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OPINION

The impending eviction crisis will inflict trauma on another generation if leaders fail to act

Both the state and federal government must act now to protect those at risk of losing their homes.

Tom Baker/stock.adobe.com

The 14-day notice to quit — the first step in the eviction process — was slipped under my family’s apartment door just two days after Governor Baker’s eviction moratorium ended, Oct. 17.

Eight years ago, there was a knock on our front door. It was the sheriff, holding a foreclosure notice for our home in Wilmington. I was 14. I watched the movers pack my childhood into cardboard boxes, each memory locked away in a moving truck. Unable to bring all our belongings, we left behind a sea of photo albums, furniture, and toys. Together with my six younger siblings and parents, we drove to the local Market Basket parking lot. Some of my siblings cried, others fell into sleep; two threw a football outside the car. While the parking lot bustled with activity, my parents frantically searched for emergency shelter options on their phones. Adding insult to injury, other families left the grocery store with carts full of food; my siblings complained about food items my parents refused to buy as our Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds dwindled.

Over the following five years, we moved frequently between hotels, some provided by the state to house homeless families under the Emergency Assistance program, with nothing more than backpacks to carry our belongings. We lived in single hotel rooms with two beds, a microwave, and a mini-refrigerator. I survived on turkey and gravy sandwiches, canned ravioli, and microwavable chicken potpies, for lack of a stove. We faced discrimination from hotel staff and lived in units segregated from paying guests. Nothing was permanent.

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Homelessness inflicts unseen scars on its survivors. Separated from our community, I didn’t tell a soul in my high school about my family’s situation. While I feared where my family would live or what we would eat, other students talked about after-school hangouts, vacation destinations, and upcoming essay deadlines. Forced to toe the line between homelessness and my home community, I was reminded every day, by the peaceful lives of my classmates, of the life that was robbed from my family.

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Although the state ended the eviction moratorium on Oct. 17, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order protects renters from eviction for nonpayment of rent until Dec. 31. But many will be threatened with homelessness in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. As winter approaches, the impending onslaught of eviction filings will displace individuals and families in conditions where the spread of COVID-19 is amplified. A recent Metropolitan Area Planning Council report found an estimated 60,000 renters in Massachusetts fear “imminent eviction,” and nearly 1 in 6 are behind on rent payments. Unaffordable housing costs, coupled with a rental vacancy rate of only 3.6 percent in 2019, will limit housing access for people on the edge.

A flurry of bills meant to protect renters is being considered in the Legislature, including the COVID-19 Housing Stability Act. This bill bans evictions and foreclosures due to nonpayment of rent or mortgage payments for 12 months following the state of emergency. In addition, Baker has unveiled a plan to funnel $171 million into a rental relief program that would allow families at risk of homelessness access to $10,000 in emergency rental assistance. But his plan allocates $100 million to the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program, a number far below the $215 million that advocates have requested.

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The application process for rent relief requires excessive documentation requirements for household members, including photo IDs, birth certificates, proof of income, proof of housing, and more. Some families lack these documents or need to sift through their apartment or storage units to obtain them, delaying the application time and bringing them closer to eviction. Moreover, the application takes weeks to process, increasingly putting families at risk of eviction. The program provides funding for emergency rental assistance and rapid rehousing programs without considering the detrimental effects of eviction, access barriers to RAFT, and the limited affordable housing capacity in the state.

With the CDC order, tenants must notify their landlord by written declaration and must meet certain qualifying income requirements. These restrictive conditions will reduce access for low-income tenants who do not meet the criteria or send written documentation to their landlord. Neither Baker’s program nor the federal eviction moratorium adequately keeps individuals or families in shelter. Many will be forced into overcrowded conditions as a result of mass evictions, exacerbating the spread of COVID-19 to communities already disproportionately burdened by the coronavirus. The Legislature must pass the Housing Stability Act to prevent a wave of winter evictions. Looking beyond the moratorium, policy makers must expand rental relief or cancel rent entirely for households that are accruing months of missed rental payments due to the coronavirus.

My family is now one of many facing displacement and the often-inescapable cycle of generational poverty. The trauma of losing our home has never left me. As I prepare to graduate from UMass with a master’s degree, I live in fear of where I will go. It’s a fate I don’t wish on others. Each day that passes without action has the potential to destroy lives, subjecting economically struggling Americans to trauma, poverty, and a deadly pandemic that has already taken more than 242,000 lives in the United States. State leaders and the federal government must act now to protect those at risk of losing their homes. If they choose not to, they will inflict irreparable harm on another generation of impoverished and working-class communities.

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Timothy Scalona is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.