The City of Boston on Wednesday appealed a judge’s decision knocking down a local eviction moratorium, saying that opening the floodgates to evictions amid the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic “would be disastrous.”
The city’s move comes after a housing court judge on Monday struck down the citywide eviction moratorium declared by then-Acting Mayor Kim Janey earlier this year. In a filing Wednesday, attorneys representing the city asked the court to grant a stay of all pending evictions while the appeal is ongoing.
“At a time when there is a rise in COVID-19 cases, and with the discovery of . . . new, more virulent, variants of the disease, the Defendants have a legal obligation to ensure its citizens are safe,” read the filing.
The city’s motion continued, “A resurge of evictions could potentially impact hundreds of renters who would be forced to either double up with family members or move into congregate shelter settings, thus increasing the risk of spreading infection.”
The decision to overturn the eviction moratorium came in response to a lawsuit filed by a Boston landlord and a constable. Judge Irene Bagdoian said the city had overstepped its public health emergency powers when the Janey administration in late August announced a blanket ban on enforcing evictions due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Janey’s move — which blocked enforcement of court-approved evictions in Boston — came in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling overturning a similar federal ban and in the heat of this fall’s mayoral race when Janey’s rivals were urging her to do more to protect vulnerable tenants. Since the start of the pandemic, housing advocates have argued that eviction bans protect public health by keeping people in their homes and out of crowded apartments where disease can more easily spread.
The legal wrangling is sparking anxiety for residents for whom the eviction ban has meant stability. Among them is Veronica Watson, who currently faces eviction from her Mattapan home, which she said could happen any day now. Her landlord, Janet Avila, was a plaintiff in the suit challenging the city’s eviction moratorium. Watson said she was disappointed in the judge’s order, saying, “Wintertime is not the right time to displace families.”
”I’m trying not to give up but I do feel like giving up because I’m losing hope in the system,” she said in an interview Tuesday before the city filed its appeal.
She said she lost her job as an administrative assistant in the fall of 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, and fell into a state of “chronic depression.” She is currently unemployed, and her unemployment benefits ended in September; she said her health complications mean she is high-risk should she contract COVID-19. Her age — 57 — means that she does not meet the threshold for elderly housing. With the moratorium gone, she would like to see public authorities create alternatives for those facing eviction.
Watson said she did not think local homeless shelters could absorb a wave of freshly evicted residents. People getting kicked out of their homes onto the street could also exacerbate the ongoing public health crisis of the pandemic, she said.
She hopes the judge’s order is overturned on appeal. Too many families, she said, will be affected by that decision.
“Who wants children on the street when they’re thinking about Christmas and Santa Claus and good times,” said Watson, who is a mother of two adult-aged children.
On Wednesday, Jordana Greenman, an attorney representing Watson’s landlord, Avila, said eviction proceedings for Watson first began in 2018 and that she “has never carried a zero balance” in rent since 2007. Greenman thought owner-occupant landlords such as her client, an 81-year-old woman with a handicap who lives in the same building as Watson, were hurt by the moratorium. Some face the possibility of losing their homes, she said.
“This is hard for small landlords,” Greenman said.
Gary Klein, director for the Covid Eviction Legal Help Project for Greater Boston Legal Services, did not think it was appropriate for the courts to substitute their judgment for that of public health experts when it comes to the pandemic.
“I think it’s very important that the appellate court take a fresh look at the public health commission’s authority,” he said.
Given the current abundance of rental assistance, Klein thought that landlords were shooting themselves in the foot if they’re not accepting such aid as payment.
“If they’re being economically harmed by delay, it’s their own fault,” he said.
Meanwhile, Douglas Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords, a nonprofit that represents more than 2,400 landlords in the state, said such an assessment is “grossly unfair.” Distribution of rental assistance is riddled with bureaucratic problems, making for delays, he said. If a landlord refuses rental assistance, they open themselves up to a discrimination lawsuit, he said.
“They’re going to get their pants sued off,” he said.
He did not find it “the least bit surprising” that a judge ruled against the city’s moratorium.
“Boston didn’t have the legal authority to effect a moratorium,” he said, adding that he does not believe that a moratorium fixes anything.
“We don’t want to evict our customers, we want to continue to provide housing,” he said.
Any appeal of that decision, he said, was a political maneuver intended to discourage landlords from executing evictions.
Greenman, the attorney who is representing a plaintiff in the suit challenging the moratorium, called Wednesday’s appeal “more political gamesmanship,” saying the judge’s order from earlier this week was “legally extremely sound.”
“I’m extremely confident that we will succeed,” she said.
Tim Logan of Globe staff and Globe correspondent Nick Stoico contributed to this report.