Since Massachusetts’ eviction moratorium expired in October, courts have authorized at least 1,500 evictions in the state for failure to pay rent, including at least 35 in Berkshire County.

A less-protective federal moratorium through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expires Saturday, a change that, observers say, could open the floodgates to greater displacement. With many people still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic-related recession, tenant advocates fear that renters forced to move out would have nowhere to go but move in with others, just as COVID-19 cases rise once more in Massachusetts.

Anyone concerned about their ability to pay rent should reach out to Berkshire Housing at 413-499-1630, ext. 168, as soon as possible, the organization told The Eagle.

President Joe Biden has said he will let the moratorium expire but, citing concerns over the delta variant of COVID-19, he has asked Congress to extend the moratorium. Also set to expire Saturday are CARES Act foreclosure protections for federally backed mortgages.

Hundreds of millions in assistance dollars remain available to renters, homeowners and landlords in Massachusetts, and a December law requires that Massachusetts courts pause an eviction case if the defendant has a pending application for rental assistance. The process typically takes a few weeks, though, before an applicant is approved or denied for money.

While regional housing agencies have gotten more money out the door than ever before, some believe that the state should simplify further the application process to accelerate the flow of money.

“Even though we have plenty of money in Massachusetts to have people get their back rent paid, many of them won’t have time to access it before landlords file to evict them,” said Rose Webster-Smith, program coordinator for Springfield No One Leaves.

Webster-Smith, who fought off a post-foreclosure eviction in 2017, says she still experiences post-traumatic stress from her six-year fight against Freddie Mac. In addition, landlords often will choose not to rent to people who have had eviction cases filed against them, even if those cases did not result in a finding of wrongdoing.

“It is not a pretty process to have to deal with,” Webster-Smith said.

Local need

Research group Surgo Ventures estimates that about 10 percent of renters in Berkshire County are behind on rent, owing an average of $2,676. That proportion ranks second among the four western counties to Hampden County, where slightly less than 15 percent of renters are estimated to be behind.

With the CDC moratorium in place, Massachusetts courts have continued to accept eviction filings and proceed with eviction cases. For tenants who file the necessary legal declaration for the moratorium, cases can go all the way until a judgment is entered, although the moratorium stops courts from ordering an execution, which authorizes a property owner to reclaim possession through a sheriff.

Since the state eviction moratorium expired in October, more than 200 eviction cases in Berkshire County and roughly 13,500 cases statewide have been filed for nonpayment of rent, the Massachusetts Trial Court reports. The state does not report the number of cases in which the CDC moratorium prevented an execution, but observers believe that the moratorium has affected a significant number.

The end of the CDC moratorium is “a concern and something we have been preparing for here at Berkshire Housing,” Berkshire Housing President and CEO Eileen Peltier said in an email. The organization works with struggling tenants, landlords and homeowners to apply to assistance programs. In the past year, the organization has helped 537 Berkshire County renters, Peltier said, more than twice its pre-pandemic level of activity.

Statewide, assistance programs have shot up in scale since the state eviction moratorium expired in October. The state has turned a program that typically served 7,000 households and distributed $20 million per year into “a disaster relief fund” that has served 33,000 households since March 2020 and now distributes more than $1 million per day, said Stefanie Coxe, executive director of the Regional Housing Network of Massachusetts, of which Berkshire Housing is a member agency.

In 2021, the state already has doled out $165 million in assistance to more than 26,000 households. Massachusetts added more than $400 million in federal aid to its rental assistance programs in April, and more than $300 million still is to come through the American Rescue Plan Act.

The end of CARES Act foreclosure protections has received less attention than the end of the CDC eviction moratorium, but nonetheless it could hurt homeowners, Webster-Smith said. At least 552 properties in the four western counties of Massachusetts are in danger of foreclosure, Webster-Smith said, citing numbers she has compiled from auction notices that banks have published in newspapers.Application processRegional agencies have worked with the state Department of Housing and Community Development to simplify the application process for rental assistance, Coxe said. While Coxe said that a simplified process has sped up the flow of money, some tenant advocates believe that the DHCD should further cut documentation requirements to make the process easier on applicants and regional agencies.

