The Berkshire Eagle
With Massachusetts’ ban on evictions and foreclosures expiring Saturday, a vast sum of missed payments yields an uncertain future for renters, homeowners and landlords.
Gov. Charlie Baker recently approved $171 million of new funding for rapid rehousing and rental assistance, among other supports. While observers say that money will help, it won’t come close to meeting the current need.
Some say it will take months to see the impact of that extra funding, and there is disagreement between landlords and tenant advocates over what the long-term solution should be.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimated in August that the coronavirus pandemic-enlarged payment gap stood at $117 million per month.
All parties say future action must include greater support for landlords, but many landlords oppose further limiting evictions, as some lawmakers and advocacy groups have suggested.
As a less-comprehensive Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium replaces the state moratorium, renters and homeowners fear losing shelter during a public health crisis.
For smaller-scale landlords, cash-flow shortages have hindered their ability to make payments, putting the tenability of their business at risk.
The challenge for the Legislature now is to respond in a way that avoids mass evictions and provides landlords sufficient support.
Some believe that solution is an Act to Guarantee Housing Stability, which would put a yearlong pause on evictions for pandemic-caused inability to pay (narrowing eligibility from the state’s previous moratorium), while starting a tax credit to cover missed payments to small landlords, and setting up a fund to provide grants and loans.
The bill’s supporters say it’s a health risk to allow courts to start processing cases, and they anticipate 20,000 households could be evicted when the moratorium lifts, with an additional 40,000 at risk for “imminent” eviction. The state already had a backlog of 11,000 cases before the pandemic.
While the eviction process might not necessarily lead to removal, some say it’s irresponsible to leave a public health issue up to the courts. They claim that keeping people housed, moreover, could lessen the need for future spending.
For example, some of the $12.3 million Baker’s initiative puts into legal services is being used to hire retired judges. While it’s unknown how much of that money is going to judges, District Court judges earn over $185,000 a year, the Boston Herald reports.
“We are now actually wasting resources by starting those eviction processes when we could be saving money by preventing people from going through these processes,” said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield.
The task ahead for the bill’s supporters is to convince others that the bill meaningfully differs from a mere extension of the moratorium.
Yet, even some who appreciate its aid to small landlords have concerns over whether that will be enough. The approach could “just be pushing the crisis down the road,” when rent gaps are greater and resources fewer, said Brad Gordon, executive director and staff attorney for the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority.
And landlords’ struggles could have long-term consequences for renters as well: If hard-hit small landlords are bought out by “venture capital-backed entities,” housing affordability could take a hit.
Landlords have offered solutions as well, including a MassLandlords proposal to guarantee missed rents by raising $300 million through a 1 percent tax on single-family real estate transactions.
Lawmakers appear to be favoring a wait-and-see approach.
“We’ve had six to seven months under our belt with not allowing evictions and foreclosures,” said state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox. “I think we just need to reevaluate it.”
As a starting point, the Legislature remains committed to keeping renters and landlords “housed and solvent,” said state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, although how that occurs remains to be seen.
“Federal and state relief packages can help if they are targeted effectively, but I’m not sure that will happen under what the governor announced, and it certainly has not been resolved by the federal government at this point,” he said.
“For people who legitimately lost their jobs, didn’t get any additional federal dollars, let’s work with them and try to soften the blow,” Pignatelli added.