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Sunday, 18 October 2020

Tens of thousands fear ‘imminent eviction’ as Massachusetts moratorium lifts

 The statewide eviction and foreclosure moratorium expires on Saturday Oct. 17, leaving tens of thousands of households across the commonwealth in fear of losing their homes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimates some 60,000 renter households across the state “fear imminent eviction,” while housing advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana estimates the number to be closer to 100,000.

The moratorium was originally put in place as an emergency protection ahead amid the coronavirus pandemic, and many have called on Gov. Charlie Baker to once again extend the moratorium — particularly given the winter months and flu season approaching, as well as a potential second surge of the Covid-19 pandemic that brought the region to its knees this spring.

But while Baker has already extended the moratorium twice this year, he hasn’t signaled that he intends to do so again. Indeed, on Monday he injected $171 million into housing stability protection, including $100 million to support the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition Program. Part of that additional funding, however, was to recall 15 retired judges to clear a backlog of cases at the commonwealth’s Housing Court.

Some landlords say they’re sympathetic to the plight of renters, but argue that most of the city’s residential property owners can’t survive the continued risk of not being paid by tenants. They also say it affects the quality of life for everyone if they can’t afford to pay for property maintenance because they aren’t able to collect rent.

On Friday, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey added her voice to those calling on Baker to extend the moratorium. Since the start of the pandemic, Healey’s office has halted more than 80 illegal evictions, and she argued that the protections and programs Baker funded should be fully staffed and operational prior to the eviction’s end, such as hiring and training mediators and legal aid attorneys.

“We need the time to do this right. That means extending the moratorium until the safety net created under this plan is up and running and resources are fully available to all residents,” Healey said in a statement. “Too much is at stake when it comes to the health and safety of our residents.”

Indeed, many housing advocates this week expressed a sense of concern and trepidation about the moratorium’s end.

“There’s a lot of confusion, and there’s a lot of fear,” said Vanessa Calderón-Rosada, CEO of community development corp. Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción in Boston’s South End. “People are scared as to what’s going to happen.”

‘Winter is coming’

Worries about the moratorium’s end stems largely from the ongoing uncertainty over the Covid-19 pandemic. Advocates say they’re grateful for the additional funding into housing stability programs, and recognize that the eviction ban can’t be extended forever. But they fear the colder winter months and a potential second wave of the pandemic approaching.

Kimberly Mendoza Iraheta, a care navigator at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, said that while the additional $100 million toward the commonwealth’s RAFT program helps, “it’s a very small Band-Aid for a very big wound that is the housing crisis.” Many of the up to 100,000 households that could be impacted by the eviction moratorium are families that have complex medical needs that could be made much worse by moving to another home, she said.

“It’s cruel to think that winter is coming, and Covid-19 is still here and probably will be getting worse, and the flu season is coming,” Iraheta said.

She said the lifting of the eviction moratorium exacerbates “a domino effect” because it’s expected to disproportionately hurt households that have already faced severe hardship amid the pandemic, both from infection rates and job losses from the business shutdown this spring. Low-income households have lost jobs at four times the rate of higher-income earners in the pandemic, impacting their ability to make rent payments, according to the most recent Greater Boston Housing Report Card. Lower-income people of color working essential jobs had the highest rates of coronavirus infection, research shows — and those neighborhoods most impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic will be most impacted by the eviction moratorium lift.

Advocates have called for ensuring housing stability for the most vulnerable population, as well as reexamining the longer-term outlook of how to adequately address the region’s housing crisis — recognized as one of the Boston area’s biggest economic problems for years before the pandemic.

“We really need to think about the future, because if not, we’re going to be in the now forever,” Calderón-Rosada said. “We might be operating in this crisis mode for yet another year. So we need to think about that immediate need, and we also need to think about, what are we going to do? How are we going to get out of this mess, and create a more sustainable housing plan for the future, for families?”

‘Couldn’t possibly be a long-term solution’

Other protections beyond the statewide moratorium remain for renters. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still has an eviction moratorium in place through the end of the year, contending that “the evictions of tenants could be detrimental to public health control measures” aiming to slow the spread of the coronavirus. And Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has urged landlords to sign the city’s Housing Stability Pledge, which aims to prevent evictions and foreclosures and honor the federal moratorium.

Boston-based WinnCompanies, one of the largest apartment rental companies in the U.S. and the operator of 18,000 households with 35,000 residents across Massachusetts, has signed the pledge. Gilbert Winn, CEO of WinnCos., said he’s not expecting an eviction tsunami given those protections. A rental assistance fund is a bridge for both tenants and landlords to survive the economic damage wrought by the pandemic, Winn said. But it can’t be forever.

“They couldn’t possibly be a long-term solution, because it would essentially be saying that all private housing has been made public, and you could expect to get all your rent from the government. That’s not going to happen,” Winn said.

WinnCompanies' portfolio of 214 properties across Massachusetts currently has 479 active payment agreements — where WinnCos. as the landlord and a residential tenant actively negotiated what was feasible to pay each month — and has completed an additional 1,800 payment agreements.

From a landlord’s perspective, missing rent payment can often mean missing out on needed income as well as missing out on payments that can fund a property’s upkeep, including security, cleaning, landscaping, or other resident services, Winn said.

“It’s not just a financial issue. It is a quality of life issue for the entire community,” Winn said. “Even if you’re not a renter, and you live next to a rental apartment community, you’re going to be impacted by the crisis, because landlords can’t afford to upkeep the property.”

What’s more, the challenges wrought by the pandemic aren’t solely targeting renters. The majority of landlords in Boston are smaller landlords who own a handful of units, versus larger publicly traded institutional landlords with global portfolios. Those smaller landlords have drastically less price elasticity than a deep-pocketed public real-estate investment trust, and rely on rental payments for their income, said Demetrios Salpoglou, CEO of apartment research and listing company Boston Pads.

“A lot of these landlords bought these properties for the specific reason of being risk-averse,” he said. “Landlords are not used to this kind of risk in the equation.”

But much of what made Boston’s residential real estate market a relatively risk-averse proposition — notably, a swell of higher-education students flooding the region every year — was wrenched to a halt this year.

“As landlord, you’re supposed to do so many things to make sure the property runs properly — but if you don’t have the resources to do it, what do you do at that point?” Salpoglou said. “It’s a challenge on both sides.”

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