Published: 10/15/2020 6:35:50 PM Earlier this week, the power went out. Inconvenient. Frustrating. Temporary. With an unexpected bre...
Published: 10/15/2020 6:35:50 PM
Earlier this week, the power went out. Inconvenient. Frustrating. Temporary. With an unexpected break from the electronic world, there was still plenty of work to do, and none of us worried that the outage would last long. In fact, 30 minutes before National Grid predicted, the light flickered on, and the day went back to normal.
But what would have happened if it hadn’t? What would have happened if the lights stayed out?
This week, that’s a question a lot of people in our state are going to answer as a stopgap measure, to ease the economic fallout from COVID, expires: the eviction and foreclosure moratorium. While imperfect, the moratorium was a way to keep people housed during the pandemic. I am tempted to add the dependent clause: “as a real solution was figured out,” but sadly that proved to be untrue.
With the expiration date looming and a good bill, the Housing Stability Act, languishing in committee, the governor has instead offered plans that would speed up the pipeline of evictions by adding more judges to process cases. In addition, wholly inadequate funding has been offered to provide relief to tenants and landlords that won’t even be available for several weeks, despite increasingly urgent appeals for action as the end date of the governor’s own executive order approached. All of this is, of course, during a pandemic and as winter approaches.
While it is true that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium will still be in effect, it reads with the usual level of clarity and detail we have come to expect from the Trump administration (i.e. little at best) and is extremely narrow in scope. It places the burden on tenants to invoke protections; offers no solution to address rental arrears; allows evictions to be filed and proceed, up until final physical eviction; and does not protect homeowners from foreclosure at all.
In comparison, the Housing Stability Act, which has been subject to enormous amounts of misinformation (the information in this column came from a fact sheet written by the bill’s sponsors), would prohibit “nonessential” evictions during the state of emergency; increase eligibility for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition funding; freeze rents at the amounts agreed upon as of March 10, 2020; and seal eviction records for non-payment of rent cases filed within one year of the end of the state of emergency. It would also create a Housing Stability Fund for landlords so they would have access to much-needed funds as well as provide tax credits equal to any difference between rental obligations paid and those collected. Finally, it would prohibit foreclosures for 12 months after the end of the state of emergency, remove the 180-day cap on forbearance, and expand forbearance protections for property owners and nonprofit owners.
The Legislature must act on this bill, and the governor must sign it if we have any hope of staving off the coming crisis and keeping the power on.
COVID has hit Massachusetts like few other states. We have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. We grapple every day with really hard questions like whether to send our kids back to school, how to keep our businesses open and how to fend off upticks in transmission. To add to that, the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel estimates that by January, between 119,000 to 169,000 eviction cases could be filed in our state. That represents a rent shortfall of between $605 million and $757 million. Cruelly, this will also affect working people, people of color and undocumented persons the most — the same people who have been most affected by COVID. Real leadership and a real plan from the governor that included the provisions of the Housing Stability Act could have prevented this.
Instead, we are at a crossroads. Unemployment benefits will run out for many at the end of the year absent federal action. Even when additional benefits are offered, like the Lost Wage Assistance program that offered an extra $300 a week for six weeks, our governor has yet to follow in the footsteps of New Hampshire and Rhode Island, extending those benefits to those who make less than $100 a week and stopping an extra $31 million from flowing into the state. Why? When you hold a position of power, why not choose to exercise leadership and help those most in need?
Sadly, on Oct. 17, there will be many more asking the question: What has their state done for them to keep them in their homes? What has the state done to help them keep their home? Pay their rent? Earn an income?
Unless we act quickly, the answers are not going to be satisfactory. Time is almost up.
Lindsay Sabadosa is a Northampton resident and the state representative for the 1st Hampshire District. She can be reached at email@example.com.