The following interview between Luke O’Neil and Cambridge and Somerville state Rep. Mike Connolly was excerpted from O’Neil’s Welcome to Hell World. You can sign up for the newsletter dispatches at luke.substack.com.
Last week Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker signed into law a bill that enacts a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures for the next 120 days or 45 days after the state of emergency has passed whichever comes sooner. While it’s not a perfect solution — the issue of what happens when this is all over and people owe months of back rent has yet to be addressed — it’s certainly a pretty good start and will provide some measure of relief to renters and homeowners around the state in the short term.
“This is more than just a housing justice issue, it is a public health issue,” Rep. Kevin Honan one of the sponsors of the bill wrote on Twitter. “In a time where our collective health and safety depends on the ability of each of us to shelter in place, the need for housing stability has never been greater.”
Rep. Mike Connolly the Democratic Socialist from my now dearly-missed Cambridge and Somerville who I profiled a few years back in Esquire has been leading the charge on the legislation for weeks now. I spoke with Connolly about what the law actually does for people, the process of shepherding it along to passage with the help of various activist groups, what he thinks of the job Baker has done on the whole, and what sort of pushback he’s gotten from opposing interests around the state like landlords. Unsurprisingly groups representing landlords don’t like the idea of an eviction and foreclosure moratorium.
“Despite this being a fundamentally obvious and right thing to do, we faced, and to this day continue to face, some really unbelievable opposition,” he told me.
For example, via WGBH:
Some landlords say, though, a total ban on evictions would obstruct their ability to collect rents so they can pay their own bills. Last year, almost 40,000 eviction cases were filed, according to the state courts’ annual report.
“Landlords are definitely worried about their income,” said Skip Schloming, president of the Small Property Owners Association. The members, Schloming said, manage rental properties in Boston — where more than two-thirds of housing units are occupied by tenants — and elsewhere in the state, where renters take up 38 percent of units.
Schloming, 78, and his wife Lenore manage about 21 units spread across three buildings in Cambridge and Somerville.
“We’re very concerned,” Schloming said, characterizing the moratorium as an invitation for tenants to skip their contractual obligation. “The threat, the possibility of eviction, is the only way that a landlord can control tenant behavior, especially the payment of rent.”
Schloming pointed to landlords’ financial obligations like mortgages, property tax payments and maintenance costs. “If widespread non-payment happens … landlords are forced to fold,” he said.
Connolly walked me through the bill and tried to address some of my concerns which you can read below.
On a practical level what does this do for renters and homeowners?
First and foremost it places a moratorium on every major phase of the eviction process. You may have heard not long after Governor Baker declared a state of emergency, a standing order was issued by the courts halting the hearing of new matters in district court or housing court. There was a lot of misunderstanding with that. At different points during press conferences over the last month Governor Baker had been asked about tenants facing displacement and he would just point to that standing order and say Oh you know, the courts are closed so there’s nothing to worry about. There won’t be any evictions.
Right. But there have been something like 700 eviction proceedings begun since the middle of March.
Well what Baker said is not at all accurate. The standing order only applied to one narrow aspect of the eviction process, which has various avenues it can go down. With our bill and this new emergency law, we’re able to have an across the board moratorium from the very beginning of the process where a landlord would deliver a notice to quit. That continues with there will be no new filings, no judgments will be accepted, no cases will be heard. And it continues to the final step, where a constable or sheriff cannot be directed to eject someone.
The bill also will prevent late fees and negative credit reporting for any COVID-impacted tenants. That could be either a direct reason or indirect due to economic circumstances. Moreover there’s a moratorium on foreclosures, and that applies to owner occupied homes as well as owner occupied buildings of four units or less, your typical duplex or triple decker where the landlord lives in one unit and rents out the other. It also forbids creditors from posting notices of foreclosure sale, or exercising any power to sell, or even from entering a property.
Another thing… Did you happen to catch that video of the guy that’s been making the rounds, he’s this comedian…
Yeah, big New York outer borough energy guy.
Yeah this guy named Vic I guess. I wanted to post that video last night but unfortunately it was too vulgar for a state rep to post. But the thing that that guy was screaming about, we actually do in our bill. He was saying there should be a deferment program, so if someone has a mortgage and they can’t make their payment, you would simply tack those payments on to the end of the mortgage. Our bill does exactly that. It requires that that provision be made available to homeowners with mortgages for the next 180 days.
How does this compare to any federal action that’s been taken?
Certain variations of these concepts have been implemented on the federal level, but only in narrowly defined cases. This is across the board, all circumstances, whoever your loan is with, whoever you are renting from.
What about small businesses who pay rent for their business? Does it apply to them?
There’s a moratorium on evictions for small businesses. It’s defined as around 150 employees or less. Also included in that definition of small business is non-profits as well.
