Massachusetts House leaders will attempt to revive and make permanent a pandemic-era renter protection law, which would bar landlords from evicting financially struggling tenants who have applied for rental assistance.
The proposal, which Democratic leaders will fold into the House’s annual budget plan they intend to unveil Wednesday, would add to a list of policy changes that lawmakers first embraced during the depths of COVID-19 and have since moved to extend — in some cases, forever — even as other vestiges of the pandemic fall away.
The emergence of the eviction protection measure, however, is unexpected. The Legislature allowed the original — but temporary — measure known as Chapter 257 to lapse at the end of March despite pleas from homeless and housing advocates to keep it in place until at least July 2024. Evictions have begun rising to pre-pandemic levels, and Chapter 257, supporters argued, was a proven way to stave off pushing potentially thousands into homelessness.
House Democratic leaders agree, despite allowing the measure to expire.
“This was really effective in creating fairness within the process, in making sure that people got a full vetting of their application for rental assistance before any eviction process proceeded,” said state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a Democrat from the North End and the chamber’s budget chief. “We’re confident in the success of it.”
Michlewitz said House leaders were mulling the proposal even before advocates pressed for the extension. Asked why they also didn’t seek to extend it before it lapsed, Michlewitz said they felt including the language in the chamber’s budget proposal was “the best way to do it.”
“We were just working on the permanent solution,” he said. “We felt doing it through the budget was the quickest means to do so.”
The House is scheduled to debate and pass its budget plan later this month. But it’s unclear whether Senate leaders, or Governor Maura Healey, would support making the eviction measure permanent. Asked last month why her administration hadn’t sought its own extension of the Chapter 257 protections, Healey indicated that she considered it and other pandemic-era programs temporary emergency measures. “These things are related to COVID, really,” she said.
Should the House proposal ultimately be included in the budget Healey signs, it wouldn’t become law until the summer, meaning it would likely be months from now until tenants could invoke the protections.
The legislative chambers typically don’t reach an agreement on the annual budget until after the new fiscal year begins on July 1; Massachusetts is routinely among the last states, if not the last, to have its annual budget in place.
The expiration of the temporary protection dovetailed with an increase in evictions. In January and February, Massachusetts landlords filed 4,984 eviction cases for nonpayment of rent, according to data from the Housing Court. For the same period in 2022, that number was 2,554.
The new House proposal mirrors language from the temporary version that originally passed in 2020, extending the protection to tenants who are facing eviction for nonpayment because of “financial hardship” and have a pending application for emergency rental assistance.
While extending, or keeping, Chapter 257 would make it harder for landlords to evict tenants and replace them with new ones who can pay, landlords were not universally opposed. Many were comfortable with keeping Chapter 257, the Globe has reported, as long as the state provided enough rental aid to pay the bills for tenants who could not.
Rental relief funds have dwindled in the past year, and while Massachusetts has distributed roughly $1 billion in rental aid to tenants and their landlords since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal program that accounted for most of the funds stopped accepting applications a year ago.
Massachusetts has also tightened requirements, and available funds, for a separate state aid program — Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, known as RAFT. In August, the Department of Housing and Community Development reintroduced a requirement that tenants show they had received a notice to quit, the first step in the state’s three-part eviction process, to qualify for RAFT. (The mandate had been removed earlier during the pandemic.)
The state RAFT program now provides $10,000 per year to tenants. Healey’s proposed budget would extend the program with nearly $163 million in state funding, an amount that her administration has framed as an “offramp” from the flood of COVID-era federal funding that had helped support residents.
But she is also seeking to lower the total that each tenant can receive, to $7,000 every two years. Pre-pandemic, RAFT allowed tenants to receive up to $4,000 annually.
It’s unclear at what levels the House intends to propose funding RAFT. Michlewitz did not provide details, but said that lawmakers in past years have raised spending for that and other programs, including the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program.
“We hope to continue that trend,” he said.
Diti Kohli of the Globe staff contributed to this report.