New eviction cases in Massachusetts climbed to a high for the year last week, reinforcing fears of a wave of people being pushed from their homes even as a second surge of the COVID-19 pandemic worsens.
There were 743 cases filed in state housing courts last week, the most in any week in 2020, according to data posted by the court’s research division. It’s the second time in three weeks that filings have topped 700, with 578 filed in the shortened Thanksgiving week. In January and February, before the pandemic hit — and the state halted most eviction cases ― housing courts averaged about 600 new cases per week. Comparable numbers for this time last year were not available.
When courts reopened in October, housing advocates warned of a dramatic increase in eviction cases against renters who lost jobs during the pandemic. The Baker administration promised $171 million in rental aid, and some large Boston-area landlords have pledged not to file eviction cases for nonpayment until next year. Still, new filings have risen steadily as courts have returned to normal business, particularly in Hampden, Bristol, and Worcester counties.
It’s not clear how many of those cases were simply delayed while courts were closed, and how many were driven by job loss and other effectsof the pandemic. Eviction cases grew after local moratoriums ended in many cities tracked by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, though cases haven’t necessarily stayed at elevated levels — signaling that some cases were indeed delayed but the volume of filings returned to near normal once housing courts reopened.
Another factor is the federal ban on evictions, announced in September by the Centers for Disease Control. That rule prevents many renters from being removed from their homes through the end of December. While it allows new cases to be filed, the move may be deterring some landlords from starting the process.
Then there’s rental aid and other programs designed to prevent evictions. When Governor Charlie Baker ended the statewide moratorium in October, his administration and court officials announced a package of funding and procedures aimed at helping landlords and tenants avoid a court-ordered eviction. The centerpiece of that effort was new funding for the state’s Rental Assistance for Families in Transition program, or RAFT, which now provides as much as $10,000 to qualified individual tenants to make up for unpaid and back rent.
While the program has been dogged by processing delays, the state distributed nearly $17.8 million to more than 5,800 households from April through mid-November, and has set aside $10 million per month through the end of June. Metro Housing Boston, which administers the program in 29 cities and towns in the Boston area, said recently that it has hired 50 caseworkers since the end of October to help process applications faster.
Meanwhile the state budget that lawmakers sent to Baker last week includes $54.7 million for RAFT and $4.75 million for staffing at housing counseling centers, as well as provisions that would delay eviction proceedings if a tenant is seeking RAFT money and simplify the program’s complex application process.