Editorial: Beacon Hill needs to show urgency in eviction crisis

As the expiration of the state’s eviction moratorium looms this weekend, there’s widespread anxiety among both tenants and landlords about just how hard the wave will crash, both personally, and for the larger good.

Gov. Baker, though, has signaled an unwillingness to extend the deadline protecting renters and landlords. Instead, he offered up a $171 million plan on Monday that will make monies available directly to tenants to pay rent— and thus help landlords in dire need of cash as well. Plus, Baker’s team reasons, there is a federal moratorium in place through at least December, which tenants who are eligible can use as protection.

But the funding pitched by Baker on Monday falls well short of the target that housing advocates have said is needed. Of particular concern, the Baker plan budgets only $65 million for the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program, a key mechanism for those facing eviction. Advocates had called for $200 million for the RAFT pot.

Dorchester’s Lew Finfer, a longtime tenant organizer who has lobbied for more relief from Beacon Hill, said Tuesday that Baker’s plans will not meet the need. As an alternative, he urged lawmakers to speed up their work on an existing bill that would keep the state moratorium in place for one year after the state of emergency ends.

Finfer also proposes a fund that would help small landlords get through that time span. The bill passed a key Beacon Hill committee, but has not yet been taken up for a vote by Democrat leaders in the Legislature.

As we await action from the state, Mayor Walsh rolled out more stop-gap measures from City Hall last week, noting: “As a city, we must use the power of what we have to provide whatever we can do to help.”

Walsh said the city will begin accepting new applications to the city’s Rental Relief Fund for up to $4,000 in assistance for eligible tenants. He also filed an ordinance with the City Council that would force landlords trying to evict tenants to also provide information on tenants’ rights and available resources. The city has sent out pamphlets to 46,000 households, targeting people who might be at risk.

“It tells them clearly that they don’t have to leave their homes if they receive a notice to quit,” Walsh said.

The real onus for finding a statewide solution rests on Beacon Hill. By some estimates, there will be as many as 100,000 renters and landlords who won’t be able to pay once the moratorium is lifted, effective Oct. 19.

Baker sounds open to the idea that his current plan might not be sufficient. “If it turns out it’s more than we need, that’s great. If it turns out it’s less than we need, we’ll figure it out,” Baker said, according to the State House News Service.

The situation is a recipe for high anxiety and a halting recovery. Massachusetts should not let its most vulnerable residents— including many people who own property and don’t want to displace people in the middle of a crisis— dangle with uncertainty right now.

The better course would be to adopt the more aggressive plan moving through the Legislature. Amid a deadly virus and national election crisis that still lurches to and fro, we should give people in this Commonwealth at least one sure-footed path forward into economic stability and recovery in 2021.

– Bill Forry