Tenant activists, labor groups urge speedy legislation on outbreak pause of evictions

Jacqueline Tucker (front right) faces eviction and rallies for an eviction moratorium in front of Boston Housing Court on March 14. Marilyn Humphries photo

Housing activists continue to field urgent calls from tenants facing imminent eviction orders, even though a court-ordered pause on such removals will continue through mid-April.

Meanwhile, as legislation to halt all evictions during the COVID-19 emergency advances towards a vote on Beacon Hill, a coalition of 61 community groups and labor unions is calling for swift action from state lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker.

On March 14, Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan of the Massachusetts Housing Court ordered the postponement of most eviction cases in Massachusetts until April 21.

The decision was only a partial victory, said Helen Matthews, communications director for City Life/Vida Urbana, since the order does not cover those who were evicted by a judge prior to the order. 

“Unfortunately, a lot of people have received 48-hour notices to vacate, and others are calling us saying they have no idea how they’ll pay rent on April 1,” said Matthews. “We’ve had over 70 calls since we launched the hotline a week and a half ago, and that’s just in our immediate Metro Boston area. 

“We need a full moratorium that covers pre-existing orders and goes through the whole duration of the public health emergency,” she said.
That is exactly what a Senate bill that cleared a key hurdle on Tuesday would do, says Senator Nick Collins. He supports S. 2621, a bill which would halt “non-essential evictions” for “non-payment of rent due to a financial impact from COVID-19; resulting from a foreclosure; or for cause that does not involve or include allegations of criminal activity or allegations of lease violations.”

The bill was expected to come before the Senate for a vote this week. It would need to be approved by the House of Representatives and signed by the governor to go into effect.

“We are poised to pass this bill with the action taken today by the Senate Ways and Means Committee and the work of the leadership team and the Housing committee,” said Sen. Collins. “It’s a critical measure to bring relief to both mortgage holders and renters who have been impacted financially by COVID-19.”

Collins said that the Senate bill that advanced today is “prescriptive.”

“The language says you need to articulate that you have been financially impacted. It’s not for everybody. It’s for those who have lost job or lost hours or their financial position has been impacted because, for instance, your day care shut down and you could not go to work,” said Collins.

Still, if passed, the legislation would give broad protection to homeowners and tenants, not just those who are in federally-funded programs, like MassHousing.

“This is more of of blanket coverage for the state of Massachusetts,” said Collins.

Provisions of the bill make clear, however, that the intent is to prevent evictions and foreclosures from being initiated or executed during the scope of the state of emergency. It does not include any language about debt forgiveness or “forbearance” measures. The Senate bill specifically says that the measure will not “relieve a tenant from the obligation to pay rent or restrict a landlord’s ability to recover rent.”

It would, if approved in its current form, prohibit late fees from being tacked on to payments as long as “the tenant provides notice and documentation to the landlord that the non-payment of rent was due to a financial impact from COVID-19.”

On Monday, a group of 61 community organizations— dubbed the Renters Rising Coalition— sent a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Karen Spilka urging them to advance the bill.

The letter reads: “As the April 1 deadline for rent and mortgage payments looms, we write to urge immediate passage before that date of a comprehensive moratorium on evictions and foreclosures for the duration of the State of Emergency.” 

The coalition includes Dorchester-based groups like Mass Community Action Network, Mass Affordable Housing Alliance, the Mass Building Trades Council, Dorchester Not for Sale, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, Sheet Metal Workers Local 17, and the Greater Boston Labor Council.

The group noted that federal response through the CARES Act only protects federally-supported owners and renters, leaving many unprotected.  “In fact, almost 400 new cases were filed in housing courts statewide between March 16 and March 23,” the group wrote. “Comprehensive action is still needed to secure our homes.”

Matthews said City Life/Vida Urbana has been hosting weekly meetings online with tenant associations in multi-unit buildings as well as virtual livestreams on Facebook— in English every Tuesday night, and in Spanish every Wednesday night. 

The organization has also launched its hotline with bilingual access for people who are worried about getting evicted. 

“There are a lot of agreements being made outside of court that are leading to displacement between tenants and landlords— out of court settlements without the legal aid and support that is usually available to them,” said Matthews. 

She noted that tenants normally would be able to consult with Greater Boston Legal Aid to help them effectively negotiate in their best interest. 
“A whole lot of people have that very immediate question of what’s going to happen with my landlord on April 1st,” she said. 

To help combat this, Matthews said that City Life/Vida Urbana has worked with legal aid departments to produce a template letter for the tenant associations they support, which would help them communicate prospective rental hardships to landlords. 

“Through these template letters people can explain their current economic struggle to their landlords. We’ve drafted those letters and will make them available on our website soon,” she said.

“What we don’t want is for people to feel like because they’ve lost income or can’t pay rent, that they should just pack up and leave. But unfortunately, we’re really concerned a lot of people are going to [do that], even in the most unhealthy environment we’ve had in a long time.”