With Evictions Slated to Restart, Questions Fly about Baker’s New Plan

"It is quite frankly a drop in the bucket," says City Life/Vida Urbana executive director Lisa Owens.

Gov. Charlie Baker

Photo via Governor’s Office/Alastair Pike

Things are not looking good here in Massachusetts: COVID-19 cases are ticking up, state unemployment is the highest it’s been since the 1970s, winter is on the horizon, and on Saturday, the eviction and foreclosure moratorium that has kept many in their homes throughout the pandemic will expire. It’s a nightmarish collision of circumstances that prompts a frenzy of questions: Where will these residents go? How will courts even process a potentially unprecedented rate of evictions? What will it take to keep residents in their homes in the middle of a pandemic?

On Monday, Gov. Charlie Baker sought to quell those questions with the announcement of the “COVID-19 eviction diversion initiative,” which will pump $171 million into public programs for housing assistance, legal aid for tenants and landlords throughout eviction cases, tenant and landlord mediation, and rehousing. Of that sum, $100 million will go into Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT), a program that offers short-term financial support to those at risk of becoming unhoused. The new initiative also allows households to receive up to $10,000 per year from RAFT, up from the previous $4,000 cap, which is intended to help tenants pay their rent until June. But housing advocates quickly decried the initiative, calling it a feeble strategy with scarcely enough money to last through the fall.

The numbers just don’t add up, says Lisa Owens, executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana, a racial equity nonprofit that has a long history of working on housing issues. “What the governor proposed does nothing to stop 100,000 plus households across the state from facing displacement and potential homelessness. It is quite frankly a drop in the bucket.” An August report from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) estimated that 108,700 renters and homeowners will have difficulty making rent and mortgage payments after the moratorium lifts, and that, all told, they’ll require $117 million per month in assistance. But Baker has stood by the number so far—when asked about the possibility of the funds being insufficient to solve the problem, his office pointed Boston to comments he made at a press conference on Tuesday: “The number that we came up with was pretty consistent with where people were basically creating sort of estimates…If it turns out that it’s more than we need, that’s great, if it turns out that it’s less we need, we’ll figure it out.”

But beyond the disagreement on funds, advocates say the bottom line is the necessity for a legislative solution that prevents COVID-related evictions, full stop. While residents at risk of losing their homes had hoped for an extension of the existing moratorium, Baker had previously dropped hints that he would let it expire, saying an extension would only deepen the hole of debt for tenants and landlords alike. When the Massachusetts ban lifts, the CDC’s national halt on evictions (in effect through December 31) will take over. Even the protections of that order are dubious, though, advocates say. Renters may not realize that the onus is on them to deliver a signed declaration to their landlord to ward off eviction, and an explainer issued by the CDC last week clarified that landlords “are not required to make their tenants aware” of the ban’s existence.

Any room for confusion could leave uninformed renters vulnerable. “In our experience, the vast majority of renters and homeowners do not know their legal rights,” explains Owens. “Many people did not know they were covered under the moratorium and moved when they didn’t have to.” And the potential consequences of a mass wave of evictions, informal or otherwise, could be dire. “These people will be doubled and tripled up in their family’s apartments. Some of them will go into an already burdened shelter system, and some of them will be on the street,” says Owens.

The diversion initiative has earned some plaudits, though. State Rep. Mike Connolly, who’s been working on a legislative solution to the issue, says “Money [being] routed to rental assistance, legal support, and other education efforts [is] very important.” His concerns with the initiative are in all of the gaps that remain for vulnerable residents to fall into. Among those is a disparity in the diversion initiative’s timeline: Eviction filings are slated to start on Monday, but per the FAQ’s published on mass.gov, resources that would connect tenants and landlords with legal help “will not be fully operational for several weeks.” And, adds Owens, though an influx of cash would have been impactful before the threat of eviction and foreclosure was imminent, at this point, “a little bit of money in RAFT doesn’t even begin to meet the need, and it is insulting.”

As renters and homeowners scramble to understand their options, advocates are still lobbying for the passage of the Housing Stability Act, which was filed by Connolly and State Rep. Kevin Honan in the House and Senator Pat Jehlen in the Senate. “Because of the pandemic, people across the Commonwealth have missed rent or mortgage payments through no fault of their own. If our state truly cares about racial justice, and if we really meant it when we hailed the courage and importance of essential workers, we can’t settle for this plan,” reads a statement from the coalition Homes for All Massachusetts. “Grassroots groups led by working class tenants and homeowners know that without the protections in the Housing Stability Act, increased funding for rental assistance and tweaks to the court eviction process just aren’t enough to prevent a huge wave of evictions and foreclosures.”

Proponents of the bill—which would cancel evictions and foreclosures for 12 months after the end of the COVID-19 State of Emergency and create a fund for property owners and small landlords, among other measures—have been pushing for its passage since late June. The Joint Committee on Housing recently voted in support of the act, and has referred it to the committee on Rules. On Sunday, advocates rallied on the Boston Common and on Wednesday, the coalition is marching to Baker’s Swampscott home: “We’re going straight to Governor Baker’s door to ask him to reconsider his decision to not protect 100,000 households,” says Owens. “We’ll see what he says.”