September 19, 2021

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State eviction moratorium bill gathers some momentum

BOSTON (SHNS) – Senator Patricia Jehlen warned that the existing federal moratorium is skimpy and confusing, and on Thursday urged her colleagues to revive a temporary ban on evictions and foreclosures at the state level despite opposition from property owners and landlords who argue that this is an aggravation of the already tight market.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control last week, a few days after their previous policy expired, issued a new eviction moratorium that will last until October 3 and will apply to counties with significant and high levels of COVID-19 Transmission takes place.

Because of that end date and limited coverage, Jehlen and other supporters of their bill (H 1434 / S 891) said they believe that Massachusetts elected officials need to provide a stronger safety net for the tens of thousands of residents facing housing insecurity .

“The current situation is very confusing. The federal eviction moratorium does not apply to foreclosures and is difficult to understand, ”Jehlen told the housing committee at a hearing on their legislation. “This would lead to more understandable and comprehensive solutions.”

The bill, tabled in the House of Representatives by Rep. Frank Moran and former Co-Chair of the Housing Committee, Rep. Kevin Honan, would restore a temporary ban on evictions and foreclosures for the 12 months following the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency. Governor Charlie Baker lifted the state of emergency on June 15.

Other sections of the bill would also require landlords to seek rental aid and work with administrative authorities before contacting evictions, and would require the administration to streamline and simplify the rental aid application process.

Real estate industry leaders and landlords opposed the proposed revival of the moratorium, arguing that the hundreds of millions of dollars left in rental subsidies obviate the need for a temporary ban.

The Greater Boston Real Estate Board, which represents thousands of real estate owners in the area, submitted transcript referred to the draft law as an “actually government-decreed rent waiver”.

A section of the bill, the industry group said, would create “serious problems” for both landlords and tenants moving into new units by restricting the requirements tenants leave at the end of a lease.

“If the previous tenant can stay despite express rental conditions and the landlord has no remedy, the new tenant waiting to move in becomes homeless through no fault of his own,” writes GBREB in his testimony. “The resulting cascade effect on the rental apartment market would be considerable and would lead to enormous uncertainty for tenants who have no guarantee that their new apartments will be ready for occupancy at the time of the right to move in.”

Small, non-corporate real estate owners account for more than half of Massachusetts’ rental homes, according to the Small Property Owners Association, whose members told the committee that aid was slow to arrive.

SPOA Vice President Amir Shahsavari said the legislation would “exacerbate this problem by continuing the eviction moratorium without addressing the underlying issue”.

“The dollars have been allocated, but they don’t come to the landowners,” said Shahsavari, calling on lawmakers to create a new owner-based rent relief program that allows landlords to seek help directly.

Since its inception in October, the state has provided tenants and landlords with around $ 280 million in rental support, the Baker government said last month. Earlier estimates specified Massachusetts had up to $ 968 million to distribute, leaving hundreds of millions of dollars unused.

According to the administration, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) offers up to 18 months of assistance with overdue and future rents incurred during the pandemic. Both the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) and Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance (ERMA) programs offer income-earning households up to $ 10,000 to cover rent, mortgage, or incidental expenses.

In one Letter Speaking to lawmakers on August 4, Jennifer Maddox, undersecretary of state for the Department of Housing and Community Development, said proponents were wrong to claim that 90 percent of the applications would be denied.

From May 31 to July 19, regional housing companies processed 18,396 applications for ERAP, RAFT, and ERMA, Maddox wrote. About 48 percent of those were approved, 45 percent timed out, and 7 percent were denied.

“In addition, the DHCD estimates that around 80% of applications are initially submitted incomplete,” wrote Maddox. “These incomplete applications pose a challenge as tenants have asked for assistance, but they or their landlord have not provided what the RAAs need to process the application.”

While renters in Massachusetts were covered by either state or federal moratoriums from the pandemic, lawmakers and Baker let the state’s previous moratorium expire in October. Back then, Baker and law enforcement agencies started an eviction diversion program that provided tenants and property owners with additional emergency relief and legal assistance to those affected.

Baker and the Democratic Legislature have shown no public interest in reviving a temporary ban.

Massachusetts is in a better business climate than it was during the original state moratorium in office. The nationwide unemployment rate fell below 5 percent for the first time since the pandemic began in June, and some companies reported difficulties filling vacancies.

However, supporters of the bill said Thursday that many families are still at risk. Nearly 20,000 new evictions for non-payment of rent have been filed in Massachusetts since the state moratorium expired, according to the Trial Court, and Jehlen said about 3,000 of those resulted in an eviction.

At a rally on Thursday morning outside the State House, tenants shared the financial pressures they face after more than a year of the pandemic and fears they will lose housing without legislative intervention.

“This pandemic has hit us all very deeply and in our communities many of us have lost our jobs. As a result, we are no longer able to keep up with rent payments, ”said Noemi Rodriguez, an East Boston tenant who works with the City Life / Vida Urbana group, through an interpreter. “Many landlords don’t understand that we are still feeling these effects.”

The spokesperson also said the concerns don’t apply solely to tenants.

Andrea Bopp Stark, an attorney employed by the National Consumer Law Center in Boston, told the committee that about 3.5 percent of the state’s more than 800,000 single-family mortgages – which represent approximately 28,000 households – are more than 90 days in arrears.

“That number rises to more than 15 percent of the over 87,000 Federal Housing Administration loans in Massachusetts,” she said. “FHA loans are the primary home ownership option for borrowers of color who have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic. These are families who are unlikely to own their homes again if these defaults result in a foreclosure sale. “

By Thursday, 82 lawmakers had co-funded either or both versions of the House or Senate bill, a sign that the proposal may have a reasonable chance of getting it passed if it hits the House or Senate.

Sponsors filed the bill in March, when vaccine eligibility was still limited and the state of emergency still existed and President Joe Biden was calling on states to pass eviction moratoriums, the Housing Committee decided last week to schedule a hearing.

Several lawmakers noted Thursday that the hearing will take place during the legislature’s traditional August hiatus, when much of Beacon Hill slows down and avoids tackling critical business.

“The committee has the power to put this bill on the Beacon Hill agenda or bring it closer to the Beacon Hill agenda so that in September before the CDC’s eviction moratorium – on which many judges and experts will speak – in the House of Representatives and full action in the Senate will be taken by then – expires, ”said Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz.