Tanya DiStefano gave birth to a baby boy on Halloween. She returned home from the hospital to find an eviction notice on her doorstep.
“Rent in arrears,” it read in part. “Total $800.”
It’s been a tough year for DiStefano. She has a state subsidy to help pay the $1,250 monthly rent on a three-bedroom apartment in the Worcester County town of Spencer, but still has to come up with about $400 out of her own pocket. A roommate who shared the load lost two restaurant jobs in the spring and moved out. DiStefano said she can’t work because her older son, a kindergartner, is home from school. Now this.
“It was very terrifying,” she said. “You have a newborn baby. I don’t have the money for November. It caught up with me.”
On Monday, DiStefano’s landlord filed an eviction case against her in Central Housing Court in Worcester.
It’s one of several places around Massachusetts where new cases have piled up quickly since the state ended its eviction moratorium in October. Like the counties that are home to Springfield and Fall River, Worcester County has seen far more filings, per capita, than Suffolk County — dominated by Boston — or suburban locales such as Middlesex and Norfolk Counties.
It’s a trend that appears to highlight yet another way the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting hardest in places that were struggling before the health crisis, and could further exacerbate longtime divisions in the state’s economy and housing market.
“This is not a coincidence,” said Andrea Park, a housing attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “These are places with a lot of vulnerable people. They work service jobs. Maybe they don’t speak English. They’re dealing with a lot.”
In the seven weeks since housing courts reopened, new eviction filings have climbed quickly, despite a federal ban that still prevents many evictions from being finalized. The week of Nov. 30, the most recent available in court data, saw more new cases than any week yet this year. But some parts of the state are seeing far more than others, according to a Globe analysis of state court data.
In Bristol and Worcester counties more than twice as many cases have been filed on a per capita basis than in Middlesex County, which includes some of the state’s most affluent suburbs, but also cities such as Lowell, Everett, and Framingham. The county with the highest rate of new cases is Hampden — where Springfield and Holyoke rank among Massachusetts’ poorest cities — with 7.9 filings for every 10,000 residents. That’s compared with 3.2 in Suffolk County. In January and February, the two counties had roughly equal eviction rates.
Why the shift? Theories abound.
Joe Kriesberg, CEO of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, said the relatively low rate in Suffolk County could be because Boston has an unusually high share of public and other formally-subsidized housing — 19 percent of the city’s housing stock in 2017, according to state data, compared with 13 percent in Worcester and 11 percent in Fall River. Many of those tenants’ rents are covered — at least in part — by state or federal programs. In addition, many large affordable housing providers, such as the Boston Housing Authority, pledged to halt evictions during the pandemic.
Those pledges have spread to for-profit landlords as well, particularly in Boston, where Mayor Martin J. Walsh convinced 33 landlords — including some of the city’s most prominent market-rate developers — to promise they won’t evict anyone for nonpayment at least through year’s end. While some affordable-housing operators have signed on to a similar statewide agreement engineered by Governor Charlie Baker, advocates say they know of no comparable pledges in cities beyond the core of Greater Boston.
Another factor in the differing eviction rates could be the uneven rental market. Rents have fallen sharply in Boston this year, but continue to climb in some less-expensive cities that don’t rely on college students who may have stayed home this school year instead of renting apartments close to campus in the city. If building owners believe an apartment can be filled quickly, they may move faster to evict a tenant struggling to keep up with payments, said Doug Quattrochi, executive director of Mass Landlords. By contrast, a soft market where vacancies might linger could inspire flexibility on the part of landlords.
“Think about it from a landlord’s perspective,” he said. “If rents in Worcester are going up, presumably there are other tenants out there. Whereas in Boston and Cambridge, there are lots of vacancies and the big landlords are giving good concessions to fill apartments. It’s harder.”
But much of it boils down to economics. The state’s outlying cities tend to be poorer, with fewer resources to fend off evictions than Boston, which has doled out $4.4 million in rental aid since the spring. In some cities, such as Brockton and Lawrence, people moved in seeking lower rents than in Boston but still commuted to the big city for work. Now jobs, particularly service-industry jobs in hotels and restaurants, have evaporated.
“This lines up with everything we’re seeing about the pandemic,” said Rachel Heller, executive director of the housing advocacy group CHAPA. “It’s having a disproportionate impact on people with low incomes, people of color, people who work essential jobs. And they are the same people who have struggled to afford housing.”
That is what’s happening in Springfield, where the unemployment rate in October was 11.9 percent, second only to Lawrence among Massachusetts cities and towns. Rose Webster-Smith, lead organizer with the tenants rights group Springfield No One Leaves, said pervasive joblessness, along with backlogs for state rental aid, have led to a steep rise in evictions. Some landlords are refusing to accept state rental assistance, she said, emptying units with no plans to fill them any time soon.
“The job market is so bad out there,” Webster-Smith said. “There are some landlords, they’d rather see the apartment vacant than agree to take a tenant who might not be able to pay again for six months.”
That puts renters such as DiStefano in a tough spot. This is the third time in 14 months that her landlord — Josh Dada, who owns 17 apartments in Spencer — has filed an eviction case against her, according to Housing Court records. The previous two were resolved, with the help of a short-term state subsidy and the roommate’s rent contribution, and Dada said he’s confident this one will be, too.
“There’s plenty of money out there for tenants,” he said Friday. “She’s not going to get evicted. This is just to help her go out and get the money to help her pay her rent.”
DiStefano’s not so confident. She’s fighting the case in court, with the help of Community Legal Aid. But her state subsidy is about to run out. Her baby is still in the hospital, and medical bills are mounting. If she does get evicted, where is she supposed to go?
“It would be very irresponsible to put me and my two sons into a shelter,” she said. “He’s a newborn.”