Warning of a wave of forthcoming displacement, housing advocates stepped up pressure on state lawmakers Thursday to strengthen protections for renters at risk of eviction, arguing that a recently extended federal eviction moratorium does not go far enough.
At a hearing before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing, a coalition of advocates and progressive lawmakers pushed for a bill that would make it harder for landlords to evict someone, and bar no-fault evictions through next June, 12 months after Massachusetts ended its COVID-19 state of emergency.
“The emergency is not over,” said state Senator Patricia D. Jehlen, a Democrat who introduced a Senate version of the bill. “People are at imminent risk of losing their homes. It’s very dangerous for individuals, for families and for public health for the people to become homeless, especially right now.”
Jehlen’s bill, along with a similar House version, would require landlords to use the state’s rental assistance program before moving to evict a tenant. The bills, which have been backed by more than 80 lawmakers, would also temporarily halt foreclosures of homeowners who fall behind on their mortgage.
At a hearing Thursday, landlord organizations voiced opposition to the measure, arguing that it would adversely affect small landlords — many of whom have lost rental income and have mortgages of their own to pay.
“Thus far during the pandemic, property owners who are housing providers have had to shoulder the burdens of running and maintaining and repairing their properties, without rental income coming in,” said Amir Shahsavari, vice president of the Massachusetts Small Property Owners Association, which he said has concerns about the bill.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control renewed a just-expired federal eviction moratorium for another two months, citing the surge in COVID-19 cases brought on by the Delta variant. It applies in counties with elevated COVID case rates, which currently includes most of the United States and all but one county in Massachusetts.
Advocates say that ban, which is set to expire in early October, is far from enough. New eviction cases can still be filed, just not finalized; tying the moratorium to COVID case numbers means it could end at any time; and opponents have vowed to sue, setting up a potential legal fight before a Supreme Court that only narrowly upheld the previous CDC moratorium earlier this year.
Massachusetts, they said, would be better off stipulating its own additional protections.
The bill the Housing Committee is considering would block evictions in cases where tenants could demonstrate that they couldn’t pay rent because of the pandemic, and would be homeless if evicted. It would also protect tenants who could show COVID-related hardship and live with a minor, handicapped person, person over the age of 60, or someone at increased risk of COVID.
Jehlen, who serves as vice-chair of the joint housing committee, said she was “very encouraged” that the committee is holding an August hearing on the bill, saying that it signaled a willingness to move forward on the issue.
In a statement, a spokesperson for House Speaker Ronald Mariano pointed to hundreds of millions of dollars the Legislature has allocated to rental relief and other housing programs, and a measure that bars eviction of tenants who have a pending application for rental assistance.
“The Speaker’s office is working with House Members to better understand the policy obstacles that people face when accessing assistance, and looks forward to continuing that work as the bill goes through the legislative process,” the spokesperson, Ana Vivas, wrote.
A state eviction moratorium, which was broader than the CDC’s and blocked nearly all eviction cases from even being filed, expired in October 2020. Since then, the Baker administration has focused on expanding rent relief programs, pumping state and, more recently, federal money into rental aid programs and encouraging mediation, instead of eviction, when cases to come to court.
Baker’s rent relief effort struggled to meet demand last fall after the state moratorium ended, but has quickly accelerated in recent months. As of the end of July, according to state figures, the state has distributed $225 million in rental aid to more than 35,000 households and their landlords, with the vast majority of that money coming since March.
New eviction cases, too, have been relatively few, with roughly 200 per week filed in state Housing Courts in recent months, according to courts data. That’s about one-third as many as during a typical week before the pandemic. Advocates worry that the end of the CDC moratorium could lead landlords back to court to push out tenants who can’t pay, even COVID-19 cases tied to the Delta variant’s surge across Massachusetts.
“Action needs to be taken now to build our existing pandemic-related housing policies, ensure we are protecting our most vulnerable communities from the catastrophic effect a surge in evictions will cause,” Representative Kevin G. Honan, a Brighton Democrat who is a former longtime cochair of the Housing Committee, said Thursday.