By Shane Fowler
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 a 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.