While Massachusetts took some steps to prevent evictions during the coronavirus pandemic, many of those remaining protections had been set to expire June 15 — unless lawmakers extend them.
And with less than a week to go, that’s exactly what advocates are pushing for.
A top priority is to extend a 2020 law that requires courts to grant a “continuance” for an eviction case, pausing the case, if the person facing eviction has a pending application for rental assistance. That policy is set to end at the expiration of the state of emergency, which Gov. Charlie Baker set for June 15.
“I think the real take-away message is, it’s great that the Legislature is now working to preserve some of these protections,” said Joel Feldman, a Springfield-based attorney, noting that Baker did not include Chapter 257 protections in a bill he put forth proposing to extend some policies tied to the state of emergency.
Feldman expressed hope that the bill the Legislature passes not only would include Chapter 257 protections, but also include an adoption and extension of separate federal protections that are set to end June 30. Feldman represents tenants, including some facing eviction, through his firm Heisler, Feldman and McCormick, and he helped draft the Massachusetts eviction moratorium that was in place from April to October 2020.
Protections implemented during the pandemic showed “what was possible” when advocates organized to prevent evictions, but the present moment calls for additional action, said Pamela Schwartz, executive director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness.
“We know we can make the end of homelessness happen,” Schwartz said at a Friday “call to action” on Zoom. “We just have to be able to find the will to do it.”
More than 225 people attended the virtual meeting, including several Western Massachusetts lawmakers and/or staff members from their offices.
The previous time eviction protections in the state loosened, the October expiration of the eviction moratorium, a spike in eviction proceedings followed, as well as a surge in COVID-19 cases that some advocates link to displaced renters doubling up. Since Oct. 19, over 16,000 new eviction cases have been filed in the state, and courts have granted more than 3,000 executions for possession, which allow property owners to repossess units.
Across the four counties of Western Massachusetts, 2,167 evictions have been filed, and 137 executions have been granted, Keleigh Pereira, director of the Three County Continuum of Care, said Friday. Additionally, 452 properties face the threat of foreclosure, Pereira said.
While advocates say current protections are not strong enough, they want to extend existing policies before the June 15 state of emergency expiration and to pursue legislation for sustainable solutions in the long term.
State Rep. Bud Williams, D-Springfield, called the June 15 expiration of eviction protections a racial justice issue, citing estimates that, reflecting disparities in access to economic opportunity, Black renters are twice as likely to face eviction as white renters and that 60 percent of Massachusetts residents behind on rent are people of color.
Speakers on Friday also described personal experiences of homelessness and facing foreclosure that they said left them with lasting trauma.
A top legislative priority is to pass what advocates call the “COVID-19 housing equity bill,” which would pause no-fault evictions for a year after the end of the state of emergency, establish COVID-19 impacts as a legal defense against eviction, require landlords to cooperate with rental assistance programs before pursuing eviction, add foreclosure protections for homeowners and small-scale landlords, and reform the way the state distributes rental assistance money.
Other legislative priorities include establishing a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction, sealing records for no-fault evictions and expanding housing production with a focus on affordable units.
Preventing housing insecurity and homelessness, one speaker suggested Friday, is more a matter of building political will than of finding new solutions.
“It isn’t the question of another study,” said Marc Dones, CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority in Washington state.
“It isn’t a question of whether or not we know that housing is the solution to homelessness. It’s a question of whether or not we’re going to do the things we need to do to make those things available to the people who need them.”