You could practically hear the collective exhale last week when Gov. Charlie Baker said the state would stretch out an emergency ban on foreclosures and evictions. People can stay in their homes at least another 60 days past the ban’s original expiration, was the gist, even if they’re out of work and struggling to pay the bills.
The rush of relief, however, goes just so far. Putting off foreclosure does not pay the mortgage. Delaying eviction does not catch up a tenant’s overdue rent. Homeowners and renters are still on the hook, and despite the state’s exhortations to stay as up-to-date as possible, the pile of past-due payments is deepening. Given the shape of the economy and uncertainty over what the next several months will bring in terms of COVID-19, it’s a fair bet things will only get worse.
The state’s steps to protect renters and borrowers needs to be buttressed by a more extensive plan for the next wave of people affected by the property crisis — landlords who themselves are falling behind. A plan that deserves consideration, being advocated by the group MassLandlords, would have the state issue bonds to help cover the rent that tenants are unable to pay. Property owners could apply the money to their own expenses, whether it be mortgages or utilities or maintenance.
It’s not a perfect solution. It’s a subsidy without apparent limit. And a lifeline to landlords isn’t as politically savory on Beacon Hill as programs meant to directly help families and consumers on the bottom rung who are affected by the pandemic. Still, a collapsing residential rental market hurts a lot of people, most especially those who could lose their homes as a result.
This problem is growing bigger, but that doesn’t mean it’s new. Lawmakers considered it back in April, when they implemented the ban on evictions that had been set to expire in mid-August, until it was just extended by Baker.
Rep. Peter Durant, R-Spencer, told State House News Service at the time he was uncomfortable with the Legislature’s approach: “We’re allowing people to stop paying their rents with no mechanism to get that money back, and I’m afraid we’re putting the public, we’re putting renters, in a position where they have the potential, some renters, to dig themselves a deeper hole.”
That’s just what seems to be happening. When the ban on evictions appeared ready to sunset, the state court system was bracing for 20,000 fillings by landlords.
In the first couple months of the COVID-19 shutdown, nearly one-third of the state’s renters told MassINC pollsters they’d fallen behind on their rent, CommonWealth magazine reported. Only 1 in 5 of those said it was “very likely” they could catch up on their payments by the end of the moratorium. Doubtless those numbers swelled over the summer.
Extending the moratorium by 60 days is good news, especially in places with large portions of rental housing. Fewer than a third of the housing units in Lawrence are owner occupied. The rate is slightly more than half in Salem, not quite two-thirds in Gloucester, and about two-thirds in Peabody. Thousands of people living in those communities are protected by Baker’s decision.
But protection comes with a cost, and the landlords are paying. So much that they’re suing the state in federal court to block the eviction ban. They argue it violates their Fifth Amendments right by taking their property without compensation and blocks their due process rights to seek relief in court. It’s a compelling argument that the state can only hope to rebut by pointing out that we’re still in a public health emergency.
Families shouldn’t get tossed to the street because the state’s shut-down to stop the spread of COVID-19 put breadwinners out of work. Yet, somewhere along the line, the state needs a real plan to address the problems the freeze on evictions has created.