Ogden

Elton Ogden, president of the Berkshire Housing Development Corp. and Berkshire Housing Services, said more people are seeking money for housing assistance during the coronavirus pandemic. Ensuring that the money flows promptly is thought to be key to preventing evictions — and a possible COVID-19 spike.

After the expiration of Massachusetts’ eviction moratorium, hundreds of renters in Berkshire County found eviction notices taped to their doors.

In the month after Oct. 17, when the moratorium was lifted, 327 14-day notices were served through the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office. During the same period last year, 102 were served.

Although a notice to quit formally communicates a landlord’s intent to terminate the lease, tenants do not have to leave their housing until a court orders an execution after hearing the case.

“The wave that we were all concerned with has definitely arrived,” said Elton Ogden, president of the Berkshire Housing Development Corp. and Berkshire Housing Services.

Nevertheless, fewer landlords have taken the next step after posting a notice — a summary process summons and complaint — than during the same period last year.

While tenant advocates fear a rise in homelessness, as well as a continued COVID-19 spike if displaced renters couch surf or bunk up, they hope the state’s increased assistance can help before it’s too late.

Days before letting the moratorium expire, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a $171 million plan to increase money for rental assistance and rapid rehousing, and the recently signed budget also increased funding for housing-related programs.

That money ultimately might provide a “significant” contribution, Ogden said, but even with efforts to improve the process, it takes time to get the money into the hands of those who need it.

“Right now, the money is not going out the door quickly enough to stem the flow of people into the court system,” he said. “It’s still taking far, far too long.”

Housing, virus link

Evictions could accelerate the spread of COVID-19, a recent report suggests.

The lifting of statewide protections led to an estimated 433,700 COVID-19 cases and 10,000 deaths from the disease across 27 states, according to a study led by UCLA postdoctoral researcher Kathryn Leifheit. The paper is not yet peer-reviewed, since researchers felt that it was urgent to make the information public.

Massachusetts’ case is slightly different from those states’. When Massachusetts’ moratorium expired, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s federal moratorium offered some protection, though less than what the state provided. In the 27 states that researchers studied, the statewide moratorium expired before the CDC moratorium was put in place.

Yet, what the paper shows is that evictions have been “a direct contributor to this public health crisis,” said Pamela Schwartz, executive director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness.

“When you displace people from their home, unless they’re on the street or in a shelter, they’re moving into other people’s homes,” she said.

Rose Webster-Smith, program coordinator for Springfield No One Leaves, believes recent coronavirus spikes in Massachusetts are due, in part, to the expiration of the moratorium and a “struggling” homeless sheltering system.

“We weren’t spiking when the moratorium was in place,” she said. “Now, you have communities across Western Massachusetts spiking, communities in Central Massachusetts spiking, communities in Eastern Massachusetts spiking.”

Latest numbers

After an initial surge, the rate at which notices to quit have been served appears to be decreasing. Forty-nine 14-day notices were served from Nov. 20 to Dec. 21, a fraction of the more than 300 served during the previous month and roughly half the number served during that stretch last year.

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While 14-day notices concern nonpayment of rent, landlords can serve 30-day notices for a range of reasons, such as violation of the lease. Ninety-nine 30-day notices were served from Oct. 17 to Dec. 21, up from 48 last year.

Summary process summons and complaints — landlords must serve them through a sheriff before filing a court case — have yet to surge. From Oct. 17 to Dec. 21, 204 summary process summonses and complaints were served, down from the 240 served last year.

More than 80 eviction cases have been filed between the Berkshire district courts and Western Housing Court since the moratorium expired.

Most eviction cases likely have come from landlords who did not believe that a tenant had a pandemic-related reason for nonpayment, said James Stockley III, president of the Rental Housing Association of Berkshire County.

“Landlords are not looking to evict their tenant based solely on the rent,” Stockley said. “If it’s a true COVID-related issue, most landlords are willing to work with their tenant to try to get something. If the tenant has nothing due to COVID … that’s where the funding comes in.”

Landlords had to keep paying mortgages and utility bills even when tenants stopped paying, so, many landlords have welcomed the opening of the court system.

Yet, the ways courts are handling eviction cases differ, based on their interpretations of the CDC moratorium.

District courts are not hearing cases until the CDC moratorium expires. Western Housing Court, meanwhile, is hearing cases up until judgment, but will not issue executions, which allow owners to take possession of property through the sheriff.

Courts now also are more frequently referring parties to resources, said Brad Gordon, staff attorney and executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority.

“The courts are probably going to be very reluctant to grant those evictions, and we’ll work with the parties to try to bridge those gaps in mediation,” Gordon said.

Gordon’s group provides housing and legal counseling, and it received 173 new housing and legal counseling cases and 19 foreclosure prevention counseling cases during the first month after the moratorium. Historic averages are 101 housing and legal counseling and nine foreclosure prevention cases.

That people are seeking help, Gordon said, is a “good sign.”

Funding problems

When the CDC moratorium expires — a federal aid deal proposes to extend it through the end of January — some tenant advocates fear that landlords will begin seeking executions to remove renters. Landlords, though, fear a further extension would limit options for small-scale owners who aren’t receiving payments.

Key to preventing a flood of evictions is ensuring that money flows promptly.

During the first week of December, the Berkshire Housing Development Corp. had 192 people in the funding line, meaning they were qualified but still had to complete a verification process to receive a check. The group received well over 200 new inquiries a week regarding assistance in October and November, up from an average of about 50 in the spring.

In a Dec. 10 letter, Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based group, called upon the Baker administration to streamline the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition process. Citing estimates that as many as 300,000 Massachusetts renters could be at risk of eviction, the group said people of color would be hit disproportionately by evictions if the funding process does not improve.

Several homeowners in Berkshire County also are seeking assistance, Ogden added.

“There’s a broad income spectrum of people who are really being impacted,” he said.

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.