Lynn Shore Drive, one of the most well-trafficked oceanside roadways on Massachusetts’ North Shore, is also a land bridge between two worlds. Starting in Lynn, a working-class community with a large Latinx population—and some of the highest COVID-19 infection numbers in the state—the Shore Drive curves northeast toward the tony enclave of Swampscott. Here, Queen Anne Victorian houses sell for upward of $2 million. Gov. Charlie Baker lives here, near the center of town. And on a brisk October evening, as the sun paints the seascape with a pinkish glow, people are marching up the Shore Drive, heading straight toward Baker’s house.
Community organizers, tenants, small landlords, and a crowd of multigenerational locals have converged to stage a protest outside Baker’s residence. Some of them are beating drums, as passing drivers toot their horns. Others carry banners, flags, and bullhorns. But the most telling thing here is the black cardboard coffins that several marchers are carrying. Each coffin is emblazoned with words printed in white, in both English and Spanish. The first coffin pretty much says it all:
“Evictions = Death.”
Back in March, when Northeastern cities and metro areas like Greater Boston were crippled by the first wave of COVID-19, a couple of Massachusetts state representatives worked with local housing activists to create an eviction (and foreclosure) moratorium that Gov. Baker would sign in April. It was one of the most far-reaching moratoriums in the nation, delaying all court-based eviction proceedings; protecting tenants from late fees, negative credit reporting, and physical evictions; and extending protections to those at risk of foreclosure. As thousands of Massachusetts residents contracted and died from COVID-19, the state eviction moratorium allowed people to at least stay in their homes.
But the Massachusetts moratorium was never a long-term solution for the housing crisis posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tenants were left to accrue back rent debt. Small landlords risked falling behind on mortgage payments. Noting these sustainability problems at a press conference in September, Gov. Baker said, “The longer this thing goes on, the deeper the hole gets, not just for tenants, but also for landlords, especially small landlords who have in many cases run out of rope.” The implication was clear.
Baker let the moratorium lapse on its Oct. 17 expiration date.
The creators of the Massachusetts moratorium had planned for this. Joining forces with the same activist groups that shaped the eviction freeze, Reps. Mike Connolly and Kevin Honan spent early summer working on a legislative sequel. H.4878, aka the Housing Stability Act, would not only extend the moratorium to December 2021, but would include more economic support for small landlords and tenants. And yet, unlike the eviction ban, the Housing Stability Act wasn’t given a floor vote after being presented. Instead, it became stuck in committee for months, ignored by the Democratic house speaker, Robert DeLeo. Despite a groundswell of organizing from Massachusetts residents, the bill was not taken up by the legislature, and on Oct. 17, the Massachusetts eviction moratorium expired, just in time for winter, when coronaviruses spread more readily.
How did this happen?
If nothing else, Massachusetts’ initial eviction moratorium was a success story of what’s possible when the energies and perspectives of grassroots community organizers and state politicians merge organically, yielding policy. In March, just after the World Health Organization declared the pandemic, City Life/Vida Urbana—a bilingual Boston community organization that advocates for tenants and small landlords, often intervening to help tenants facing eviction—organized a stand-out in front of Boston’s housing court. The goal was to pressure the state to close the court building, which is old, poorly ventilated, and routinely packed wall-to-wall with people. In other words, the last place you want to be during a pandemic. Massachusetts state Rep. Mike Connolly, who spent his youth in public housing, quickly took note and acted.
“The day after [the protest], Mike Connolly drafted a piece of legislation that was a response to the action we did,” says Lisa Owens, executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana. “He reached out to City Life, we reached out to some of our partners in legal aid across the state, and we worked with him to shape what he filed.” This became the bones of the eviction and foreclosure moratorium, which was presented days later by Connolly and Rep. Kevin Honan (the Housing Committee chair.) It was the product of calls and virtual meetings with not just City Life/Vida Urbana but regional housing activism groups representing areas beyond Boston. Lynn United for Change, Springfield No One Leaves, and the Chinese Progressive Association are just a few of the organizations that had a hand in crafting the moratorium.
