“We could have this bill passed by the end of next week. Nothing is stopping them.”
The statewide eviction and foreclosure moratorium lapsed on Oct. 17. What Cambridge and Somerville state Rep. Mike Connolly told us to expect next is not pretty: “A wave of evictions. Some people have called it a tsunami of evictions. Other people have called it a flood of evictions.”
Whatever you call it, the crisis looms larger than ever. Estimates for how many Massachusetts residents face imminent displacement are grim, ranging from the tens to the hundreds of thousands. According to the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, the percentage of adults in the Commonwealth for whom eviction or foreclosure in the next two months is either very or somewhat likely is about 34%, up from just over 17% a month ago.
From the fourth lowest rate in the country, the state has risen to 14th highest. Beyond the obvious injustice of any situation where people don’t have a place to live, this housing crisis also threatens to worsen the pandemic at a time when infections are on the rise.
According to community organizers, Gov. Charlie Baker’s Eviction Diversion Initiative—the current executive response to the crisis—falls severely short: while it funds and streamlines state rental assistance, rehousing programs, legal aid, and case management, critics say the money won’t be nearly enough to stave off the crisis. The plan also involves resuming eviction proceedings in courts and bringing judges out of retirement to wade through the backlog. Beyond changes to the application process for the Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance program, the plan lacks protections for mortgage holders.
Meanwhile, housing justice advocates hope to pass H.5018—An Act to Guarantee Housing Stability During the Covid 19 Emergency and Recovery. Written collaboratively by organizers and legislators, the bill was introduced in July but is now stuck in committee, and has yet to move to the floor for a vote. If passed, it would halt all evictions for nonpayment of rent and freeze rents at the level they were on March 10 for the duration of the state of emergency plus one year, during which time landlords could evict tenants only if they could prove their inability to pay was not caused directly or indirectly by the virus. Among its other protections, the bill provides a tax credit for landlords that they can receive in return for forgiving a tenant’s debt. It also includes forbearance and deferment provisions for mortgage holders, to relieve homeowners and landlords with up to 15 rental units of impending deadlines for their mortgage payments.
A look at who got to be at the decision-making table, and who was left out, might explain some of the difference in priorities between Baker’s response and this bill.
According to legislators and organizers, the governor failed to include groups representing those who stand to be most affected by his plan. “To my knowledge, there were no groups that represented grassroots folks, working class people, people of color, grassroots base building organizations, organizations that are led by the people who are most impacted,” said Lisa Owens, executive director of the grassroots housing justice organization City Life/Vida Urbana. “None of our groups or groups like ours, were at the table.”
Neighborhoods with large Black and immigrant populations stand to be hit hardest by the crisis. According to Owens, the group’s leadership consists predominantly of Black and Latinx women, and its members are fighting against their own or their neighbors’ displacement. City Life/Vida Urbana is a prime example of a group elevating the voices of those most affected by the eviction crisis.
“I want to say emphatically that the Governor’s office at no time reached out to either City Life or the Massachusetts Homes for All Coalition,” an umbrella organization of similar housing justice groups that includes City Life/Vida Urbana, Owens stated. Owens does not believe these groups and the communities they advocate for had the opportunity to influence Baker’s policy-making process. She explained that even though City Life/Vida Urbana and the Massachusetts Homes for All Coalition reached out to the governor’s office and the leadership in the legislature, they received no meaningful response.
The governor’s press office forwarded DigBoston’s request for comment on this criticism to Michael Verseckes at the Executive Office for Housing and Economic Development. Verseckes declined to be quoted directly but indicated in an email that the governor’s administration appreciated the contributions to the Eviction Diversion Initiative from advocates and representatives of the court system. Owens said her impression is that Baker’s planning team included representatives from “the Department of Housing and Community Development [and] representatives from the courts. And likely [Baker] was talking to leadership in the House and the Senate.” The governor’s press office did not respond to requests for a list of the members of the team that planned the Eviction Diversion Initiative.
Owens said that despite a lack of productive communication with the administration, she and her colleagues tried to get across a crucial point: “You are missing a big part of the picture.” But to no avail—“nobody would listen to us,” she said.
Meanwhile, in the state House and Senate, at least 90 people listened. Representatives Connolly and Honan and Sen. Jehlen presented identical bills in their respective chambers. “By early July, we actually had 90 legislators sign on as co-sponsors,” Connolly said. “In addition to that, over 200 organizations across the board—community groups, organized labor, the Roman Catholic Church, all sorts of groups—signed on to support this bill.” The rep credits Baker’s two-month extension of the eviction moratorium to the bill’s momentum. But the moratorium expired on Oct. 17 and the bill still hasn’t passed.
