Amid deep grief, Deborah Ramirez has been devoting a lot of effort to a surprising topic: the looming crisis in evictions.
It was a topic near and dear to her husband, Ralph Gants. The chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court was hard at work on a solution when he died unexpectedly last month after a heart procedure.
“The day that he died, it was a Monday, he had eaten breakfast on the deck and said I have to do some work on the eviction crisis,” Ramirez said last week.
“He said he thought it was the largest civil rights, racial justice, and public health crisis that he had seen in his lifetime,” Ramirez said.
As the overseer of the state’s court system, Gants had some authority over the eviction process. His concern was for the low-income tenants who would be at risk of losing shelter. They were the people Gants believed courts should help.
“He felt that hundreds of thousands of people were about to lose their homes,” said Ramirez, a law professor at Northeastern. “And he knew how hard it would be, if all these families became homeless, to get back on track. As many scholars have noted, eviction is not a symptom of poverty — it causes poverty.”
Ramirez had been working with a group of attorney and tenant advocates to persuade lawmakers to keep an eviction moratorium in place. Time is of the essence: Governor Charlie Baker chose last week not to extend the existing moratorium, though he has the authority to re-impose it.
The day Gants feared may be close at hand.
Baker’s decision to not extend the state’s eviction moratorium — which effectively ends when the courts open on Monday — figures to place thousands of tenants across Massachusetts at imminent risk.
To his credit, the governor’s plan adds $100 million to the state’s main rental-relief program and calls for some state services to be at the disposal of tenants, such as expanded mediation and counseling services. But advocates and lawmakers say those plans only exist on paper, at this point. The personnel and resources to make them real will take weeks, if not months, to put into effect.
That is time that, as of Monday, tenants may not have.
When the moratorium first went into effect in April, there were an estimated 10,000 eviction cases placed on hold. Those will now become active, along with thousands of new cases filed against tenants who have fallen behind since then.
Tenants can go to court to fight evictions, or to try to work out a deal with their landlords. But advocates say that about a quarter of them don’t bother to appear in court; with no resources to bargain with, they simply move in with whomever will take them.
That’s an especially perilous prospect right now, as Ramirez said.
“In the middle of a pandemic, as we’re hitting Code Red, if all these people hit the streets to go into public housing, homeless shelters, or to crowd into already crowded apartments, we are going to see all of us suffer with transmission rates that are too high,” she said.
There’s a bill pending in the Legislature that could address this. Co-sponsored by Representative Kevin Honan and Senator Pat Jehlen, it would extend the moratorium for one year. Honan told me the time frame is negotiable; the point is to slow down this train, at least until the end of the year.
Baker has shown genuine concern for the crisis. He has pledged the substantial new funds for a state program that gives money to tenants in the eviction process, funds that advocates and mediators can use to help strike a deal to keep people in their housing. Baker has also pledged to hire administrators to help handle the onslaught of requests that is clearly coming.
But none of those commitments can be fulfilled in a week or two. Tenants also have to know what’s available to them, and that education process takes some time as well.
“The bill we are backing extends it a year, but even three months would allow it to be in place,” said Lew Finfer, longtime activist and co-director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network.
The moratorium cannot be lifted until all of that is in place, not just promised.
Among the worst consequences of COVID is the havoc it has wreaked on those least able to absorb it. Lifting the moratorium now will have terrible consequences for poor people, and for public health. Baker can extend it immediately, and he should.
Because, as Ralph Gants saw clearly, this is a matter of justice. This is a moment when people in need look to government.
“He tried as hard as he could to ring the bell; then his heart gave out,” Ramirez said. “Many of us are picking up the baton and trying to finish what he could not finish.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the first name of Representative Kevin Honan.