“With very technical requirements, it’s inevitable that balls are going to get dropped,” said Andrea Park, a staff attorney who works on housing for Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “The people who pay the price for that are the applicants.”

Tenant advocates say they believe regional agencies are doing the best they can to process applications but have their hands tied by DHCD requirements. Some cite a July 2 communication from the U.S. Department of Treasury asking state and local governments to “do more to accelerate aid to struggling renters.”

Coxe, though, said she believes that Massachusetts has diminished requirements to the point that the program runs smoothly. The state now requires identification from only the head of household, a change from previously requiring ID for all household members, and income verification now is quicker, Coxe said.

“You really can’t get much simpler unless you’re basically trying to do state stimulus checks that go out to anyone,” Coxe said. “You need to make sure the person is who they say that they are, they are income-qualified and there is an arrearage or they will get behind if they don’t get support. If we don’t, the funds could easily go to scammers or others instead of people who need it.”

Although Coxe said she believes that complaints over the application process stem from previous iterations, calls to reduce documentation requirements have held steady.

The leader of the statewide trade association for landlords criticized the process as unnecessarily difficult, in comments to Boston 25 News last month.

“We’re so wrapped around the axel, worried about accidentally paying someone fraudulently,” said Doug Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords.net. “As a matter of fact, we’ve failed to reward tens of thousands of households the assistance they would be entitled to, if only they could complete the paperwork.”

Kathy Keeser, who works with applicants for assistance as executive director of the nonprofit Louison House, added that the process requires back-and-forth between agencies and applicants. Some applicants have missed calls because they have been out of cellphone minutes, Keeser said. People who do not speak English as a first language, or people who lack technological expertise, also might miss communications.

“It’s not a blame on the agency. It’s on the system,” Keeser said. “If rental assistance takes so long, it’s hard for small landlords, and they’re not going to carry their bills long enough to wait. With complicated systems, we’ll lose the landlords who are willing to work with folks.”

James Stockley III, president of the Rental Housing Association of Berkshire County, said that he has not spoken with many other landlords about recent experiences with rental assistance programs. But, he said, he has had two tenants who received assistance within a few weeks, although he believes that a third tenant began, but did not complete, an application.

Since small landlords struggle to make payments for insurance, mortgages and taxes, rental assistance programs can serve as a lifeline, Stockley said.

“You’re no different from a tenant in that case, because if you get behind on your bills, most landlords start pulling out of their personal savings,” said Stockley, who said he has about 30 tenants.

Massachusetts is working to set up a centralized application for regional agencies to use. Peltier, of Berkshire Housing, said the new system “will make it even easier to apply through a user-friendly mobile portal available in multiple languages.”

Call for legislative action

True eviction diversion, tenant advocates say, would mean ensuring that landlords have pursued and cooperated with rental assistance programs before filing for eviction.

Advocates are pushing for a bill in the Massachusetts Legislature that would do just that, in addition to reforming rental assistance distribution, reinstating a pause on foreclosures and requiring forbearance based on federal policies. While the Legislature traditionally takes a recess in August, the bill is “the answer right now to preventing evictions due to COVID-19,” said Pamela Schwartz, executive director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness.

In the 160-member House, 65 lawmakers have co-sponsored the bill, in addition to 13 lawmakers in the 40-member Senate. State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, have signed on as co-sponsors. Also, the Springfield City Council has passed a resolution in support of the bill.

Stockley said he believes that landlords should not face restrictions on evictions, particularly because many landlords feel that the legal system is their best chance for collecting money they are owed. But, he does not believe that landlords face much of a negative impact from the state’s current eviction protections, which do not affect cases that are not related to COVID-19. He also likes the added focus on rental assistance programs.

“Instead of doing evictions, if you can get people to get those applications in and get all the funding, basically, financially taking care of the landlord, I think that’s great and I hope that’s what’s actually occurring,” Stockley said.

Schwartz argues, though, that further legislative action is necessary to meet the level of crisis among renters and homeowners. In recent days, Google searches for terms such as “eviction,” “eviction moratorium news” and “rental assistance” have spiked, Google Trends show.

“What the CDC moratorium did was, at the very end of an eviction case, it stopped the last gasp that make people displaced,” Schwartz said. “The need is huge, and I just don’t know that the system can get the help out quickly enough.”

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.