Eviction Fears Prompts Talks Among Mass. Lawmakers

BOSTON (State House News Service) — With Gov. Charlie Baker appearing poised to allow the state's eviction moratorium to expire in two weeks, activists are ramping up pressure on the Legislature to pass a bill that would not only ban evictions, but freeze rents for a year past the end of the COVID-19 emergency.

The push to put in place long-term tenant protections comes as fears of a second surge of the coronavirus this fall and winter are growing, and housing advocates worry that tens of thousands of evictions in the pipeline could exacerbate the pandemic.

Community organizers said that short of legislation or another extension they were also making preparations to physically blockade evictions with their bodies, if it comes to that. The expiration of the moratorium could lead to anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000 evictions, advocates said.

"Many of us can't pay rent because we haven't been called back to work ... ," said Rosa Lidia Godoy, a Chelsea resident who, along with her husband, lost her job because of the pandemic. "We urge the governor to hear our voices."

Godoy was one of more than a dozen people who rallied outside the State House and joined a virtual press conference on Wednesday to press for passage of a bill known as the Act to Guarantee Housing Stability. Some warned of families living out of cars and parking in school parking lots so their children could connect to WiFi to continue their remote learning.

"It's hard to be at a place where we even have to envision that," said Andres Del Castillo, lead organizer for City Life Vida Urbana.

The bill being promoted (H 4878/ S 2831) was filed in the House by Housing Committee Co-Chairman Rep. Kevin Honan, of Brighton, and Rep. Mike Connolly, of Cambridge.

Honan told the News Service that the Housing Committee was voting on the bill Wednesday afternoon, and that legislative leaders were in active talks with the Baker administration and the judiciary about how to proceed.

"Obviously the public health emergency is still here and winter is coming...," Honan said. "We continue to explore common ground with the stakeholders, understanding that everyone is impacted by the pandemic, so there is a lot of work that remains to be done on this."

The bill, if it clears the Housing Committee, will move to House Ways and Means where it could get amended.

Honan said he didn't know what would happen if a deal can't be reached by Oct. 17.

"We're having discussions. This is unprecedented, due to the nature of this crisis. We're in communication and that's a good thing," he said.

"Predictable Tragedy on Oct. 17"

Baker last week signaled that he was prepared to allow the state's eviction and foreclosure moratorium to lapse on Oct. 17 after extending the ban for two months over the summer, mentioning ongoing talks with the courts and housing groups about an alternative solution.

Prior to his unexpected death, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants had been an active participant in those talks, and his passing forced the administration to "recalibrate some of those discussions," according to the governor.

"I think our view at this point in time is we'd really like to see if we can put a plan together to make sure we can do, with the courts, what needs to be done to ensure that people are protected with respect to their housing, but the longer this things goes on the deeper the hole gets, not just for tenants, but also for landlords, especially small landlords who are have in many cases already run out of rope," Baker said.

The Honan-Connolly bill would bar evictions for missed rent payments due to the pandemic, and prevent no-fault evictions and rent increases for 12 months after the governor lifts the state of emergency, which was put in place in March.

It would also help small landlords with fewer than 15 units by allowing them to pause their mortgages and put missed payments onto the end of the loan, and set up a fund to help small-scale landlords with money from public or private sources, include legislative appropriations or federal relief funding.

"If we don't pass this kind of legislation, we'll be mired in the pandemic for longer and spending energy fighting evictions instead of fighting to recover," said Isaac Simon Hodes, from Lynn United for Change.

Hodes said he was optimistic the bill would get a vote based on the breadth of support, both among lawmakers and outside organizations. Homes for All Massachusetts said 90 legislators signed on to the bill, and over 200 groups, including the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, have endorsed the proposal.

"We're going to be optimistic, push for that. But also plan that if we need to and it comes down to blocking evictions at the door in scale, we're going to be ready to do that," Hodes said.

Connolly called work on the bill "an active day-in, day-out process."

"We are going to continue working to move this legislation forward. We really do not have an option. We have to get it done. We cannot be a state that walks away from our most vulnerable citizens," Connolly said.

Since the Legislature extended its formal sessions beyond July, in part, to be able to take up emergency COVID-19 legislation, neither the House nor the Senate has held a formal session.

Sen. Patricia Jehlen, who filed the housing stability legislation in the Senate, said that barring action from the governor this issue must be dealt with by the Legislature.

"We have a predictable tragedy on Oct. 17 when the evictions start," Jehlen said.

The Somerville Democrat made what she said was her first visit to the State House in six months to rally for passage of her bill. She said that if evictions resume it will be people who live in the most crowded neighborhoods working in the most dangerous jobs with the fewest resources and options who lose their homes.

"The disease will spread even more. This is totally predictable. It will stop the recovery both of our health and the economy," Jehlen said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday extended his state's COVID-19 eviction moratorium through the end of the year. And Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield signed a declaration earlier this month determining that evictions of tenants could be detrimental to public health efforts to control the spread of COVID-19, and ordering a nationwide halt on evictions until 2021.

Connolly said the enforceability of the CDC order may be uncertain, but its message was "unmistakably clear."

By Matt Murphy, State House News Service

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