An eviction crisis: Making the case for more help

  • Housing activists gather in front of Gov. Charlie Baker's house, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Swampscott, Mass. Renters are still being evicted during the coronavirus pandemic despite a federal order that is supposed to keep them in their homes. The nationwide eviction ban went into effect Sept. 4 and was supposed to replace many state and local bans that had expired. But tenant advocates said there are still people unaware of the directive implemented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that broadly prevents evictions for nonpayment of rent through the end of 2020. ( AP

Published: 12/13/2020 8:09:30 PM

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part series on the state of evictions as a federal moratorium is set to expire at the end of the year. 

 

Despite the creation of a state program designed to help those in danger of losing their homes once a mid-October evictions moratorium expired, area politicians and housing experts warn that it isn’t nearly enough to avert a looming crisis as the region deals with another wave of the pandemic.

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.

Several Valley politicians and advocates who work on behalf of tenants facing eviction are now pushing for legislation to provide additional help to address the eviction crisis, which doesn’t stop at the borders of the Connecticut River Valley. Across the United States, between 30 million and 40 million people are at risk of losing housing due to non-payment of rent or mortgage, according to analysis of weekly census data. In Massachusetts, meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that 32.3% of adults living in households not current on rent or mortgage could face eviction by the end of the year.

Rose Webster-Smith is the lead community organizer at Springfield No One Leaves, a grassroots nonprofit that has provided resources and leadership for western Massachusetts residents facing eviction during the past decade.

“Since COVID hit, we’ve probably spoken to well over 400 people,” she said in mid-November. “We deal with tenants and homeowners, so we’ve probably assisted over 40 homeowners trying to get the deferment, which is what the moratorium required.”

As of now, Webster-Smith doesn’t expect the situation in the Pioneer Valley to improve.

“We’re looking at something that’s going to be worse than the Great Depression if we don’t get bold legislation passed,” she added. “You’re going to have tenants displaced; homeowners displaced; the landlords displaced.”

Springfield No One Leaves is part of the “Homes for All Massachusetts Coalition” of housing advocates that helped craft the state’s evictions moratorium, knowing that it would be a temporary solution. The coalition has also helped craft a bill introduced in the Massachusetts House of Representatives that would guarantee housing stability during the COVID-19 emergency and recovery. (H.5018)

The bill, which has been referred to the House Committee on Rules as of late November, would give a landlord a credit against their taxes as a way to compensate for rental loss during the state of emergency declared by Gov. Baker on March 10, 2020. That credit would be the difference between “the culmination amount of rents owed on a monthly basis pursuant to the rental agreement covering each occupied dwelling unit minus the tenant’s rental obligation, for those months during the state of emergency,” according to the bill, which also bans evictions and foreclosures for 12 months following an end to Baker’s state of emergency.

In addition, the bill would create a COVID-19 Housing Stability and Recovery Fund administered by the Department of Housing and Community Development to oversee the credit system. The bill states that while an application is pending, the landlord can’t move ahead with eviction proceedings, but landlords have access to funds through RAFT as well.

Webster-Smith said she thinks the COVID-19 Housing Stability and Recovery Fund in the bill would prioritize small landlords with 15 units or less.

“It would allow landlords to access those funds for property taxes or for a roof, whatever the need be,” she explained. “When we crafted that bill, whatever we did for tenants we did for homeowners and small landlords.”

State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, is one of 87 representatives to endorse the bill. She thinks the Eviction Diversion Initiative that the Baker-Polito administration launched doesn’t provide enough relief from the ongoing crisis.

“It (the legislation) would first of all do something that the governor didn’t do,” said Sabadosa in an interview in early November. “The governor ended the eviction and foreclosure moratorium without putting programs in place. Yes, there’s RAFT funding available, but the additional assistance isn’t available until the end of November. So, you’re leaving people in this really weird limbo where you know the protections have ended, but their access to those other programs is not available.”