It took the legislature until April to get the bill to Gov. Baker’s desk. (“It was met with fierce resistance from Republicans in the legislature, the real estate industry . . . and quietly, from some Democrats,” Connolly recalls.) But even as the state took a victory lap for passing one of the most inclusive and nuanced eviction freezes in the nation, the bill’s creators were already thinking ahead. As states reopened in May and June—nursing cautious optimism that the worst of the pandemic might be over—work ramped up on a new housing bill engaged with the more dismal scientific reality: that the pandemic could go on for upward of a year, with an even longer period of economic tumult, and that thousands would need more economic assistance from the state.
“One day, the moratorium will end, and there will be tens of thousands of tenants who are behind on their rent, and so what happens then?” Connolly says. “That was really the start of the drafting effort of the legislation that came to be known as the Housing Stability Act. In early April, I put up a website called RentFreeze.org, and I posted the first draft of the legislation and invited feedback from people. From there, things took off.”
Just like before, Connolly and Honan took the lawmaking lead, and housing justice groups led the conversations about what should go into the law. Small landlords represented by City Life/Vida Urbana and other groups played a major role in driving these conversations. (Some of them would later speak at rallying events for the legislation.) By July, the Housing Stability Act was ready to be presented to the Massachusetts legislature and, hopefully, advanced quickly.
Looking through the Housing Stability Act, one can’t help but think of the housing relief measures that were passed in Europe near the beginning of the pandemic, when the Italian government suspended mortgage bills for homeowners and France canceled utility bills and rent for struggling small businesses. The Housing Stability Act would extend the Massachusetts eviction moratorium by 12 months, for a start. Its economic lifelines would include a rent freeze that would stabilize state rents at pre-pandemic levels, a ban on foreclosures for homeowners and owner-occupant landlords based on missed mortgage payments, new mortgage deferment options to protect small landlords from accrued interest, and crucially, a state relief fund to assist landlords with no more than 15 properties. This money would be made available to qualifying landlords who lost rental income during the pandemic, likely through an application or claims process that would prioritize the most vulnerable and badly impacted small landlords. As Connolly explains it, “Acceptance of money from the fund would be contingent on [landlords] forgiving their tenants for back rent.”
This points to one of the most promising provisions of the Housing Stability Act. By helping small landlords recoup lost rent, it would also relieve tenants of at least a portion of the back-rent debt that’s been piling up for tenants since the onset of the pandemic. Neither the White House nor Congress has addressed that particular element of the housing problem, and thus, the Housing Stability Act offers a model for how other states might go about rectifying the crisis on their own, or filling in between now and when the next federal stimulus is greenlighted. In its current form, the Housing Stability Act leaves room for debate on how it would be funded. Possibilities include tapping unused CARES Act funds and creating a state capital gains tax that would mostly affect the wealthy.
Another benefit to consider, according to Owens, is that the Housing Stability Act would be a welcome supplement to federal relief that small businesses—and landlords—have had to compete for against corporations that, in theory, are big enough to weather the pandemic.
“Right now, there’s no prioritization for small landlords,” Owens says. “There’s a parallel to what you saw with Trump’s payroll protection loans, with the largest landlords reaping [CARES Act] benefits while small landlords can’t. Under the Housing Stability Act, the people who are at most at risk get dibs on this money. This is for them.”
One of the Massachusetts landlords who would qualify for this money is Carolyn Lomax, who owns less than 15 rental units in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, which was hit especially hard by the pandemic during the spring wave. Lomax, who also owns a small business offering literary education services for kids, is in the middle of a foreclosure right now. Her tenants have struggled to pay rent due to losing work, and Lomax has not been able to reopen her business at standard capacity because of indefinite social distancing guidelines (which Lomax supports, noting, “You have to look at the bigger picture: at what’s best for everybody”). But despite the financial hardship she’s endured, Lomax isn’t evicting anyone during a pandemic. “I told my tenants, I’m no different from them,” Lomax says. “I see what they’re going through. I see what their children are going through. I’m their landlord, but the bank is my landlord.”