There’s also a provision that would allow a landlord to draw upon last month’s rent they had been holding. There was a push by landlord interests to come up with some pretty detrimental provisions around this concept. The law, I’m pleased to say, is not detrimental to tenants in any way, but at the same time it does offer a useful and fair option for landlords. Typically a tenant has paid the last month’s rent in advance, and it’s sitting in a bank account. If a landlord has an obligation, whether it’s a mortgage payment of their own or a tax bill or a maintenance obligation, and they’re being impacted by the COVID situation, they can withdraw on that last month’s rent. It doesn’t impact the tenant in any way. It simply says to the landlord we’ll let you access it early.
You probably know me, I’m a Democratic Socialist, I’m very concerned with tenants. At the same time, any time we can find ways to offer something fair to landlords or owners, it’s a great move. I think we did it in a thoughtful way.
Which groups in the state were pushing for this that you worked with?
I was leading the charge in the legislature. Within a day or so of the state of emergency, City LifeVida Urbana, which I’ve worked closely with for a while, called for a demonstration in front of the Brooke Courthouse in Boston that Thursday, March 12. That sort of gave me the impetus to go ahead and start drafting legislation to match what they were calling for, an eviction moratorium. Over the next 48 hours I worked pretty much around the clock, sharing drafts with our House counsel, legal services attorneys, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, the Mass Law Reform Institute, and Lawyers for Civil Rights and other groups. Also folks from City Life and the Chinese Progressive Association, Lynn United, another great group involved in anti-displacement work, Springfield No One Leaves, Right to the City Boston. Really a pretty strong core of housing justice organizers and legal service advocates got involved in the drafting of the legislation. Then I was able to partner with the housing co-chair in the House Kevin Honan. Together on March 13 we filed the initial version of this bill. Over the next five days 73 legislators signed on as co-sponsors. Lew Finfer and the Massachusetts Communities Action Network also strongly backed the bill. We had a coalition of scores of activist groups, labor groups, faith-based groups, the Mass Teachers Association were very vocal in supporting it.
Is it uncommon to see such a broad coalition on something like this?
It doesn’t happen too often. Every session there are bills that have that kind of broad support. I think it’s like everything else we’re dealing with in this terrible pandemic, I’ve never seen things coalesce around an idea so fast. Usually to get a coalition like that requires months of doing the groundwork. It came together for good reason. This is a fundamental basic idea that, as we are telling people they have to say at home, it stands to reason we need to ensure housing stability. As I was advocating to House leadership, or to colleagues in the Senate, I would say, first and foremost, this is the right thing to do. The moral thing to do. Then I would say, even if there’s anyone out there who isn’t concerned about what the moral thing to do is, let’s remember in this situation we’re only as strong as the most vulnerable people in our community. It could be that someone somewhere is vulnerable to catching the virus, maybe they’re feeling the symptoms. They’re not sure if they should go out to work. If they get that notice to quit from their landlord, or they’re feeling their housing security is at risk…
Then they’re going to go to work.
They’re going to be tempted to go do that next Uber shift or food delivery shift or whatever it is, and potentially expose many more people to the virus. It was important to break down any notion that what we were doing here was somehow a gift or charity. It’s in everyone’s interest to promote housing stability. On top of that there’s really no way to do a housing search under these circumstances.
Right you’re not going to go around checking out apartments right now…
And a lot of the frontline housing services have shut their doors and are working remotely. There’s a lot of reasons why we need housing stability.
Despite what you might actually think, I know you can’t say “Landlords get the guillotine!” now that you’re a legislator, but was there any real fucking assholes in opposition to this, landlord groups or whoever?
Despite this being a fundamentally obvious and right thing to do, we faced, and to this day continue to face, some really unbelievable opposition. After the House passed the bill a few weeks ago and it went to the Senate, initially they produced a version that included most of what we had, but they pulled back on the idea of stopping issuing notices to quit. So their first version of the bill would still have the moratorium on an eviction, but it would allow a landlord to deliver that notice to quit, telling a tenant they had fourteen days or whatever it is to vacate.
That’s a very stressful thing to see, even if it might not be legally enforceable. A lot of tenants would see that and think I’m screwed I gotta get out, right?
Oh yeah. I’ve seen examples of these notices, they’re styled in a way that reads in a very threatening way. To someone who isn’t trained in the law it might as well be a notice that you have to vacate your apartment right away. Never mind someone who might not be fluent in English, or might have their own concerns about how much recognition they might have under the law if, for example, they’re undocumented. That was really the first battle. Thanks to several champions in the Senate, progressive senators stood up. Ultimately they decided in their final vote to do as the House did.
