A crisis hits the home: As pandemic rages, a federal moratorium on evictions is about to expire

  • Paige Spaulding stands outside of her apartment in Chicopee. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Paige Spaulding stands outside of her apartment in Chicopee on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Paige Spaulding stands outside of her apartment in Chicopee on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 12/11/2020 3:06:21 PM

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on the state of evictions as a federal moratorium is set to expire at the end of the year. Part 2 will run Monday.

CHICOPEE — All they want is a clean slate.

After nine-plus months of dealing with the tumultuous life upheaval caused by the pandemic — on-again, off-again jobs, opening and closing of public schools, and the overall anxiety posed by COVID-19 — Paige Spaulding and her husband, Jordan Jones, are now facing an even scarier prospect: eviction.

Spaulding, 23, first lost her job as a barista at Elms College when the pandemic hit in March. She returned part-time in August, but then found herself out of work again at the end of November when the college went all remote with COVID-19 cases rising. That left Spaulding, Jones, and three young children (ages 2, 3 and 6), without her income.

The family has been having trouble making their $1,050 monthly rental payments with Jones out of work since March in his job as a mover and with Spaulding’s work situation. Then came a 30-day notice of eviction from their landlords.

“We were kind of sparse on that (rent) every couple of months and I fell into owing them rent due,” Spaulding said.

By no means is the Chicopee family alone. All across the region, experts who work with people facing eviction say hundreds of families are struggling to pay for shelter, one of life’s three “basic needs,” along with food and clothing. Those who work to help families and landlords in a housing crisis, as well as many politicians who represent them, are calling for an extension of a national evictions moratorium established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that’s set to expire at the end of the year.

They say Massachusetts, which lifted its eviction moratorium on Oct. 17, needs to provide a better safety net by beefing up a program designed to provide emergency rental assistance, among other initiatives, including helping landlords who are struggling to pay the bills because tenants aren’t paying rent.

Since the eviction moratorium expired, the Hampshire County Sheriff’s Office has served 155 “notices to quit” as of Dec. 4, according to a spokesperson for the office. In Hampden County, the sheriff’s office served 1,071 notices since the moratorium was lifted, as of Dec. 3, a spokesperson said. A notice to quit is a legal document in which a landlord formally notifies a tenant that the tenancy will be terminated on a specific date. These figures from the sheriffs’ offices are not necessarily total counts of how many notices have been issued in the two counties, as the notices don’t have to be served by a sheriff.

After a specific period of time, the notice expires and a case can be filed in court. In Hampshire County, 21 eviction cases were filed in November, and in Hampden County, 307 cases were filed, according to the Massachusetts Trial Court, Department of Research and Planning. Statistics show that 66% of landlords in the cases currently filed across the state have an attorney, while only 2% of tenants have an attorney — one does not have the right to an attorney in eviction cases as they would in criminal cases.

Eviction diversion

A week before the state moratorium ended, Gov. Charlie Baker announced the COVID-19 Eviction Diversion Initiative, which includes up to $100 million in emergency rental assistance through the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program, up to $12.3 million to provide tenants and landlords with legal representation and $50 million for post-eviction rapid rehousing.

Spaulding says the $4,000-plus in RAFT funds she received didn’t cover the gap in how much rent she owed. “Here I am now, tomorrow is the last day of my job and  my son’s school just got closed,” Spaulding said on Nov. 16. “My husband is out participating in a daily work search trying to find work due to COVID. And so, I have to be home with my son now. I can’t work. Regardless of whether Chicopee Public Schools closed or not, Nov. 24th my school will be closing because of COVID. It’s a possibility that we’ll be coming back in January, but there’s arrears because every month I can’t make the full $1,050. I have a car. I have three children. I have electricity. I had car problems, gas and insurance. Daily life expenses of five people and a house does very much add up.”

Spaulding has been evicted for non-payment of rent in the past while she was pregnant with her youngest child. That experience is something she never wants to repeat.

“I didn’t have $150 that one month. I had it all except for $150 and they were like, ‘Nope, we don’t even want it.’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I waited for court and this and that. I eventually got evicted and I went into a shelter with my two kids, pregnant, on the fifth floor sharing an apartment with some other family,” she added. “I don’t want to get emotional. That’s something I never want to go through again.”

Although Spaulding and her family are facing eviction in the midst of the worsening pandemic, they’re trying to stay optimistic about their situation.

“Nothing will happen until January if it ever happens,” she added. “The money that I’m absolutely allotted, because I’ve been impacted by COVID, might become available to me. I might be able to pay them in full and not be in any arrears with them. Hopefully, I’ll start off on a clean slate.”

