A Boston-based company that is the nation’s largest operator of affordable housing will launch a program aimed at sharply reducing evictions during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
WinnCompanies, which owns and manages about 61,000 apartments in 16 states — including Massachusetts — said Thursday that it wants to cut evictions in its portfolio by 25 percent this year, and by half over five years. It’s a plan the company began crafting even before widespread job loss triggered by the public health crisis put millions of renters at risk of losing their apartments, said CEO Gilbert Winn. The plan has become even more important, he said, as warnings mount about what might happen in the months to come.
“The eviction crisis and the unaffordability of rent nationwide is only going to get worse as this recession continues,” Winn said. “This isn’t just one company’s solution to a pending tsunami. Hopefully, it’s something that leads to a sea change in the way tenants and landlords interact.”
Winn’s program — which is being rolled out this winter across the roughly 600 apartment complexes the company owns or manages — centers on cooperating with tenants who fall behind on their rent, rather than moving quickly to evict them.
The company is training staff to help residents apply for often-complex state and local rent relief programs — such as Massachusetts’ Residential Assistance for Families in Transition — that are being expanded to help tenants cope with the pandemic but have struggled to meet demand. Winn is also giving new instructions to the eviction attorneys it works with at the state level: Rather than taking tenants to court as a matter of course, they should work first to find alternatives and rental aid.
“For eviction [attorneys], success is the number of evictions. They’re trying to win,” said Trevor Samios, a Winn executive who’s leading the effort. “We’re trying to turn that around to focus on prevention of eviction cases in the first place.”
It’s a reflection of the fact that evictions can be devastating for tenants, Samios said, not just upending their lives but also often making it harder for them to find a new apartment once an eviction filing is on their record. They’re not a great deal for landlords either, he added, noting the average eviction costs Winn anywhere from $2,500 to $8,000 in legal costs and lost rent. In the three years before the pandemic, Samios said, the company launched about 350 eviction cases a year for nonpayment just in Boston, about 115 of which resulted in people being removed from their home.
“Our goal is to take that 115 and cut it in half,” he said.
Winn is one of a number of major landlords in Boston that have made pledges not to evict tenants for nonpayment during the pandemic, and stayed the course even after Massachusetts’ eviction moratorium ended in October. Roughly 7,000 new eviction cases have been filed in Massachusetts since the moratorium ended, according to state Housing Court data, though filings have tailed off in recent weeks and are running behind January 2020.
Last week, President Biden extended a federal rule blocking most evictions through the end of March, and the COVID stimulus bill signed into law in December included $25 billion in rental relief funds, about $500 million of which will make its way to Massachusetts. States and cities are beefing up relief programs, too.
Those steps will help, Samios said, though he notes that every program is a little different. The complications highlight how easy it can be for vulnerable renters to fall through the holes in an overstressed safety net.
“COVID has just exposed so many weaknesses and inequities in the system,” he said. “But I think it has also created an environment, for us at least, where cities and developers and residents can figure out how to make it better.”