While the Supreme Court’s decision to block a federal eviction moratorium does not come as a shock, Massachusetts housing advocates say it adds to the urgency for the state to act.
The court said Thursday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lacked the authority to issue the moratorium without congressional approval. President Joe Biden had argued that the rise in COVID-19 transmission tied to the delta variant made it necessary to restrict evictions.
Housing advocates, community groups and elected officials have, in recent weeks, called for Massachusetts to pass eviction protections through legislation known as the COVID-19 Housing Equity Bill. The bill would require landlords to pursue rental assistance before filing for eviction and extend eviction protections for tenants at elevated risk for COVID-19, among other measures, and it has support from Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard and all state lawmakers who represent Berkshire County.
“We needed the state eviction protections to pass urgently because the federal moratorium was not sufficient,” said Pamela Schwartz, executive director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness.
“Now, it’s even more urgent to take this crisis out of the courts and get the rental assistance into landlords’ hands in a way that also preserves tenants’ stability.”
The federal moratorium, which was set to expire in October, prevented some evictions from being carried out in Massachusetts, although property owners still could begin legal proceedings for eviction. The state had more than 800 eviction cases filed in July for nonpayment of rent, including 28 in Berkshire County, according to the state trial court.
Since the state eviction moratorium expired in October, at least 2,845 eviction cases with a back rent claim have been filed among Massachusetts’ four western counties, with 370 in Berkshire County, said Rose Webster-Smith, program coordinator for Springfield No One Leaves.
While the federal government has sent $25 billion to states for rental assistance, states have distributed only 11 percent of that money so far, the U.S. Treasury said Wednesday. Hundreds of millions of dollars remain available for assistance in Massachusetts.
Berkshire County residents who need help should reach out to the Berkshire Housing Development Corp. by calling 413-499-1630, ext. 168, or visit berkshirehousing.com, said Berkshire Housing President and CEO Eileen Peltier.
Peltier said the end of the federal moratorium likely will not result in an immediate spike in Berkshire County evictions. She said that while more people might be evicted for lease violations unrelated to nonpayment, there are sufficient resources to cover missed payments if nonpayment is the sole issue. A Massachusetts law requires courts to pause an eviction case if there is a pending application for rental assistance.
“The courts are referring people to us, and we are finding that landlords are, for the most part, amenable to waiting out the process,” Peltier said. “We have strong relationships with a lot of local landlords, so, we can have the conversations we need to.”
Berkshire Housing signed a July 21 letter urging the Legislature to pass the COVID-19 Housing Equity Bill, and Peltier said keeping people housed is an important tool to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Requiring landlords to pursue rental assistance before an eviction, as the bill would do, aims to divert the resolution of missed rent payments away from the legal system and toward the aid programs where there is money to cover what is owed.
“The courts do a great job for people litigating claims, but the job that they do is not the job that we need,” said Joel Feldman, a Springfield-based housing attorney. “The job that we need is to prevent people from getting thrown out during a pandemic that is getting worse.”
Peltier said she does not believe that requiring landlords to cooperate with rental assistance will make a significant difference because, in most cases, landlords already cooperate.
Schwartz, of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness, said the significance of the requirement is that it would ensure that the programs are getting money out as designed.
“When there’s hundreds of millions of dollars in rental assistance, there is no one who needs to go unpaid right now in Massachusetts,” Schwartz said. “They just need to participate in the system that will get them paid.”
In addition, the bill would expand eviction protections for tenants who face particularly high risk for COVID-19. State law currently provides some eviction protections for elderly and disabled tenants, and the bill would expand that category to include people likely to end up in a congregate shelter, Feldman said.
Another aspect of the bill calls for the state to simplify the application process for assistance.
The state already has worked with regional agencies that administer programs, such as Berkshire Housing, to begin that work, Peltier said. Berkshire Housing participates in a new centralized application that launched Thursday, designed to make the process more efficient.