite sure how many. Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey said the courts expect anywhere from 25,000 to 200,000 cases in the coming months. Prior to the pandemic, state housing courts averaged about 3,300 cases per month, so that would be a big increase. But just how big remains to be seen.
The moratorium froze 11,553 pending cases, according to state court data. Those will resume first, with hearing notices starting to be sent out Monday, and won’t be eligible for some of the new protections Baker announced this week. New cases will move forward more slowly, with at least two extra weeks built into the process to give tenants and landlords time to seek aid and try to reach a settlement. Beyond that, eviction rates will depend on a range of factors, from the economy, to how aggressive landlords choose to be over unpaid rent, to the success of rent relief programs, counseling and legal help and mediation that the Baker administration is rolling out.
There’s also a federal ban on evictions for many tenants that runs through the end of the year, though housing advocates warn it is far less comprehensive than the Massachusetts ban that ends this week, and puts more of the onus on tenants to demonstrate why they need protection.
Meanwhile, activists are looking to the Legislature for help.
A bill that would block evictions for 12 months and set up a rent relief fund to help tenants and landlords received a favorable recommendation from the Legislature’s Joint Housing Committee, but its path forward remains unclear. Housing groups have held several big rallies this week urging its passage, including a march Thursday from the Edward Brooke Courthouse downtown — where Boston Housing Court is held — to the State House atop Beacon Hill.
If the bill remains stalled and the courts open up and people start being pushed from their homes, said Steve Meacham, coordinator of organizing at tenants group City Life/Vida Urbana, those protestors will shift their focus again, and do what they must to help people in the streets.
“If lawmakers fail to protect us, we’re preparing to resist evictions collectively,” Meacham said. “If they make it our only choice.”
Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report.