Massachusetts ended its eviction moratorium on October 17, a government action that is expected to lead to an eviction crisis in the state as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on the economy and people’s health and livelihoods.
“In spite of the fact that the need for the moratorium has not abated, Governor Baker chose not to extend the eviction moratorium,” says Maureen McDonagh, managing attorney and director of the Legal Services Center’s Housing Law Clinic. “We predict a huge surge in homelessness as a result of this decision and the legislature’s failure to act. We are deeply concerned about the well-being of all at-risk tenants as the weather turns cold and the pandemic rages on.”
CDC Eviction Moratorium Still Allows Cases to Move Forward
Nonpayment of rent, no-fault, and lease violation evictions can resume through district court and housing court. While the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) moratorium protects some tenants facing nonpayment of rent through 12/31, the stated policy of the trial court is to allow those cases to be filed and move forward through the court process, but not allow any eviction to be executed before the end of the moratorium period.
“We disagree with this interpretation of the order and plan to push back on it and argue that cases should not be entered or should be frozen wherever the CDC order applies,” McDonagh says.
While the CDC moratorium may successfully delay some evictions until after December 31st, it is unlikely to have a significant impact on the overall eviction and homelessness crisis.
15 Retired Judges Recalled to Handle Case Volume Via Zoom
Eviction court will take place on Zoom or via telephonic hearings and Governor Baker is recalling 15 retired housing court judges to manage the enormous volume of cases that the court anticipates. “We have heard that the court plans to hear and dispose of multiple trials per hour,” says McDonagh.
Access to Justice Questions for Those Without Technology
“We are extremely concerned about access to justice issues for clients who don’t have internet or smartphones/computers, as well as the quality of justice people will receive under such circumstances,” she adds.
This week, Governor Baker announced a large-scale funding package, called the Eviction Diversion Initiative, which increases rental assistance and rapid re-housing funds, establishes community (pre-court) mediation programs, and expands access to free legal assistance.
State’s New Eviction Diversion Initiative
“We look forward to seeing how these programs ramp up and hope that they do decrease evictions,” says Julia Devanthéry, who directs LSC’s Housing Justice for Survivors Project. “But even on an optimistic timetable, they will not be operational for several weeks and maybe months, and the appropriations are not even enough to address the crisis. We need an extension of the moratorium in order for these programs to have a chance of making a positive impact, and thus far the Governor has refused to do so.”
Guaranteed Housing Stability Act Still Alive in Legislature
The Guaranteed Housing Stability Act is still alive in the Massachusetts Legislature and if passed, would extend the moratorium for 12 months after the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency and stop the types of evictions that fuel mass displacement through gentrification.
“Our allies are working hard to apply the political pressure necessary to get it passed, but it has an uphill battle,” says Devanthéry.
Learn more about how to support this legislation at homesforallmass.org.
Right-to-Counsel Effort To Be Piloted
The Eviction Diversion Initiative calls for the hiring of many new legal services attorneys and non-attorney advocates to staff the COVID Eviction Legal Help Project for COVID related non-payment cases, notes Devanthéry. “This is a significant advancement in the movement towards a right to counsel in eviction cases, and we are very much looking forward to it getting off the ground. We will know more about what that will look like soon.”
Other Wide-Ranging Efforts Underway
The tenant advocacy community has been working tirelessly to try to prevent this crisis, and barring that, to prepare for it. LSC and others who are part of the tenant advocacy community are trying to help build support for a meaningful legislative solution, advocating directly with the court for better policies, coordinating with tenant organizers at City Life/Vida Urbana on political strategies and direct action, planning trainings for community partners and new lawyers, conducting community information sessions for tenants, developing pro se pleadings, partnering with pro bono firm attorneys, adapting attorney-for-the-day programs, and organizing our own programmatic responses to the onslaught of cases.
“What is coming is a completely preventable humanitarian crisis, and while we are shocked that our elected officials are allowing it to happen, we are ready to stand with tenants and fight for housing justice,” says Devanthéry.
Additional information about an individual’s rights during an eviction process can be found here. Individuals facing eviction can call LSC’s housing intake line at 617-390-2535.
It is expected that the volume of clients needed assistance will exceed the ability of LSC’s Housing Clinic and partner agencies to provide assistance. The Housing Clinic will update its referral processes once the right to counsel pilot is up and running and as the volume of referrals outstrips the ability for LSC and other agencies to respond.
Read LSC Housing and Domestic Violence Attorney Julia Devanthery’s op-ed on the crisis in Medium.