Bill to extend rent, eviction freeze passes key hurdle

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing voted along party lines last week to recommend a bill that would halt evictions and freeze rents until a year after Gov. Charlie Baker lifts the COVID-19 state of emergency, seeking to keep people hurt economically by the pandemic in their homes. The push to put in place long-term tenant protections comes as fears of a second surge of the coronavirus this fall and winter are growing, and housing advocates worry that tens of thousands of evictions in the pipeline could exacerbate the pandemic.

Community organizers said that short of legislation or another extension they were also making preparations to physically blockade evictions with their bodies, if it comes to that. The expiration of the moratorium could lead to anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000 evictions, advocates said.

“Many of us can’t pay rent because we haven’t been called back to work ... ,” said Rosa Lidia Godoy, a Chelsea resident who, along with her husband, lost her job because of the pandemic. “We urge the governor to hear our voices.”

Godoy was one of more than a dozen people who rallied outside the State House and joined a virtual press conference on Sept. 30 to press for passage of the bill, known as the Act to Guarantee Housing Stability. The bill was filed in the House by Housing Committee Co-Chairman Rep. Kevin Honan, of Brighton, and Rep. Mike Connolly, of Cambridge.

The Honan-Connolly bill would bar evictions for missed rent payments due to the pandemic and prevent no-fault evictions and rent increases for 12 months after the governor lifts the state of emergency, which was put in place in March. It would also help small landlords with fewer than 15 units by allowing them to pause their mortgages and put missed payments onto the end of the loan and set up a fund to help small-scale landlords with money from public or private sources, include legislative appropriations or federal relief funding.

The 14-2 vote in favor of the bill now sends it to the House Ways and Means Committee ,where Honan told the News Service it could be amended based on ongoing negotiations between legislators, the Baker administration and the courts. A Republican with the power to extend the existing moratorium on evictions, Baker has said he’s inclined to let it expire on Oct. 17, but he’s talking with judges and others about ways to avoid a housing crisis in the midst of a pandemic.

Every Democrat on the committee voted to advance the bill (H 4878), while the two House Republicans — Reps. David DeCoste and Will Crocker — voted no. Sen. Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth, the only GOP senator on the panel, reserved his rights. The bill would also offer some assistance to small landlords, including allowing property owners with fewer than 15 rental units to pause their mortgages and put missed payments onto the end of the loan.

Honan said he didn’t know what would happen if a deal can’t be reached by Oct. 17.

“Obviously the public health emergency is still here and winter is coming,” Honan said. “We continue to explore common ground with the stakeholders, understanding that everyone is impacted by the pandemic, so there is a lot of work that remains to be done on this.”

Baker signaled that he was prepared to allow the state’s eviction and foreclosure moratorium to lapse after extending the ban for two months over the summer, mentioning ongoing talks with the courts and housing groups about an alternative solution.

Prior to his unexpected death, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants had been an active participant in those talks, and his passing forced the administration to “recalibrate some of those discussions,” according to the governor.

“I think our view at this point in time is we’d really like to see if we can put a plan together to make sure we can do, with the courts, what needs to be done to ensure that people are protected with respect to their housing, but the longer this things goes on the deeper the hole gets, not just for tenants, but also for landlords, especially small landlords who are have in many cases already run out of rope,” Baker said.

Hodes said he was optimistic the bill would get a vote based on the breadth of support, both among lawmakers and outside organizations. Homes for All Massachusetts said 90 legislators signed on to the bill, and over 200 groups, including the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, have endorsed the proposal.