Then when it came back to the House one representative threatened to shut down the entire House session. We’re now operating in informal sessions because of COVID-19, which means any one legislator can shut down the session… Representative Peter Durant, a Republican, filed an amendment that said a landlord can draw on both the last month’s rent and security deposit as needed, and the tenant would be obligated to make up those funds on a fairly aggressive schedule that didn’t seem very doable. We managed to convince our colleague to withdraw that and not shut the session down…
There was some advocacy from landlords groups. Skip Schloming, the Small Property Owners Association leader, who goes back to the days of rent control, one of the leaders against rent control in the state. He argued in public, I’m paraphrasing, he said maybe we need to have an eviction moratorium, but what we can’t do is take away the landlord’s ability to threaten a tenant. We have to preserve our ability to threaten, because if the tenant isn’t under threat of being evicted, then there’s nothing to compel them to pay their rent. So that’s where the landlords drew their line in the sand. Allow us to continue scaring tenants.
That’s basically saying the quiet part out loud isn’t it? We have to force everyone to live under the threat of being thrown out, when housing should be a right.
Absolutely. The bottom line is, the final version, literally, was everything that we wanted. I shared it with some of the legal services attorneys who had worked with me, and their first response was this is a total home run. That was last Friday when the bill came out. We passed two bills on Friday, this one, and one that prevents lawsuits against doctors or hospitals responding to COVID-19. The governor signed that liability bill within three hours. He signed our bill on Monday, so it was seventy two or more hours before we got these protections in place for tenants. The interesting thing is, the Greater Boston Reality Board made it known right up until the end that they were lobbying the governor to send the bill back and not sign it, and instead proposed changes to give landlords more ability to pressure tenants. To his credit the governor brushed aside that attempt.
Do people have to opt into this explicitly at all if they are going to miss their first month’s rent or mortgage? Or are they just presumed to be protected?
In terms of the main thrust of the bill, the eviction moratorium, there is no action needed. It’s just a blanket moratorium in effect, no questions asked. In terms of avoiding negative credit reports, or avoiding any potential late fees on the tenant side, what the bill says is that the Department of Housing Community Development on the state level will produce a standardized form the tenant will fill out and they have to give that to their landlord within thirty days. I would have preferred having a blanket protection on that front as well, but all things being equal I think the form itself will be helpful, because when a landlord sees it it will come with the imprimatur of the government. Likewise on the mortgage side, again, the main protections are across the board. But to access the deferment program you would have to seek that out as well.
How does this compare to the ways some other states are behaving?
This is, to my knowledge, first of its kind legislation in the nation. Many governor’s have implemented some form of an eviction moratorium under their emergency powers. A lot of the judicial branches have implemented pieces of this. But no legislature has actually tackled both of these issues, eviction and foreclosure, in a comprehensive way, and actually enacted legislation. In Alaska their legislature did an eviction moratorium. But really beyond that I don’t think anyone has done both. As an aside, I think it’s really powerful. Even coming at this as a leftist, we want to approach the public and say we’re trying to craft a comprehensive approach that offers something for different interests.
This is the main pushback I want to give you here. What happens three or four or whatever months from now? Are people going to be required to pay months of rent back in one lump sum? How do we expect people to get out of this?
That’s really the next logical question. On April 1 I launched a page I put together called Rent Freeze. On it I published an online petition, but also draft legislation I’ve started working on to address this question. It’s an interactive thing where people can put comments on the legislation. I thought about filing on April 1, but it was clear there was more than enough to worry about just getting the moratorium. So I decided not to file it yet, but the legislation I’ve been working on … there’s many angles on this, and the federal government will have a big responsibility in this situation. The idea is to say in an eviction matter, we could decide to simply not recognize any rental debts that accrue during the emergency as the basis for someone being evicted. That certainly doesn’t solve the whole problem, but I think it would help extend the protections. The bottom line is, I don’t think most people want to see a wave of evictions occur the day or the month after the emergency ends.
Two other features of that bill I’m drafting, it further says for twelve months after the emergency ends, there will be a freeze on rents going up. They’ll be set in place as to what they were on March 10, 2020. And for twelve months after the emergency ends there will be just cause eviction protection. In other words people will be able to maintain their tenancy, and won’t be able to be denied their ability to stay without a good cause reason.
We need to advocate for housing stability. We can’t expect the day the emergency ends a wide range of people will have housing stability unless we put some protections in place.
If someone can’t pay their rent for the next few months, they’re not going to all of a sudden have $10,000 to pay the balance down the line. I appreciate it’s a difficult thing, and I trust you’re coming from the right place. I’m just skeptical of everything. I guess it seems like a temporary salve on the wound so to speak, then the wound is going to open on …September 1, whenever it is, a year from now.
