Guest Real Estate Blog Post: Something needs to be done about Boston apartment evictions

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Eviction filings are rising as millions of Americans are being forced from their homes months after lawmakers allowed the federally imposed eviction moratorium to expire on apartments and condos. 

The federal eviction ban, along with other state and federal laws imposed during the height of the pandemic, was a lifeline for those that lost income and couldn’t afford to pay housing costs when an overload of COVID-19 cases forced Americans to stay home in 2020.

While there was a brief lull in eviction filings after the CDC ended the ban in July 2021, housing advocates report that new eviction filings for apartmens are rapidly rising in many parts of the country as the year closes out its final days, according to a release from the Associated Press. 

Even so, eviction numbers are still below pre-pandemic levels — for now. The infusion of federal rental assistance and other pandemic-related assistance, such as expanded child tax credit payments, continues to keep many Americans afloat. However, those benefits are also set to expire, which could spur a second wave of eviction cases.

Part of the increase is fueled by court systems catching up on the backlog of cases since the federal eviction moratorium expired in July, in addition to rising housing costs in many U.S. markets. 

According to the latest data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, eviction filings have been rising in most of the 31 cities and six states where it collects data, including Houston, Texas; Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; and Tampa and Gainesville, Fla.

Filings increased 10.4% from the first half of August to the first half of September. In the first half of October, numbers were 38% above August levels and 25% higher than September before plunging again in November. Now, eviction filings remain about 48% below pre-pandemic levels, but the numbers are expected to rise again as the holidays approach.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, the number of individuals claiming they weren’t confident in their ability to pay next month’s rent increased from about 5 million at the end of September to 6.3 million in the latest data.

“What we are seeing is a reflection of reality, which is that evictions take time to work their way into and through the court system,” said Ben Martin, senior researcher at Texas Housers, a nonprofit focused on housing issues. 

Gene Sperling, who oversees the implementation of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package, said some increase in evictions was inevitable after the eviction ban ended. “But fortunately, because the Emergency Rental Assistance program is now paying full back-rent to about 500,000 renters each month, the eviction tsunami that experts feared has not occurred,” Sperling said in the release. 

Nevertheless, states and cities are running out of rental assistance funds. The Treasury Department expects that upwards of $30 billion, or about two-thirds of the rent relief money, will have been spent or allocated by the end of the year. States like Texas and Oregon have exhausted their funds and stopped accepting new applicants, with New York, Pennsylvania and California following closely in their tracks.

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Hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents are at risk of displacement and homelessness if evictions are allowed to continue unabated without any protections from the legislature. Massachusetts has deployed various strategies to mitigate the harms from the COVID-19 pandemic, but its most effective strategy, a state-wide moratorium on housing evictions, is set to expire on October 17. Last week, Governor Charlie Baker announced his unwillingness to extend the moratorium; in doing so, the Governor removed the crutch keeping the system upright. With evictions set to resume, the housing crisis that loomed over the state is now here. The next great public health crisis has arrived, and Massachusetts is unprepared.

Recent predictions suggest that 21 percent of renter-households in Massachusetts, representing close to half a million people, could be at risk of eviction by the end of the year. Employment disruptions and lost income due to the pandemic have stymied renters’ ability to keep up on payments. According to tabulations of the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, 15 percent of Massachusetts renters, representing 348,000 people in 151,000 households, were behind on rent. Notably, due to persistent housing discrimination, Black and Latinx households are disproportionately affected.

 An avalanche of evictions will overwhelm our legal system. The Boston Bar Association reported in 2019 that tenants are unrepresented in 91.3 percent of eviction cases. Anecdotally, at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, the second-largest legal aid provider in Boston, we only have the capacity for about 60 individual housing cases at once. As a result, the bulk of tenants facing eviction will be forced to represent themselves. The inequities of this arrangement become blindly apparent when pro-se defendants are forced to litigate against institutional landlord lawyers. 

Further, housing courts will be expected to juggle an unprecedented amount of cases in unprecedented circumstances after the moratorium expires. Considering valid safety concerns, housing courts will need to rely on virtual hearings and trials at the expense of low-income tenants that may not have the requisite technology. The issues highlighted raise due process concerns, a core principle of our legal system, and likely will lead to miscarriages of housing justice.

Housing is a human right, but when we tolerate anything less there are societal consequences. Housing instability increases public costs. For example, a 2018 study found that unstable housing among families with children will cost the U.S. $111 billion in avoidable health and education expenditures over the next 10 years. Housing instability is deeply intertwined with many social, economic, and health issues. It negatively affects an individual’s ability to maintain a job, acquire quality education, or routinely secure food. Housing instability leads to overcrowding and homelessness.

Overcrowded housing is closely related to elevated COVID-19 rates in communities. Homelessness is not only a moral tragedy, but also impacts the availability of healthcare resources, magnifies a community’s reliance on police, and harms business and tourist attractions, particularly downtown. If we do nothing in this moment, we negligently contribute to our country’s housing injustice.

For all these reasons, the Commonwealth needs to pass the Housing Stability Act. The Housing Stability Act – Bill H.4874 – offers a systemic solution to prevent the ensuing flood of evictions. The Act guarantees housing stability during the COVID-19 crisis by banning evictions due to nonpayment of rent for any tenant unable to pay directly or indirectly because of the COVID-19 crisis. The eviction ban covers rent due at the start of the COVID-19 state of emergency through 12 months after the state of emergency has ended. The Act also protects homeowners and small landlords by banning foreclosures due to missed mortgage payments throughout the same period. 

Finally, the Act establishes an Oversight and Advisory Board of members from the hardest-hit communities to make recommendations on how the COVID-19 Housing Stability and Recovery fund is administered.

The positive effects of the Housing Stability Act are obvious: more protections for tenants and homeowners; less homelessness for adults and children; finally, less pain and despair in the Commonwealth. The novel coronavirus has upended our way of life. But we should not let it uproot folks from their homes. To stop the imminent housing crisis, please act by calling your legislator in the Massachusetts State House and urge them to vote yes for Bill H.4878.

Shane Fowler is a third-year law student at Harvard Law School. He is the Housing Co-Chair of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.

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