When Connolly and Honan introduced the Housing Stability Act on June 30, it initially gained 89 co-sponsors: almost half of the state legislature. But this time, landlord advocacy groups who had been blindsided during the spring lockdowns were ready for a more protracted fight. Landlords also had the advantage of waging their opposition against a backdrop of relative “normalcy,” as Massachusetts and other states started to reopen businesses in phases. Some even filed a lawsuit against the state in federal court, alleging that the eviction moratorium was unconstitutional and should be scrapped. U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf gave a half-conclusive ruling—denying the landlords’ motion to resume evictions but predicting that the state moratorium would eventually have to end. Richard Vetstein, an attorney who represented the Massachusetts landlords, has leveraged Wolf’s ruling to argue that an eviction moratorium extension would “likely be unconstitutional.”
As Connolly explains it, the lobbying power of Massachusetts landlords, paired with decades of bipartisan aversion to welfare expansion, splashed cold water on the Housing Stability Act. “We’re bumping up against real concentrated power,” Connolly says. “The challenges that we’re having in passing this legislation remind me of the challenges we’re running into trying to pass police reform. When you take on law enforcement unions, or landlords, those are groups that are in every community and pretty naturally organized. I think many representatives are hearing a lot from landlords, and sometimes the messages they’re getting from landlord groups are inaccurate and over the top.” This notion that tenants are abusing the system has echoes of the infamous “welfare queen” trope of the Reagan years, which continues to afflict conversations about equity in American life. And for Owens, who advocates for many Black and Latinx tenants and small landlords, it’s all too familiar.
“This is rooted in racism, and how policies aimed at working-class people, people of color, and immigrants are typically punitive,” Owens says. “When you look at the testimony we’ve seen during rent control campaigns in years past, the testimony we heard from landlords evoked imagery of greedy, sneaky, shiftless people who are irresponsible. Then, you hear stories from tenants who testified, about how hard they work, how they’ve contributed to their communities, and how passionately they were fighting for policy that would help households across the state.”
By August, the Housing Stability Act remained stuck in committee limbo, and Gov. Baker had extended the original eviction moratorium to Oct. 17. Activists expanded their rallies. City Life/Vida Urbana set up a website that made it easier for Massachusetts residents to flood their elected officials with advocacy calls. Local media like The Boston Globe cranked up coverage of the moratorium expiration, and in its editorials and opinion pieces wrote of the imperative of passing relief for tenants and small landlords.
Then, in mid-October, as momentum for the Housing Stability Act seemed to be peaking, Baker stepped forward with a plan of his own. He announced that the state would launch a $171 million “eviction diversion” program to help tenants experiencing financial hardship after the moratorium’s expiration. The centerpiece of the diversion plan is a $100 million injection to the state’s RAFT funds (Rental Assistance for Families in Transition), which families at risk of being evicted and becoming homeless can apply for. Like many state safety-net programs, RAFT does not make the application process easy. Applicants must prove a loss of income and demonstrate how RAFT would stabilize their housing situation. But the annual RAFT cap per beneficiary has been extended from $4,000 to $10,000. This change is codified by Baker’s eviction diversion.
But according to Owens, there are severe problems with Baker’s approach. The diversion does nothing to stop foreclosures. Landlords are under no obligation to accept RAFT funds in lieu of evicting a tenant who can’t make rent. It can take weeks or even months for the urgently needed RAFT funds to be doled out. (“At City Life, we’ve had hundreds of people [apply for] RAFT and only a small handful received money,” Owens says.) The amount of RAFT money that a tenant receives is often far short of what’s needed to actually cover rent. The state makes its monetary determination, and that’s pretty much it. Worse, the expanded RAFT funding laid out in Baker’s plan is not enough to bail out Massachusetts tenants and small landlords. “A recent [Metropolitan Area Planning Council] MAPC study said that just for October, you’d need $117 million to give people across the state housing assistance,” says Owens. “Baker put $100 million in RAFT. He thinks that’s going to last to June.”
