Emergency housing bill slow to take shape

A legal aid advocacy group flagged concerns Wednesday that a housing security bill advancing in the Massachusetts Senate contains gaps that leave some tenants vulnerable during a state of emergency.

While he praised the intent of the bill (S 2621) that the Senate Ways and Means Committee unanimously endorsed Tuesday, Greater Boston Legal Services staff attorney Joseph Michalakes said the legislation "fails to effectively halt evictions."

As drafted, he said, the Senate bill does not define no-fault evictions as non-essential, implying that they can still continue at this time. Michalakes also argued the bill's timeframe — in effect for 90 days after enactment or until the state of emergency is lifted, whichever comes first — creates a possibility that it will expire and evictions will resume while officials still recommend staying at home.

"We think a better approach would be to mirror what the House has produced," he said, referring to a bill (HD 4935) filed by Rep. Mike Connolly and Housing Committee Co-chair Rep. Kevin Honan, "as opposed to trying to reinvent the wheel in a way that we think doesn't really meet the urgency of the problem, which is to make sure that as few evictions as possible are happening during the public health crisis."

Standing orders in the state's trial court prevent hearings from taking place, but new eviction cases can still be filed, and GBLS has "continued to get calls" from tenants who have received execution notices for cases that advanced before the state of emergency, Michalakes said.

While some jurisdictions have implemented local restrictions on levies of execution, Michalakes argued that statewide legislation must outright ban them until the state of emergency ends to prevent sheriffs and movers from removing tenants during a public health crisis.

"In patchwork, these people are being protected, but that doesn't obviate the need for the legislation," he said. "It illustrates more powerfully the need for legislation for uniformity."

Groups have urged state lawmakers to prioritize housing security legislation with many tenants and homeowners facing a loss of jobs and income due to the coronavirus outbreak.

More than 60 organizations hoped a bill would pass by April 1, citing that date in a letter to lawmakers as a day when rents and mortgages are due and residents will feel heightened strain.

"Action is needed now to protect these families," the groups wrote. "The emergency moratorium should be definitive about protecting people from all stages of eviction and foreclosure processes until the end of the crisis, since at this time new cases are still being filed, landlords holding executions are free to use them to throw people out of their homes, and many homeowners remain vulnerable to foreclosure."

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka announced more than a week ago that they were working on eviction- and foreclosure-related legislation that they said would "provide a crucial safety net for renters and homeowners as we all grapple with the immediate economic fallout of this unprecedented public health pandemic."

Neither branch has advanced a proposal. The Senate Ways and Means Committee's bill is the most action on the topic taken to date, but the full Senate did not take the bill up during a Wednesday session.

DeLeo told representatives Tuesday that the lower chamber would tackle a housing security bill soon.

Both branches meet at 11 a.m. Thursday and since most lawmakers are staying away from Beacon Hill to comply with social distancing guidelines, a quorum will not be present and any bills that do advance will need the support of all members present.