Advocates, lawmakers urge action on housing equity bill

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston

Staff Writer
Published: 8/12/2021 7:59:33 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A large number of western Massachusetts elected officials and institutions are backing a bill in the State House that would shore up some of the gaps in the federal eviction moratorium — a move they say is critical to protect thousands of area residents and homeowners from the threat of eviction and foreclosure.

Joel Feldman, an attorney who helped to craft last year’s state eviction moratorium, said the COVID-19 Housing Equity Bill (H.1434/S.891) would divert eviction cases from the court system, which is not designed as a safety net for renters and homeowners.

“The landlord and tenant have to work together to get rental assistance before a case can be filed,” he said.

Feldman noted that there are hundreds of millions of dollars in rental assistance available in Massachusetts at this time.

“There are very few people that aren’t eligible for rental assistance,” he said.

Over 2,700 evictions have been filed in western Massachusetts since the lifting of the state eviction moratorium in October 2020, including 2,036 in Hampden County, 354 in Berkshire County, 207 in Hampshire County and 139 in Franklin County, according to backers of the legislation. Additionally, 585 properties in western Massachusetts are under the threat of foreclosure, without any federal or state law providing any protection, they said.

“The newly extended federal moratorium and current state protections still leave thousands of tenants at risk of eviction while over $800 million in federal rental assistance dollars remain available in Massachusetts to keep people housed,” according to a statement from bill supporters.

The federal eviction moratorium, which expires on Oct. 3, only applies in counties with substantial COVID-19 transmission. Feldman said that the moratorium isn’t automatic, and tenants have to know to invoke it. If passed, the legislation would ensure landlords cooperate with rental assistance programs before an eviction could proceed to court.

On the foreclosure side, Feldman said it would provide foreclosure protection for homeowners behind on their mortgages beyond forbearance.

“Once you enter the court system, anything can happen,” said Feldman, who represents tenants for Springfield-based Heisler, Feldman & McCormick P.C.

A letter organized by Homes for All MA, a statewide coalition of housing justice groups, urged legislators to pass the bill and the governor to sign it. The letter was signed by some 150 organizations statewide, and close to 50 organizations in western Massachusetts, including the mayors of Northampton, Easthampton and Greenfield, the Amherst town manager, ServiceNet, Holyoke Community College, the Northampton and Amherst survival centers and the Valley Community Development Corporation.

“This is a priority issue,” said Pamela Schwartz, director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness.

The network is one of the signatories of the letter, and she noted that evictions and homelessness disproportionately affect people of color — and that without the bill, the disparity will only widen.

Schwartz, who is married to Feldman, also noted the broad coalition that has come together to back the bill.

“This is an extraordinary call to action from western Massachusetts,” she said. “We hope and expect the state Legislature to hear us.”

In a hearing before the Joint Housing Committee on Thursday, Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, spoke in favor of the bill, sharing information about a constituent facing foreclosure who had reached out. She also said that more calls would be coming in if the Legislature didn’t act.

“The situation is dire,” she said.

Sabadosa was one of 20 lawmakers from western Massachusetts who sent a letter to the chairs of the Joint Housing Committee asking that the bill be given a favorable recommendation.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz also submitted testimony in favor of the bill to the committee via email.

“I ask you to pass this bill to support housing and economic stability for our city,” Narkewicz said. “It will protect the over 200 households in our county who currently face an eviction action from the continued trauma of threatened homelessness during this COVID-19 spike.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.




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