Richard Neal, Danny Davis (copy)

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, says he believes that the new federal eviction moratorium is necessary because of rising COVID-19 cases. “The reality here is that we began to prematurely, I think, celebrate the end of the pandemic, only to find it’s made a bit of a comeback,” he told The Eagle.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal says he supports the new federal eviction moratorium and would like to see eviction protections extended to Franklin and Hampshire counties.

After President Joe Biden said last month that he would not extend a moratorium that had been in place since September, left-leaning congressional Democrats called upon Biden and congressional leaders to protect renters ahead of the July 31 expiration of the moratorium. U.S. Reps. Cori Bush, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar, Democrats representing Missouri, Massachusetts and Minnesota, respectively, slept on the U.S. Capitol steps in Washington to protest the inaction.

While Biden initially had asked Congress to extend the moratorium, which he said he did not have the legal authority to extend, he announced a new moratorium Tuesday through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The new moratorium, which Biden said was necessary because of the recent spread of the coronavirus’ delta variant, will stop evictions from being carried out through Oct. 3 in counties where COVID-19 transmission is “substantial” or “high.”

Currently, that includes all Massachusetts counties except Franklin and Hampshire.

Neal, a Springfield Democrat who represents the Berkshires in Congress, did not join the public calls for action but said Thursday that he sees the new moratorium as “the correct path.”

“There’s a full acknowledgement that tenants need a place to live and landlords need to be able to pay their mortgages and their taxes on property,” Neal said. “I think as the pandemic has made a bit of a comeback that this as an understanding that something needed to be done for a couple of more months.”

Legal challenges to the earlier moratorium made their way to the Supreme Court. The court decided June 29 to let the moratorium stand, but Justice Brett Kavanaugh said that any further extension of the moratorium would have to come through Congress. The White House had said June 24 that July would be the “final month” for the moratorium.

Biden has said he is unsure if the new moratorium can withstand legal challenges. Alabama and Georgia real estate trade groups, which mounted the challenges to the earlier moratorium, sued again Wednesday.

Neal said he believes that Congress should take action to extend the moratorium if it expires or is defeated in the courts before the COVID-19 spread declines.

“I think Congress should have to act if the variant is not contained by October,” Neal said. “What the president is suggesting is that by the time the legal challenges will be tested, there will be an opportunity to analyze whether the variant and COVID have been held in check.”

Some constituents, including Pittsfield City Councilor Helen Moon, had expressed disappointment previously over what they saw as Neal’s relative silence on the issue.

“There are real issues that this area faces with housing insecurity, and we need our congressperson to be willing to not just take a position, but to do the work,” Moon said in an interview, referencing the protest led by Bush.

Neal added that he believes states must make it easier for tenants and landlords to access rental assistance money. Of the $46 billion that the federal government sent to states for rental assistance, just $3 billion had been spent through June.

“The problem was not in the appropriation of funds through the American Rescue Plan,” Neal said. “The problem has been in the pipeline of trying to get the money into the hands of the people we intended to help.”

Franklin, Hampshire protections sought

In Franklin and Hampshire counties, where COVID-19 transmission rates are deemed “moderate,” renters do not qualify for the new moratorium.

Neal said the state has “enough flexibility” to protect those renters. Asked to clarify what actions he believes the state can take, he said, “I don’t think they should be put on the street because they lost their job during the pandemic; that’s my point.”

Housing advocates, locally and statewide, are looking to a bill in the Massachusetts Legislature as the solution. Known as the COVID-19 housing equity bill, it would require landlords to pursue and cooperate with rental assistance programs before filing for an eviction, as well as reform rental assistance programs, reinstate a pause on foreclosures and require forbearance based on federal policies.

“The COVID-19 Housing Equity bill will close the gaps and create the protection we need for tenants and homeowners across the Commonwealth facing eviction or foreclosure due to COVID-19,” the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness said in a Wednesday post on its website.

That bill has been set for a legislative hearing Thursday. It is “probably in a position to get passed and implemented quickly” and would protect tenants statewide, one advocate said Thursday.

The federal moratorium would cease to apply in any county that has stopped experiencing at least a substantial rate of COVID-19 cases for 14 days, the CDC has said.

Infrastructure bill

The infrastructure package Biden has proposed also would include $213 billion in spending on housing initiatives, which the White House has said would “produce, preserve, and retrofit more than two million affordable and sustainable places to live in more — and higher opportunity — communities.”

While Neal has not committed to Biden’s proposal to fund the package by raising taxes on the wealthy, he said he is confident that the deal will get done.

“I’m not going to volunteer anything right now, until I get a better idea of what the architecture is,” Neal said, adding that House Ways and Means Democrats have begun modeling work to look at possible funding sources.

But, he said of the legislation, “It will get done.”

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin

@berkshireeagle.com,

@djinreports on Twitter and

413-496-6221.

Statehouse reporter

Danny Jin is the Eagle's Statehouse reporter. A graduate of Williams College, he previously interned at The Eagle and The Christian Science Monitor.