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‘A non-issue?’ Or ‘Very on edge?’ 5 things to know about the end of the eviction moratorium

Signs are placed on the steps of the State House as Homes for All Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, and allies gathered at the Massachusetts State House Friday to call for action to protect tenants from evictions.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s nationwide moratorium on evictions expired this weekend, closing out a policy enacted in September 2020 to keep people in their homes. The moratorium, intended to stop the spread of COVID-19, blocked landlords from evicting tenants who lost income during COVID and would be homeless or unstably housed if evicted. A stricter state moratorium, which prevented landlords from filing nearly any eviction case in Massachusetts housing courts, expired here in October.

Now even the looser federal protections have come to an end. Here’s what that could mean for tenants and their landlords alike:

1. The federal moratorium ends on July 31. But tenants still may be protected from eviction.

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The Massachusetts Legislature last year directed courts to pause eviction cases against tenants who had pending applications for state rental assistance. Even as the federal moratorium ends, that protection will remain. The courts also attempted to slow the eviction process by diverting tenants and their landlords to mediation.

“The end of the moratorium does not mean ... that if you’re behind on rent, you need to move out immediately,” said Mike Leyba, codirector of the tenants rights group City Life/Vida Urbana, which runs a hotline for people facing eviction. “In Massachusetts, only a judge can evict you.”

2. Advocates predicted a ‘tsunami’ of evictions. Federal aid and state law have so far staved it off.

Last spring and summer, advocates feared a crisis of evictions that might lead to spiking homelessness and housing instability in Greater Boston. Increased unemployment benefits, the state’s strict eviction moratorium, and $900 million in federal housing aid coming to Massachusetts has largely prevented that from playing out. The number of executions — the final step in many evictions when people are actually ordered to leave their homes — issued in 2020 dropped to 4,600, compared to 17,000 in 2019.

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But housing attorneys say that number doesn’t capture the full picture because many people move out before they reach that final stage. Since the state’s eviction moratorium expired in October, nearly 19,000 new cases have been filed, according to court data through mid-July.

“If we’re talking about true diversion, and we got this tremendous amount of federal funding, that shouldn’t be happening,” said Andrea Park, a housing attorney at the Mass Law Reform Institute.

3. The public health threat posed by evictions is not over yet.

The CDC moratorium was intended to halt the spread of COVID by keeping people in their homes. Evictions often lead to people doubling up with friends or relatives, precisely what public health officials hoped to avoid — noting that overcrowded housing emerged as a significant factor in the spread of the virus last year.

That idea was backed up by a recent UCLA Fielding School of Public Health study on state eviction moratoriums, which found that when such policies expired between March and September 2020, COVID-19 incidence and mortality increased.

The researchers estimated that expiring eviction moratoriums led to 433,700 excess cases and 10,700 excess deaths during that time period.

4. There are huge sums available in rental aid, but it can be difficult for the most vulnerable to access.

Massachusetts received roughly $900 million in federal aid, Park said, with no dollar cap on how much an individual renter and their landlord can receive. Since March 2020, the state has distributed over $215 million in rental relief to over 33,000 households, according to Stefanie Cox, executive director of the Regional Housing Network of Massachusetts, which represents the agencies that run rental assistance programs. In June, the state further ramped up the distribution of those federal funds.

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That means the situation in Massachusetts may look different than elsewhere in the country.

“I’m hoping that in Massachusetts, the lapse of the CDC moratorium will be a non-issue,” said Doug Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords, noting the high level of aid available.

But the most vulnerable tenants — those who are doubled-up, don’t speak or read English, or don’t own a computer — still have trouble accessing the aid, advocates said.

“The extent to which anyone suddenly gets evicted in August here is the extent to which our safety net has failed,” Quattrochi said. “You’re supposed to be getting the rental assistance out to people.”

5. How many people are at risk of eviction next month? We don’t know.

The most recent Census survey found that roughly 116,000 adults in Massachusetts are not current on rent or mortgage payments and “have slight or no confidence that their household can pay next month’s rent or mortgage on time.” That’s about 4 percent of adults in the state, far below the 12 percent who are behind on rent in Mississippi and South Carolina.

But tenants, landlords, and experts are not sure exactly how many people will be at risk of eviction when the moratorium expires.

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“I see time and time again that people are just really scared,” said Leyba of City Life. “They’re very on edge.”