Boston on Tuesday became the latest city to ban evictions during the pandemic, following last week’s Supreme Court decision that overturned a nationwide eviction moratorium. But critics — including some landlords, attorneys, and real estate industry groups ― say the moratoriums are legally dubious and distract from efforts to funnel rental aid to tenants and landlords.
Even housing advocates acknowledge that local bans, which were already in effect in Malden and Somerville, are a stopgap measure at best. They are calling for a more effective system of providing rent relief and legal aid, as well as legislative action to avert a wave of evictions that by one estimate could push 750,000 families nationwide from their homes in the coming months.
Local bans “have been very effective at preventing displacement,” said Andrea Park, staff attorney at the Mass Law Reform Institute. But, “the problem with local actions is that they are obviously not a comprehensive solution and leave many people unprotected.”
The Supreme Court struck down the recent extension of a year-long federal moratorium, leading the Biden administration to urge cities to implement their own bans.
After prompting from a rival in the Boston mayoral race, Acting Mayor Kim Janey imposed a moratorium, citing the risk that evictions might increase the surge of COVID-19 cases in the city. Somerville and Malden used the same public health rationale, as did Cambridge and, briefly, Framingham, until those cities lifted their COVID-19 health emergencies earlier this summer.
The experience of those cities shows the potential and the limits of local eviction bans in Massachusetts, where the process of removing a tenant from an apartment is handled through the court system. The moratoriums do not stop courts from approving a request for eviction; instead they try to prevent the last stage of many evictions: when a constable or sheriff knocks on a tenant’s door.
That doesn’t offer protection to tenants who believe they have to leave their home if they receive notice of an impending eviction proceeding, even though it is not the final step in the process. And even if tenants are able to remain in their homes during the moratorium, they still end up with an eviction on their record, which could make it more difficult to find housing in the future, advocates say. That’s why intervening before the end of an eviction case is so important, according to officials in Malden and Somerville.
“This is really pivotal,” said Ellen Shachter, who heads Somerville’s Office of Housing Stability. “It has to be part of an overall strategy.”
A patchwork of local approaches to stemming evictions has also meant confusion for tenants, landlords, and those who carry out court orders to evict.
As a constable in Malden, Medford, and Somerville, it’s Alan Bishop’s job to move tenants out of their home after a court finalizes an eviction. Currently, Bishop said, Somerville District Court does not appear to be releasing eviction judgments, while Malden District Court is. Bishop said he often has to tell landlords of properties in Malden that he cannot carry out most evictions under that city’s moratorium.
Landlords “will call us and say, ‘When can we do it?’ ” Bishop said. “When the [federal] moratorium expired, they automatically thought they could do it.”
Before the pandemic, Bishop carried out roughly 25 residential evictions in a typical year. Since March 2020, he has done only two, and both involved matters of public safety, as allowed under the moratorium.
A spokeswoman for the state judiciary on Wednesday said those courts that handle eviction cases are “developing guidance for clerks and judges on the issue of what effect, if any, local ordinances have on the work of the courts.”
The local moratoriums are rooted in Massachusetts regulations that grant communities emergency powers — such as closing businesses and halting construction projects — to protect public health. There are multiple studies showing that evictions increase COVID-19 cases, including a recent one from MIT that found that ending a state-level eviction moratorium increases the likelihood of people contracting the virus, even among those who did not lose their housing. The federal moratorium, first enacted by former president Donald Trump through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also had a public health rationale behind it.
Richard Vetstein, a Framingham-based attorney for landlords, predicted Boston’s ban could quickly go the way of the federal moratorium — overturned by judges who consider it an overreach of executive authority.
“The Health Commission has very limited jurisdiction to deal with medical and science-based mitigation, not to shut down Boston housing court,” said Vetstein, who added that landlord groups are already discussing lawsuits. “There’s no authority here. It’s just purely political and toothless.”
Vetstein made similar arguments in a suit he filed last year on behalf of landlords challenging the statewide eviction moratorium. The federal judge overseeing that case signaled concerns with the ban, but Governor Charlie Baker let it expire before the judge ruled in the case.
The Janey administration, as well as officials in Malden and Somerville, acknowledge the legal questions, but say the ban is justified because of the pandemic. They also agree the ban by itself won’t be enough to solve the problem.
It’s just one of many tools Somerville employs to prevent evictions, said Shachter, pointing to rental relief funds, counseling, and outreach, particularly in immigrant and non-English speaking communities.
Since Somerville’s moratorium took effect in March 2020, only five eviction cases for nonpayment have made it all the way through the legal process, according to state courts data, and no one has actually been put out on the street, Shachter said. The city says it will levy a $300 per day fine on landlords who evict tenants in violation of the ban, which runs through mid-September. The Board of Health is considering an extension.
Malden has similarly poured money into preventing evictions, providing legal aid to tenants, working with nonprofit organizations to educate tenants and landlords, negotiating with large property owners, and using federal COVID-19 aid to fund a city rent relief effort.
“Very few legal evictions have been carried out,” said Alex Pratt, community development director at the Malden Redevelopment Authority, who is leading the city’s efforts. But still, Pratt said, the city can only do so much. “Frankly, it’s on the state government to pass a law, and now it’s on Congress to pass a law.”
So far, however, there has been little movement in Congress.
On Beacon Hill, lawmakers are considering legislation that would stop short of a full moratorium, but would strengthen tenant protections and require landlords to seek rental aid before filing for eviction. Advocates came out in force for a committee hearing on the bill last month, and are hoping it moves forward in September.
Given that Massachusetts has 351 municipalities, it makes more sense to address evictions at a statewide level than to deal with them city-by-city, town-by-town, said Mike Leyba, codirector of Boston-based tenant advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana. And a statewide law, he noted, would more likely stand up to legal challenge than local orders.
“It’s been good to see [cities] institute their own moratoria. It’s a good thing they’re trying to be supportive and helpful,” he said. “I just don’t think that’s the way we’re going to get out of this.”