Baker, courts offer $171m proposal to deal with eviction, landlord situation

Expanded rental assistance, rapid rehousing efforts, and streamlined application processes are cornerstones of a $171 million plan announced Monday by the Baker administration to keep tenants in their homes and support landlords after the state’s eviction moratorium expires on Oct. 17.

The plan represents an alternative to extending the moratorium, which Baker is authorized to do under a law passed earlier in the pandemic and is a path that many community activists and some lawmakers say is preferable for the safety of tenants struggling due to job losses and other COVID-19 pandemic hardships.

Baker’s team said the plan was developed in coordination with the Massachusetts Trial Court and others “to manage the end of the moratorium” on Saturday. It uses federal funds as well as existing authorizations under a Covid-19 supplemental budget and does not require any additional legislative appropriation.

The plan wouldn’t be possible, according to the administration, if lawmakers hadn’t granted flexibility for the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program, which is assigned a $100 million commitment this fiscal year to expand capacity. The plan’s other major pot of funding is $48.7 million for HomeBASE and other rapid rehousing programs that aim to put people in new housing after they’ve been evicted and prevent long periods of homelessness.

A new temporary emergency program will provide funds to households for up to 12 months to assist with moving expenses, rents, and security deposits.

“This strategy has been designed to be user friendly and easily accessible for tenants and landlords in need, and is comprised of new or expanded programs to help people stay in their homes,” Baker, who had authorized one extension of the moratorium, said in a statement.

The maximum benefit available through the RAFT program will rise from $4,000 to $10,000 per household, which the administration says will help more families stabilize their housing for six months, or until the end of June if there are school-age children in the household.

In a statement released by the governor’s office, Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey said that court “has modified its procedures to provide for a two-tier process that will enable tenants and landlords to access resources and mediate their disputes in order to preserve tenancies.”

The Trial Court, which includes the state’s housing courts, has also “worked to increase its technological capacity to handle these cases safely when parties come into court and to provide those without assistance with information and access to technology where needed,” Carey said.

Lew Finfer, a Dorchester resident who is co-director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, said on Monday that the plan falls far short of meeting the financial needs identified for tenants at risk of eviction and called on the Legislature to “step up” and pass a bill (H 5018 / S 2918) that he said is cosponsored by 90 legislators and would guarantee housing stability during the state of emergency.

That bill, which the Housing Committee advanced on Sept. 30, would keep a moratorium in place for one year after the state of emergency ends, freeze rents during that span, and create a fund to help financially distressed small landlords.

Rep. Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat who has been active in the housing debate, took to Twitter after the governor announced his plan to promote the housing stability bill and plans to hold a demonstration at the governor’s house this week.

“If you think it’s outrageous that we could allow 100,000 or more households to be displaced in the middle of a #COVID winter, then join our housing justice organizers for a demonstration at the governor’s house this Wednesday at 5 p.m.,” Connolly tweeted.

“I’m certainly letting people know about it,” Connolly said about the demonstration in an interview. He said he was not sure if he would attend because his first priority is legislative business and he continues to push for advancement of the housing stability bill despite the Legislature being on recess from formal business.

“At this stage it has come down to: Do legislative leaders want to play an active role in crafting housing policy or not?” Connolly said. “And in this situation, it appears that the Legislature has really ceded its policymaking role to the governor.”

Connolly said the governor’s plan was put together behind the scenes, and with only a few days for feedback before the moratorium expires, he’s worried about the state’s ability to effectively stand up assistance programs so quickly and whether tenants will engage in the programs, or just leave their homes.

The plan also includes $12.3 million to provide tenants and landlords with access to legal representation and services prior to and during the eviction process, as well as a new community mediation process to help tenants and landlords resolve cases outside of court.

It features $6.5 million for nine Housing Consumer Education Centers, which the administration described as the “front door” for those facing a housing emergency, and $3.8 million for the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP), which provides case management support and is meant “to act as a neutral party to help tenants and landlords come to agreement.”

At least 80,000 households in Massachusetts, including both renters and homeowners, will struggle to cover the costs of both housing and basic needs this month, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council concluded last week after studying unemployment and Census Bureau data.

The administration said its plan will provide direct financial support to 18,000 households, access to legal support or community mediation for up to 25,000 households, and access to Housing and Consumer Education Center services for up to 50,000 households.

Also, an unspecified amount of money will be provided to the trial courts to bring back judges to help handle caseloads once the moratorium ends and to add housing specialists to help mediate agreements. The Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP) will also be expanded to serve more vulnerable households.

“We are pleased to provide new options for tenants and landlords to come together prior to an eviction and to quickly find a new home if a resolution is not reached,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. “These new and expanded resources will meet residents where they are and provide enhanced assistance in navigating a complex process, which has been made even more difficult by this pandemic.”

When the state moratorium expires on Saturday, a moratorium established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will become effective in Massachusetts, according to the Baker administration, and the CDC moratorium that runs through December will prevent evictions for non-payment “for qualified tenants who submit a written declaration to their landlord.”

“Courts will accept filings and process cases, and may enter judgments but will not issue an order of execution (the court order that allows a landlord to evict a tenant) until after the expiration of the CDC order,” according to the governor’s office. “Protection is limited to households who meet certain income and vulnerability criteria.”

Greg Vasil, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, issued a statement supporting the governor’s plan “to help people pay rent and stay in their homes without destabilizing the economy and forcing more owners to sell their property.”

“Building owners have worked tirelessly to ensure people can stay safe in their homes through the COVID pandemic and we need leaders to continue to find new and significant ways to support struggling tenants and property owners who can’t keep up with their bills as federal support runs out,” Vasil said.