Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is adding her influential voice to the calls for Gov. Charlie Baker to extend the state’s COVID-19 moratorium on evictions and foreclosures — at least until the administration’s new relief programs are actually functional.
In a statement to Boston.com, Healey applauded the Republican governor for his new $171 million relief initiative aimed at individuals at risk of losing their homes, as well as small landlords, during the time of “extreme stress.” But she joined critics who say the administration’s current actions aren’t enough.
With the statewide moratorium set to expire Saturday, the Charlestown Democrat said Baker should use his authority under the original law passed last spring to ensure the temporary ban doesn’t lapse before residents can access the new relief programs.
“We need the time to do this right,” Healey said. “That means extending the moratorium until the safety net created under this plan is up and running and resources are fully available to all residents.”
According to the state’s own website, several planks of Baker’s eviction diversion plan, including legal assistance and community mediation resources, will not be fully operational for “several weeks.” Additionally, according to Healey’s office, the streamlined process to apply for the bolstered Rental Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) funds won’t be ready for at least 30 days.
While the evictions process is expected to take several months, landlords could currently begin sending eviction notices as soon as Monday morning. Housing advocates — and Healey — worry that people will subsequently be forced out of their homes in mid-winter, exacerbating homelessness as well as the spread of COVID-19.
“Improvements to the RAFT program, increased availability of legal counsel for landlords and tenants, and expanded mediation both in and out of court will not be complete by next week, and we are concerned that this moment – as the temperature gets colder and COVID-19 infection rates are increasing — is not the right time for evictions to resume if the protections we need are not yet in place,” Healey said. “Too much is at stake when it comes to the health and safety of our residents.”
Baker’s office said Friday night that the feared surge in pandemic-related eviction cases won’t immediately occur after the moratorium ends and that the new assistance programs will be ready by the time it does.
Housing courts will first deal with a pre-pandemic backlog, estimated to be roughly 11,000 cases, which are not eligible for expanded benefits and services. Landlords also have to first file notices and fulfill other procedural requirements for new coronavirus-related cases.
While the courts are rehiring retired judges to process cases more quickly, the governor’s office also said that COVID-19-related cases will take longer than normal. Parties will get at least two weeks between an initial status conference and a trial in order to give them time to apply for rental assistance, participate in mediation, and try to reach a settlement, officials said. The administration said those programs will be ramped up over the next few weeks or months so that they are available as needed.
“The Baker-Polito Administration put a $171 million initiative in place investing in new and existing programs and processes to support both tenants and landlords during the housing and financial challenges that have been caused by COVID-19 and will continue working with the courts and stakeholders to promote housing stability for all families and individuals in the Commonwealth,” Anisha Chakrabarti, the governor’s deputy communications director, told Boston.com.
A federal moratorium on evictions and foreclosures imposed last month by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention also remains in place through the end of the year. However, Healey said it should not be used to bridge the gap until the new state resources are available (she has also called for additional federal and state funds to help both tenants and landlords).
The CDC moratorium — which requires residents to submit a signed form to their landlord and applies only to cases that would “likely render the individual homeless” or force them to move into close quarters with others — is more limited than the temporary Massachusetts ban, which blocks all “non-essential” residential evictions and foreclosures, as well as small business evictions. That means the only exceptions to the statewide moratorium are cases involving alleged criminal activity or lease violations affecting the health or safety of others.
Despite the ban, some Massachusetts landlords still tried to evict and otherwise pressure tenants who couldn’t keep up on rent to leave. Healey’s office said they received more than 200 complaints relating to the moratorium and were able to stop more than 80 attempted illegal evictions.
According to a report last week by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, an estimated 80,000 households in Massachusetts say they will struggle to cover housing costs and other basic needs this month.
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