A key point of contention between state officials and activists is the question of what will happen after the eviction moratorium expires. How many people will actually face eviction? The Housing Stability Act and its advocates foresee an eviction tsunami, with the MAPC reporting that 60,000 Massachusetts residents fear imminent eviction (Owens predicts the number could easily surpass 100,000.) Baker’s eviction diversion is predicated on the idea that most landlords will try to work with tenants. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh exemplified this line of thinking recently, when he tried to reassure anxious Bostonians that corporate landlords had promised him that they would not evict tenants who couldn’t pay rent after the moratorium expired.
But behind the press conferences, things are looking bleak. In October, Massachusetts began to recruit retired judges to process an anticipated surge of evictions: this includes mid-pandemic evictions, but also the 11,000 eviction cases that predated the pandemic and were put on hold by the initial moratorium. (The Boston Herald called this “firing up the eviction machine.”) Now, with the moratorium dead and the housing courts reopening, City Life/Vida Urbana is already hearing alarming news from across the state. “People are getting notices to quit,” Owens says. “We heard from a partner in Western Massachusetts that a sheriff delivered 120 notices to tenants. In one county.”
While the Housing Stability Act remains a more comprehensive alternative to Baker’s feeble eviction diversion program and a viable bill that the legislature could take up whenever it wants to, two important things have already been lost with the eviction moratorium: first, the peace of mind for thousands of Massachusetts renters who could find themselves summoned to housing courts in the middle of a pandemic winter, and second, the opportunity for the state to be the one to create a model workable solution to the impending rent cliff.
From the East Coast to the Pacific, state eviction moratoriums are in a nosedive. These moratoriums were passed on the premise that the worst of the pandemic would last for a handful of months. According to an NBC News report, landlords in Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas managed to find their way around the CDC’s short-term and rather toothless national eviction ban (which only lasts until the year’s end,) filing more than 10,000 eviction cases from early September through Oct. 17. Even states like California that extended their moratoriums are pulling the plug. The California moratorium for tenants is set to expire by the end of January 2021, and between now and then, tenants must come up with at least 25 percent of monthly rent to avoid being evicted.
As it did before with its eviction moratorium, Massachusetts could have modeled an alternative to abandoning tenants to the market forces that dominate American housing. The Housing Stability Act was, and remains, that opportunity to leverage public money to ensure that tenants and small landlords are looked after during a historic crisis. So why did the state legislature get cold feet when given the chance to lead? Was it merely the institutional power of the landlord lobby and decades of opposition to public assistance?
Or could this also be reflective of the way which political leaders are (or are not) experiencing the COVID pandemic and its ruinous ripple effects? It’s worth remembering here that most politicians in the United States are homeowners who’ve been able to work remotely and avoid witnessing the destructive power of COVID-19 at close range. This, to put it mildly, is not the pandemic experience of the Americans who are now at risk of being evicted. Even the original eviction moratorium wasn’t enough to fully protect them from the first wave.
The protest outside Gov. Baker’s Swampscott house brings this home, quite literally. As the colors of dusk give way to an overcast night sky, the drums and chants simmer down and the protest starts to feel more like a wake, as speakers from communities that the Baker administration calls “high risk” are given the bullhorn and invited to share their stories. Recalling the outbreak that swept across northeast cities in March, one young woman from Boston’s “Eastie” neighborhood recalls, “We were the ones working in stores. We were the ones riding the public transportation.”
She pauses, as the drone of a news helicopter echoes overhead, and continues, “This governor gets a lot of praise. Well, I’m from East Boston. I don’t have no praise because our people died.”