Baker balks at extending eviction ban

Michael Dwyer/AP photo/Real estate investor Shad Elia, who owns 24 single-family apartment units in the Boston area, poses outside one of his properties, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, in Haverhill, Mass. Seven months after the pandemic began, landlords face an even more uncertain future. Elia says government stimulus benefits have allowed his hard-hit tenants to continue to pay rent. But now that those benefits have expired, tenants are falling behind on their payments, and Elia wonders how much longer his lenders will cut him slack. 

BOSTON — With a state ban on evictions set to expire this week, the Baker administration has rolled out a new $171 million program to help tenants and landlords impacted by the coronavirus but won't extend the moratorium.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said the initiative is aimed at keeping tenants in their homes while easing the financial stress of landlords who are struggling to pay bills.

"Our goal is to provide new options for tenants to stay in their homes and to support the expenses of landlords by making investments to new and existing programs," she told reporters at a Tuesday briefing with Gov. Charlie Baker.

But the Baker administration is balking at demands from housing advocates to extend a ban on evictions and foreclosures that is set to expire on Saturday.

The advocates say Baker's plan falls short of what is needed to protect low-income tenants worried about getting kicked out for not paying rent. To be sure, some of those tenants are shielded by a federal ban on evictions in place through the end of the year.

"The amount of money allocated, while not insignificant, is still a lot less than what we need to help people who are pressed by the loss of their job or unemployment benefits," said Lew Finfer, executive director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network. "We need to extend the moratorium."

Doug Quattrochi, executive director of the trade group Mass Landlords, said the funding will help landlords by allowing them to seek help from the state's Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program on behalf of tenants who fall behind on the rent.

Quattrochi said his group is waiting to see the state regulations that will support the new program before taking a position on it.

"We're concerned this extra money might come with some serious strings attached, such as owners forgiving back rent and agreeing not to pursue evictions until June 2021," he said. "I don't know that the math is going to work for a lot of people, because housing is not free."

Quattrochi said renters will still be protected under the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's ban on evictions, which remains in effect in Massachusetts once the state's ban expires.

More than 10,000 eviction notices filed with state courts during the pandemic have been on hold during, and advocates say there could be a "tidal wave" of evictions if the state protections aren't extended.

Advocates are prodding state lawmakers to approve a Democratic-sponsored proposal to keep the ban on evictions and foreclosures in place for at least another year.

Housing advocates held a rally on Boston Common on Sunday to call for passage of the plan, which is backed by more than 90 lawmakers. On Wednesday, protestors are expected to demonstrate outside Baker’s Swampscott home to call him to support the proposal.

The Baker administration's new initiative directs about $100 million to expand the state's RAFT program, which provides relief to renters and landlords who qualify. Another $49 million will go to a state program to help tenants who've been evicted and are at risk of becoming homelessness.

Another $12.3 million will go toward legal services to help tenants and landlords resolve eviction cases out of court.

In April, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill barring evictions and home foreclosures for 120 days. He extended the ban by another 60 days in August.

The state moratorium didn't exempt tenants from paying rent or forgive what they owe. Renters are still responsible for paying back rent.

The Baker administration's order has been challenged in court by landlords, but so far it has survived those challenges. Landlords say the ban is unconstitutional.

Congress passed a $2.3 trillion pandemic relief package in March that paused evictions in most federal subsidized housing complexes, but the ban has expired.

Last month, the Trump administration issued a directive stopping the eviction of some renters though the end of the year to prevent the spread of the virus. However, renters must meet criteria in order to qualify, including a substantial loss of income or surge in medical expenses.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

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