According to Connolly and Owens, the bill was a grassroots effort from the get-go. Owens explained that a coalition of groups—including City Life/Vida Urbana, Alternatives for Community and Environment, New England United for Justice, and the Chinese Progressive Association in Boston, as well as the statewide coalition anchors Lynn United for Change and Springfield No One Leaves—collaborated with lawyers at the Greater Boston Legal Services Center and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, as well as legislators and community members to draft the bill.
“Our groups… gave input to the lawyers [and] the legislators around what needed to be in the bill, the lawyers would draft something, we would take this to our membership, and do community education around this,” Owens said. After talking through implications of different possible provisions with the community and collecting feedback, “representatives from our groups would come together to continue to wordsmith the draft through multiple iterations,” Owens added. Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, corroborates this narrative; she said her group was involved with the process that produced the bill from the beginning, while Baker’s office never got in touch.
Connolly credits this inclusive approach with avoiding the pitfalls of Baker’s initiative. According to the representative, the initiative’s planning team, sometimes referred to as “a judicial working group… was never public facing, and the roster of participants was never made available.” But from what Connolly knows of its membership, it “seems like what Gov. Baker managed to do was completely sidestep” the intensive work Connolly prioritized of bringing those most impacted into the policy-making process. Instead, Baker “set up a working group that appears to be really dominated by business interests,” said the legislator.
Connolly explained that while some committed advocates—such as representatives of the regional agencies that administer rental assistance and of organizations that provide legal aid to tenants—participated, their efforts stood to gain funding from Baker’s plan. “That’s terrific,” the representative said. “But I think what you end up seeing is a table of people where everyone has a particular interest in going along with the policy. … People who would offer very important counter-perspectives were essentially marginalized and excluded from that closed-door discussion process.”
Given the urgency of the crisis, tenants need immediate support. The bill has to pass “before we get too far into the surge, before winter comes,” said Owens, who faults the governor and leaders in the legislature for stalling. “Today, if [Robert] DeLeo and [Karen] Spilka and Baker”—the speaker of the House, Senate president, and governor—“decided enough is enough, and we’re going to pass this bill, we could have this bill passed by the end of next week,” Owens added. “Nothing is stopping them.”
To DigBoston’s request for comment on criticism for inaction, a spokesperson for Karen Spilka responded, “The Senate is actively speaking with its partners in government and appropriate stakeholders on ways to meet the challenges posed by COVID-19, including keeping people safely housed.” The Senate president’s office emphasized the increase in Rental Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) funding as well as the Senate president’s consistent communication with the governor and the chief justice of the Massachusetts Trial Court about housing stability. Representative DeLeo’s office did not respond for comment.
Additional RAFT dollars are unlikely to stem a wave of evictions. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimates a housing aid need of $117 million each month as the pandemic persists; Boston magazine compares that number with Baker’s one-time allocation of $100 million to RAFT and another $71 million in other housing aid, and quotes Owens calling it a “drop in the bucket.” Regardless of how the numbers add up, timing remains an issue. Without a moratorium, landlords have no incentive to work with tenants while they wait for their RAFT applications to be processed—a process Karen Chen of the Chinese Progressive Association said typically takes about two months.
According to Connolly, the governor should at the very least renew the eviction moratorium to mitigate this problem. “Governor Baker, you’re allocating 100 million in rental assistance,” Connolly said. “We welcome that. Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep the moratorium in place, put that hundred million in rental assistance to work?” Since under a moratorium, the choice would be to accept RAFT money or wait until the moratorium lifts to proceed with an eviction, “the landlord would be incentivized to participate in the rental assistance program,” Connolly explained.
In the meantime, the legislator emphasized that tenants should remember their rights under the current law. Getting a notice to quit from your landlord does not mean you have to leave immediately, despite the “formal and threatening” style of the document, as Connolly described it: depending on your circumstances, you may have a good chance of fighting the removal in court.
Whatever stopgap measures happen, the fight to pass H.5018 remains crucial. For Chen, the bill is no less than a “lifeline for folks.” She explained: “When the eviction moratorium was in place … there was a pause to things, so that people could worry about being safe and being healthy. But now that it’s taken away, the safety net is gone.”
This bill would restore that safety net.
Polina Whitehouse is a reporter, editor, and student based in Greater Boston. You can find more of her writing in the Harvard Crimson, the Arizona Republic, and the Harvard Political Review, as well as on the website of the Harvard Advocate, where she is the blog editor and a member of the poetry board. As a Harvard undergrad, she's majoring in Social Studies with a focus in ethics.