Will Baker’s $171M Plan to Fight Evictions Be Enough?

Gov. Charlie Baker. Photo by Chris Van Buskirk | State House News Service

Expanded rental assistance, rapid rehousing efforts and streamlined application processes are cornerstones of a $171 million plan announced Monday by the Baker administration to keep tenants in their homes and support landlords after the state’s eviction moratorium expires on Saturday.

The plan represents an alternative to extending the moratorium, which Baker is authorized to do under a law passed earlier in the pandemic and is a path that many community activists and some lawmakers say is preferable for the safety of tenants struggling due to job losses and other COVID-19 pandemic hardships, but which landlord groups and a federal judge have warned may be unconstitutional.

At least 80,000 households in Massachusetts, including both renters and homeowners, will struggle to cover the costs of both housing and basic needs this month, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council concluded last week after studying unemployment and Census Bureau data.

The administration said its plan will provide direct financial support to 18,000 households, access to legal support or community mediation for up to 25,000 households, and access to Housing and Consumer Education Center services for up to 50,000 households.

The potential eviction crisis comes as the rental housing market is experiencing dramatic softness in many Boston neighborhoods.

What’s in the Plan

The administration is characterizing its plan as an “eviction diversion initiative,” which will rely on a still-to-be-launched “community mediation” program that will bring landlords and tenants together before an eviction is filed, coordinated by the state’s nine expanded Housing Consumer Education Centers.

In addition, landlords and tenants will be able to use Housing Court-provided mediation under what Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey described in a statement as a new, “two-tier process that will enable tenants and landlords to access resources and mediate their disputes in order to preserve tenancies.”

The state is providing $12.3 million to give both tenands and landlords access to lawyers during the eviction and mediation processes.

To help make deals between landlords and tenants possible, Baker is adding $100 million in federal pandemic aid to the state’s main housing assistance program, called Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) on top of the $40 million it’s already received. The state is also boosting the maximum RAFT payout from $4,000 per household to $10,00 per household, with the goal of keeping out-of-work tenants in place for six months or until the end of June if the tenant has school-age children. Landlords will be able to apply for RAFT on behalf of their tenants.

The Baker plan also gives an additional $48.7 million to the state’s HomeBASE program to help rapidly rehouse tenants who do get evicted and who are at risk of homelessness.

“This strategy has been designed to be user-friendly and easily accessible for tenants and landlords in need, and is comprised of new or expanded programs to help people stay in their homes,” Baker, who had authorized one extension of the moratorium, said in a statement.

Baker’s team said the plan was developed in coordination with the Massachusetts Trial Court and others “to manage the end of the moratorium” on Saturday. It uses federal CARES Act funds as well as existing authorizations under a COVID-19 supplemental budget and does not require any additional legislative appropriation.

When the state moratorium expires on Saturday, a moratorium established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will become effective in Massachusetts, according to the Baker administration, and the CDC moratorium that runs through December will prevent evictions for non-payment “for qualified tenants who submit a written declaration to their landlord.”

“Courts will accept filings and process cases, and may enter judgments but will not issue an order of execution (the court order that allows a landlord to evict a tenant) until after the expiration of the CDC order,” according to the governor’s office. “Protection is limited to households who meet certain income and vulnerability criteria.”

Support from Landlords

Reaction to the moratorium was mixed. Major housing policy advocates and landlord groups issued statements supporting the proposal, but housing activists and a leading progressive legislator said the program would not do enough.

“A lot of us, renters and landlords alike, have been badly impacted by the events of the last seven months. Now that small owners can apply for RAFT on behalf of our renters, it’s clearer than ever that we’re all in this together and we can get through this together,” MassLandlords Executive Director Doug Quattrochi said in a statement.

MassLandlords had previously lobbied for the state to guarantee all rent payments during the pandemic state of emergency as a way to prevent a “tidal wave” of evictions and had begun organizing landlords to sue the state for compensation for housing non-paying tenants.

Greg Vasil, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, issued a statement supporting the governor’s plan “to help people pay rent and stay in their homes without destabilizing the economy and forcing more owners to sell their property.”

“Building owners have worked tirelessly to ensure people can stay safe in their homes through the COVID pandemic and we need leaders to continue to find new and significant ways to support struggling tenants and property owners who can’t keep up with their bills as federal support runs out,” Vasil said.

Criticism from Progressives

Lew Finfer, co-director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, said Monday that the plan falls far short of meeting the financial needs identified for tenants at risk of eviction and called on the legislature to “step up” and pass a bill (H.5018 / S.2918) that he said would guarantee housing stability during the state of emergency and is cosponsored by 90 legislators.

That bill, which the Housing Committee advanced on Sept. 30, would keep a moratorium in place for one year after the state of emergency ends, freeze rents during that span and create a fund to help financially distressed small landlords.

Rep. Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat and one of H.5018’s lead authors, took to Twitter after the governor announced his plan to promote the housing stability bill and plans to hold a demonstration at the governor’s house this week.

“I’m certainly letting people know about it,” Connolly said about the demonstration in an interview Monday. He said he was not sure if he would attend because his first priority is legislative business and he continues to push for advancement of the housing stability bill despite the Legislature being on recess from formal business.

“At this stage it has come down to: do legislative leaders want to play an active role in crafting housing policy or not?” Connolly said. “And in this situation it appears that the Legislature has really ceded its policymaking role to the governor.”

Connolly said the governor’s plan was put together behind the scenes, and with only a few days for feedback before the moratorium expires he’s worried about the state’s ability to effectively stand up assistance programs so quickly and whether tenants will engage in the programs, or just leave their homes.

A public information campaign to assist tenants, including a new option available to call the Massachusetts 2-1-1 information hotline, begins on Tuesday.

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