Tenant activists, labor groups urge speedy legislation on eviction pause

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 remains pending 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.
A bill filed by state reps Kevin Honan and Mike Connolly would suspend all state evictions and non-judicial foreclosures through the extent of the commonwealth’s emergency.

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 that tenants and organizers at City Life/Vida Urbana are frustrated that a full eviction moratorium is still pending.

“It’s just the most basic, first step to stop evictions during the greatest crisis we’ve seen. We’re really frustrated and angry that they haven't passed that yet,” she said. “And even with that moratorium we’re still going to have so many other displacement and eviction problems to take on. But we just need to know that right now nobody’s going to get evicted.”

Matthews said the organization 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.”

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