Another potential avenue of relief would be an increase in $50 million to RAFT funding proposed in the fiscal year 2021 state budget that lawmakers are now hammering out at the State House, she said. On Friday, however, Baker vetoed the proposed language addressing RAFT in the budget, which Sabadosa said shows “a lack of concern for people who could potentially be unhoused in the new year.”

Baker also vetoed language regarding HomeBASE re-housing benefits and emergency assistance family shelters, Sabadosa said, which she also criticized.

“A lot of these unemployment benefits are running out in December, so people are very close to feeling more economic pain if they haven’t been able to get back to work because of COVID or if their work hasn’t reopened …,” Sabadosa said. “There’s just far too many people in this district that fall into that category, who’ve been on benefits in March and are on extended benefits, and then what happens?”

State legislators passed a budget in early December that includes more funding for rental assistance and housing programs, the State House News Service reported, and now it’s on Baker’s desk.

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, is a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill (S.2918) that was filed by State Sen. Patricia Jehlen, D-Somerville. She said she sponsored the bill because she views it as “the next generation” of the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

“It deals responsibly both with the needs of tenants and small landlords and property owners and therefore the needs of small banking institutions,” she explained. “It is a comprehensive and, I think, responsible way to deal directly with the housing crisis in the commonwealth.”

She doesn’t think that the state can wait on legislation to solve issues created by the pandemic.

“The governor’s provision is also seeking to help tenants and small landlords, I just believe it is not comprehensive enough to do the job that must get done. There’s a lot of cracks people can fall through that would be very painful … As with policy, there are lots of different paths that this could take. The bill could move as a whole or you could see what we’re seeing now, which is people trying to move the bill through other vehicles like the budget.”

Problem is deeper than pandemic

Douglas Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords, a nonprofit trade association with landlords in the state, said he thinks the solutions with providing landlords and tenants with relief should be a Band-Aid to a larger housing crisis problem in the commonwealth.

“It’s not that landlords want to evict people, it’s that people can’t afford Massachusetts’ expensive prices,” he added. “We don’t allow anywhere near enough rental housing in the commonwealth. If we’re not going to suddenly create tens of thousands of units in the next month, what we’ve got to do is make sure that the safety net is there to catch people.”

Quattrochi said one issue is the slow process by which RAFT funding is provided to renters. One landlord working with MassLandlords has a tenant that still hasn’t received funds who applied in June.

“It’s really not working … In terms of subsidy, RAFT is not designed to do what it’s being asked to do right now.”

Comerford said additional RAFT funding in the state budget could allow for increased staff to oversee the program. Right now, she thinks RAFT is underfunded and understaffed, which has caused the backlog of requests.

Way Finders is the regional administering agency for RAFT in Hampden and Hampshire counties. There’s been an “overwhelming demand” for emergency financial assistance programs like RAFT and the Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance Program (ERMA), Keith Fairey, president and CEO of Way Finders, wrote in an email to the Gazette. In October alone, the organization received 2,500 applications for emergency financial assistance, and it has “dramatically increased” its staff.

Fairey agreed with Quattrochi about the lack of housing in the state. “The housing crisis was here before COVID,” Fairey said at a panel hosted state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, in early December. Before the pandemic, 25% of renters in the region were spending 50% or more of their income on housing costs, he said. Whether it’s affordable housing or not, he said, “we’re not building or producing enough housing in the region.”

For Quattrochi, the Eviction Diversion Initiative is a flawed plan that doesn’t fix the economic problem of people living without income.

“We’re trying to get people to think of it as a billion-dollar problem,” he added. “I don’t know how many people are going to need help, but the pandemic isn’t going to be over Jan. 1 and it’s going to take a long time to recover even after that. It’s just going to be a really drawn out process. Before this, the standard rule of thumb is that if you want to stabilize a household with rental subsidies, you have to plan to be engaged with them for four years. That’s how long it takes them to get back on their feet.”

Staff writer Jacquelyn Voghel contributed to this report.Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@valleyadvocate.com. Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.

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