‘A serious crisis’

Experts say Spaulding and Jones are just one of many in a similar, stressful predicament.

“We’re getting a lot of calls about evictions, and we’re getting a lot of calls from nervous and desperate tenants,” said Jane Edmonstone, senior supervising attorney of Community Legal Aid’s Housing Unit. CLA provides free legal assistance in civil cases in western Massachusetts and Worcester County.

The pandemic exposed problems that already existed, Edmonstone said.

“We knew that people were in unstable housing situations, (that) it wouldn’t take much to potentially put them at risk of eviction and COVID has disrupted all of our lives in ways that have a huge impact,” she said.

CLA has heard from people facing eviction because they lost their job, or had to leave to be home with a child doing remote school. There are also landlords evicting tenants because they want to sell their building, she said, “especially in western Massachusetts where the housing market is hot.”

When the state eviction moratorium was lifted in mid-October, landlords seemed to be “ready and waiting” to start the eviction process, said Meris Bergquist, executive director of Massachusetts Fair Housing Center, which is based in Holyoke.

Like CLA, the organization has been getting regular calls from people at risk of being evicted. The center received a Community Development Block Grant from the city of Holyoke to support city residents with COVID-related housing issues. One of their Holyoke clients had a case filed against her which “created real anxiety for our client and real fears about being homeless,” Berquist said. “We’re actively negotiating with the landlord.”

She added, “Eviction exposes the failures of our safety net programs,” she said, giving a lack of affordable housing as an example. “Eviction always makes things worse for an individual or a family.”

“I think we’re facing a serious crisis,” said Joel Feldman, an attorney at Heisler, Feldman and McCormick, a law firm that works with low- and moderate-income clients in western Massachusetts, including those facing eviction. He currently has a client facing eviction after losing his job in the parking department of a local community college when the pandemic forced the college to go to virtual learning.

“This is almost like a natural disaster,” Feldman said. “And yet, all these tenants are going to be facing eviction for something that’s not their fault — they have no control over.” He later added, “We as a state, for sure, should be dealing with this as the crisis that it is instead of turning it into a fight of landlord versus tenants.”

The CDC moratorium is “better than nothing,” but a major issue is that tenants need to know that it exists in order to use it, Feldman said. “My experience from my clientele, most of them doesn’t know that it exists.”

In addition to the stress of losing one’s home, eviction has other negative consequences, said Megan Cantarella, an Easthampton resident who is a member at the Central Valley Tenants Union, a group that formed this year and works on housing issues like tenant organizing. Now that courts are open, cases can be filed and are available publicly.

“It can be really detrimental for that information to be publicly available because landlords can look it up,” she said.

But her group has been using it to their advantage and reaching out to those who have cases filed against them in Western Housing Court. They developed a letter with information about what tenants can do if they have an eviction case, and members of the tenants union try to deliver the letter to people in person.

“Obviously a lot of people are just really scared,” Cantarella said. “A couple of people didn’t know they had cases.”

Some people don’t ever have formal cases filed against them. When tenants get notices to quit, “sometimes it will really come off as the person needs to leave immediately or after a certain amount of days ... A lot of people will just read that and self evict.”

But, only a court order can make you leave your home.

Landlords in a bind too

For small landlords who rely on rent from tenants to pay their mortgage, there’s challenges in the pandemic as well.

Sellou Coly, a 55-year-old Springfield resident and landlord who has owned a two-family rental property in the city since 2006, said she’s faced the prospect of foreclosure in the past and fears for the future if tenants aren’t able to pay their rent.

“We’re all in the same boat,” she said. “If renters aren’t able to pay and I’m not working, I cannot dig from anywhere to pay the rent besides maybe going through retirement or 401(k).”

Spaulding agrees that the pandemic is just as challenging for small landlords such as Coly.

Coly thinks a moratorium on evictions is beneficial to tenants and landlords alike during the pandemic but stressed that the state or federal government needs to provide relief for smaller landlords such as herself who need financial support right now.

One of her tenants recently lost their job, but not due to the pandemic. She said she’s been working with that tenant who continues to pay rent whenever they’ve been able to make payments. She understands that they have to balance paying the rent with other costs of living such as food, transportation or health care.

But Coly doesn’t think evicting her tenants is an option for her.

“I can’t do that,” she added. “The reason why I cannot do that is because I’ve been there and I know the difficulties. I cannot do that to another person. I know money is money and business is business, but we have to have the human side of everything.”

Many politicians who represent the Valley agree, and are working to help solve the eviction crisis through legislation. The Gazette will examine their work in part two of this series, which will run Monday.




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