If the pause is lifted, tenant advocates see ‘tidal wave’ of evictions

Tenant advocates this week warned of a potential “tidal wave” of evictions of Boston residents this year if the pandemic-induced moratorium on filings is lifted, saying it would exacerbate the crisis that already disproportionately impacts Black residents in city neighborhoods, including Mattapan and Dorchester.

City Life/Vida Urbana published its latest research on market-rate eviction filings on Sunday which focused on Boston Housing Court records from 2014 to 2016 but also looked at filings from this year. The report was shared during an online conference that included tenant advocates from across the nation. 

“The key finding here is that market-rate eviction filings in Boston are occurring disproportionately in neighborhoods of color, particularly Black neighborhoods,” said David Robinson of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning department, who compiled the report with his MIT colleague, Justin Stiel, in partnership with City Life-Vida Urbana. 

“When the dust settles on the immediate crisis, and evictions once again proceed, Boston’s communities of color will face an unprecedented surge in evictions,” the report states.

Unemployment is at unprecedented levels amid a pandemic-prompted national recession, and roughly one in five renter families across the state will be unable to afford housing costs, according to the study.

Gov. Baker signed a bill on April 20 imposing a 120-day pause on almost all housing removal procedures, despite urging from landlords that he allow them to issue notices to quit. The new law allows him to extend it in 90-day intervals if the public health crisis continues.

Rep. Kevin Honan, the House chair of the Legislature’s Housing Committee, and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh both added their voices via Twitter to those calling on Baker to trigger an extension.

Walsh called for Beacon Hill leaders to add “whatever supports are necessary to protect landlords from foreclosure and other harms” to a longer moratorium. “Housing insecurity is clearly an issue of racial equity as well as general economic disruption,” he tweeted.

Walsh noted that it’s important to help small landlords, who still have mortgages, property taxes, and other bills to pay, and risk losing their buildings, according to The Boston Globe. Peter Shapiro, a longtime Boston housing counselor and small-property landlord, told the paper that he has been working with trade group Mass Landlords to push a bill that would have the state guarantee rent for landlords who don’t evict tenants who can’t pay. Without some sort of backup, he said, many smaller landlords — who often charge lower rents than institutional investors with newer buildings — could go bust if tenants can’t or won’t pay rent for months to come.

Robinson and Stiel found that: 52 percent of Boston’s rental units are in majority-nonwhite communities, while 70 percent of evictions are filed in the same neighborhoods; 37 percent of eviction filings occur in neighborhoods where a majority of residents are Black, even though only 18 percent of the city’s rental housing is in these neighborhoods; more than 78 percent of all evictions filed in Boston during the pandemic and before the statewide eviction moratorium occurred in communities where the majority of residents are people of color; neighborhoods with the highest market-rate eviction filing rates were Roxbury, Mattapan, Hyde Park, South End and Dorchester. 

Robinson said that the data set only accounts for “formal” eviction filings and doesn’t capture evictions that happen “informally” outside of court. “We’re not seeing it as the sum total of all evictions that are happening in Boston, but kind of the trends and patterns of evictions,” he said. 

The researchers also compared eviction filing data from 2014 to 2016 with more recent eviction records dating from the “onset of the pandemic in Boston” on March 1 to April 20, when Baker signed the statewide eviction and foreclosure moratorium. 

Lisa Owens, executive director at City Life/Vida Urbana, said that Boston’s neighborhoods are bracing for a “tidal wave” of evictions when the statewide moratorium on eviction is lifted in August. 

“Massachusetts housing court is estimating 20,000 eviction filings immediately after the moratorium on foreclosures and evictions is lifted as early as Aug. 18,” she said. “Well before the pandemic, Black communities and other communities of color were subject to systemic racism in the form of government policies and discriminatory and oftentimes violent actions of private market actors.”

Annie Gordon, a tenant at Fairlawn Apartments in Mattapan, said she was fighting a rent hike and possible eviction before the moratorium passed. “We face extremely high rent increases, and residents don’t understand that they have rights and that they can fight back,” she said. 
Ruby James Saucer, a Mattapan resident who last year faced a $700 rent increase before negotiating with her landlord in court through a tenant organization, said nearly her entire income goes towards paying rent. 

“You just can’t live to pay rent in this country,” Saucer said. “If we don’t have rent control to combat that and if we don’t do something before this moratorium is over, we will be in a world of panic with people not being able to live in their homes.”

During the online discussion, housing advocates from around the country shared their cities’ perspectives on how evictions disproportionately impact their own communities of color, contributing to a nationwide trend. 

In December 2019, Walsh released “An Action Plan to Reduce Evictions,” pledging to create 69,000 affordable housing units in Boston by 2030. His housing goal is to have 15,820 affordable housing units across a range of incomes, increasing the city’s income-restricted inventory total to 70,000.

“The city tracks eviction data every year and the data has clearly shown that evictions rates are higher in affordable housing and neighborhoods of color,” Sheila Dillon, the chief of housing for the city, said in a statement. “The Walsh administration is committed to reducing the number of evictions in Boston and has put forth a plan to guide this work.”

On Monday, US Rep. Ayanna Pressley referenced the City Life/Vida Urbana report as she spoke on the House floor in support of H.R. 7301, a bill that she said “would provide targeted relief to renters and homeowners impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.” Thirty percent of families have missed a rent payment during the pandemic, she noted.

“Our families, in particular Black families, are on the edge of an eviction tsunami, just as the renter protections put in place through the CARES Act are due to expire next month,” she said.

“I am proud that this bill includes my Public Health Emergency Shelter Act and will provide more than $11 billion in funding for rapid rehousing and efforts to improve the health and safety of those experiencing homelessness. We must support this critical legislation and affirm our commitment to housing as a human right and housing as a form of justice.”

State House News Service reporting was included in this story.