There’s every reason to be concerned about that. We had to overcome several hurdles to get this moratorium in place. And now, from a base of, at the very least, with this basic moratorium in place, it can buy us time to advocate for those next level solutions.
We also should acknowledge while we’re having this conversation that we have, easily, 20,000 people in Massachusetts who are experiencing homelessness, and a lot more needs to be done on that front as well. The governor’s emergency powers come from something called the Massachusetts Civil Defense Act from the early 1950s. That act says the governor has any and all authority over people and property to do whatever is necessary and expedient to meet the state of emergency. Incidentally, the governor in public has directly contradicted and denied that he actually has that power, which is sort of interesting, but probably not surprising…
If you refuse the idea you have a certain authority that could easily be used to do something you don’t want to do—like provide housing for every single person — then you won’t feel pressured to actually use it.
Exactly. What should have happened a month ago is that the governor should’ve ordered that hotel rooms, perhaps vacant dorm rooms and other properties, be made available to people experiencing homelessness. Another big concern is, and this is driven by the housing emergency we were in before COVID-19 started, is you have many situations where maybe ten people are living in a dwelling that’s suitable for three or four people. That’s not great under normal circumstances, but under these conditions that can very quickly become a matter of life or death if those individuals can’t find a place where they can isolate if someone gets sick.
What are some other concerns you’re hearing from constituents right now?
So many things are on my mind. People experiencing homelessness, people who are incarcerated. Those who are involved in parole type situations. On top of that, undocumented immigrants. This is a group we’ve struggled to get any kind of justice or recognition for their needs in Massachusetts, before COVID-19. At this point, undocumted immigrants, unlike I think fifteen other states in the country, cannot get drivers licenses. We have mobile testing facilities at places like Foxborough and others. If you’re undocumented, legally, I don’t know how you get to a mobile testing facility. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Obviously the federal relief doesn’t apply to undocumented immigrants, even though they do pay taxes.
We are definitely seeing the disparity between those who are privileged enough, myself included, to be able to do their jobs from home, and those who are out there, basically on the frontlines, for the biggest threat to hit this country in a hundred years perhaps. We have people who are making minimum wage out there exposed to this virus, and of course this correlates with race, who are the ones in disproportionate numbers catching this virus and suffering and dying. You’re seeing the conditions in Chelsea where there’s been an explosion of the virus. That’s definitely weighing on me. I think a lot of progress has been made on getting unemployment benefits out to people, and we’ve got the pandemic unemployment assistance program [last] week which will offer some relief to independent contractors and gig workers, but nevertheless the systems haven’t been able to accommodate the need in real time, so we’ve been playing catchup on that front.
How do you think Baker has been doing over all?
We want to push governor Baker to be stronger in calling for things like stay at home orders. I was calling for a stay at home order, and the governor came out and said I don’t think I have the authority to tell people to stay at home, which, a) almost every other governor in the country has said it’s an order, Baker said it’s an advisory, and b) statutorily he does have the authority. There have been really disappointing elements of that. When Baker issued the shut down of non-essential services, he defined all construction work as essential. Then the very next day — Boston, Cambridge and Somerville, their mayors had already issued orders shutting down construction — Baker’s general counsel released an order saying our order deeming it essential overrides your order and you need to immediately withdraw your order. To their credit, people like Marty Walsh and Joe Curtatone basically said to Baker take us to court if you want we’re not withdrawing. At that point Baker backed down. But outside of Boston and Cambridge and Somerville there has been a lot of construction. Obviously if you have to repair a water main that’s one thing, but we have had many reports of, say, luxury housing construction, which doesn’t seem all that essential.
And who is going to move into them any time soon!
A couple weeks ago the New England Carpenters Union directed over ten thousand carpenters to walk off the job in defiance of Baker’s stance. I give Baker some credit for doing some things decently, but by and large the response from the very top in Massachusetts has been too slow and too measured. Around mid-March Washington State were on the order of about 8-900 cases or so. We had about 200 cases. By the start of April we had exceeded 10,000 cases and they were at most 7,000 cases. There are various factors involved, but this became a pretty severe epidemic in Massachusetts over the course of a couple weeks, and it’s been a big struggle to get the governor to do some very basic things. He closed schools for the rest of the year, but we were the 35th state to make that decision. We’re one of the biggest hotspots in the nation, how is it 34 other states reached the conclusion before we did?
Oh boy. Man, ok, I’m gonna wrap it up, but let’s end on something happy. I did this thread on Twitter the other day where I asked people the first place they were longing to get to once this is all over, a bar or restaurant or whatever. Where is it for you?
Well, my wife’s a vegan, and I enjoy vegan food, so we love Veggie Galaxy in Central Square. They shut their doors out of concern for all involved, so it would be great to go back there for a veggie burger.