There was a time during the COVID-19 pandemic when it seemed Massachusetts had at least partially cracked the complex code of evictions and displacement. For about seven months, new eviction filings were halted altogether. When they resumed, there were far fewer evictions than there had been prior to 2020.
Those days are gone.
In the absence of rental assistance programs that doled out funds to tenants who struggled to make ends meet during the pandemic and their landlords, eviction filings have steadily climbed over the last year. A report out this week from the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, a quasi-public state housing agency, shows that new filings have outpaced pre-pandemic levels for 15 consecutive months through October 2023, the last month for which data was available, increasing 29 percent over a two-year period.
The vast majority of those filings against tenants have been for failure to pay rent, according to MHP, the most common type of eviction. Those “nonpayment” filings have more than doubled over that same two-year period.
The surge in evictions is a sign that renters are struggling to keep up with the state’s ever-escalating housing costs, particularly low-income residents whom pandemic rental assistance programs helped keep afloat. Rents have climbed. And the housing market has simply become untenable for many residents. The result, advocates say, is more evictions.
“The reality is that over the last few years we’ve seen a shifting dynamic of supports and pressures,” said Tom Hopper, the director of MHP’s Center for Housing Data. “Now we have way fewer financial resources to assist tenants. It’s hard to measure exactly the impacts of those supports. But it is fairly clear that families are struggling without them.”
Most of the data, published on MHP’s Housing Stability Monitor, only measures initial eviction filings — the first step in Massachusetts’ judicial process — not final eviction orders by a judge. But those filings can oftentimes be just as damaging as a full eviction: Many residents who receive a filing, known as a Notice to Quit, often simply leave their unit, advocates say. And even if they avoid eviction, the notice can be a permanent mark on their record, making it harder to secure housing in the future.
“All we can do when we get this data is be reactive,” said Hopper. “These are households already facing a NTQ. Maybe already facing court. Even just a filing can do a great deal of harm. It can lead to housing instability.”
Full-fledged evictions are on the rise too, which Hopper said is a concerning trend. One-third of the filings for nonpayment of rent turned into evictions in October, up from about one-fourth at the beginning of the year.
Good data on evictions are limited and were even more so prior to the pandemic, which makes it challenging to estimate how current rates and pre-COVID rates compare. Hopper said his team was able to pull some data from 2019, and roughly estimated there were an average of about 2,600 eviction filings a month that year statewide.
In October 2023, there were 3,247 filings.
For a while, it seemed like eviction figures might stay low. When the pandemic hit, the state funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to vulnerable renters and their landlords, chiefly through a program called Rental Assistance for Families in Transition, or RAFT. The boosted pandemic version of the program offered tenants up to $10,000 a year in relief, paid directly to their landlords. In all, the state delivered $1 billion in rent relief to nearly 124,000 households from the start of 2020 through the spring of 2023.
And it worked. While advocates initially forecast a pandemic-induced “tsunami of evictions,” one never came. If anything, the opposite turned out to be true. In October 2021, after both the federal and state eviction moratoriums had expired, there were 1,958 filings, down about 25 percent from the pre-pandemic average, and they stayed low for months.
But when emergency funds for renters ran out and the rules for receiving RAFT changed, evictions ticked backed up. The whole experience is evidence that things don’t have to be this way, said Carolyn Chou, director of the tenant advocacy coalition Homes for All Massachusetts.
“The state eviction moratorium and all of the funding programs showed that it is possible to keep people housed when we want to,” Chou said. “And then that ended, and now we’re back at the same level of eviction.”