An eviction and foreclosure crisis looms in Massachusetts.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s August eviction moratorium extension in areas of high coronavirus spread offered a temporary reprieve to this mounting catastrophe, though it was not automatic and applied only if a tenant was made aware and declared it.
Yet last month, the Supreme Court struck down the ban — weeks before the moratorium was expected to end. Without strong legislative action, this leaves renters and homeowners with federally backed mortgages vulnerable to eviction, foreclosure, and the Delta variant as they navigate burdensome rental and mortgage relief applications.
As a former intern at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, and volunteer at Lynn United for Change, I’ve guided renters through lengthy, complex rental assistance applications. I have been on the receiving end of desperate conversations with parents, students, and workers who are facing eviction and struggling to navigate relief programs. Each conversation I have with them harkens back to my own childhood in homelessness, informing my understanding of the urgency of this moment. For each incomplete or denied application, yet another person will be faced with an eviction or a foreclosure notice, a ticket to Housing Court, and, at worst, their belongings discarded on the curb like trash as they are removed from their home.
The federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program was designed to keep families in their homes during the COVID-19 recovery period. However, at the state and local level, the application process has been plagued with issues.
In Massachusetts, applicants must meet strict income and condition requirements. Advocates have shared stories with me in which landlords filed eviction cases despite knowing that their tenants had already completed rental assistance applications. This burdens tenants with a publicly accessible eviction record that can keep them from finding housing in the future. Others have waited months to hear about the status of their applications, leaving both tenants and landlords frustrated with increasing rental arrears. And still others have no knowledge of the available assistance at all. Despite the influx of funding, states have failed to allocate 89 percent of the billions of dollars in available rental assistance, according to the US Treasury Department, prompting the need for the initial extension of the moratorium.
While over 20,000 new eviction cases have been filed since last October in Massachusetts, only about 48 percent of rental assistance applications have been approved. Many applications have been “timed out” due to incomplete documentation or information, putting many at risk of unnecessary eviction. Each ERAP application requires proof of all overdue rental or utility arrearages as well as identifying information before it can even be processed — and sometimes the applicant is asked to produce the same documentation multiple times. Furthermore, it often uses vague language, such as “monthly stipend” to mean monthly income, without clarifying the intent. Amid the burdensome documentation requirements and confusing, often repetitive, application language, it’s no wonder that many tenants become lost in the process.
The Legislature should pass the COVID-19 housing equity bill to shield families in the short term from the trauma and long-term harm of an unnecessary eviction filing or foreclosure. This bill would ensure that landlords pursue and cooperate with rental assistance programs before filing an eviction, giving agencies more time to process applications. It would also require the state to implement guidance from the Treasury Department to reform and simplify the rental assistance application process, remedying the current lag in the distribution of relief funds.
Additionally, it would “protect the most vulnerable tenants from forced removal” for COVID-19 debts and “pause no-fault evictions during the COVID-19 recovery period.” The bill also offers safeguards to homeowners, reinstating a pause on foreclosures and requiring forbearance based on federal policies. These protections will allow more time for renters and homeowners to recover from the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Contrary to common depictions, an eviction or foreclosure is not a single event that forces people from their homes. The threat of displacement provokes a period of long-term stress, desperation, and trauma for individuals and families who seek help from inaccessible rental assistance programs and plead for mercy in Housing Court. Should they face their day in court, usually without representation, they leave with a court record, regardless of the outcome. The court system isn’t the solution to the growing eviction and foreclosure crisis.
Facing a worsening housing crisis, hastened by the recent elimination of the moratorium, the Legislature has a mandate to pass the COVID-19 housing equity bill to streamline existing rental relief programs, prevent eviction and foreclosure, and protect those most vulnerable across the state from the lifelong ramifications of the court system, poverty, and homelessness.
Timothy Scalona is a first-year law student at Suffolk University Law.