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Avoiding the Eviction Tidal Wave

Will solutions to the COVID-19 crisis break or perpetuate old patterns of housing inequities?

May 15, 2020

By Soni Gupta, Director of Neighborhoods & Housing  

 

A blue condominium complex with green grass in the foreground, blue sky and an orange building in the background.
As the number of unemployed workers in MA approaches a mind-numbing 800,000, there’s a concern that looms larger with every week that passes on the calendar – how will people pay their rent or their mortgage and keep their homes? Will unemployment be enough to meet the basic need? What about undocumented workers, and others who are unable to collect unemployment checks?  

For the moment, it’s a disaster deferred. On April 20th, Governor Baker signed the eviction and foreclosure moratorium bill prohibiting non-essential evictions of renters – including small businesses – until August 18 (120 days after April 20), or 45 days after the COVID-19 emergency declaration is lifted, whichever is sooner. Homeowners, including owners of 1-4 family properties, can request mortgage forbearance and lenders are prohibited from foreclosing on their properties during the time the moratorium is in effect. 

It’s a powerful, perhaps unprecedented action. The strong protections in this bill placed Massachusetts at the top of the Eviction Lab COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard. The state also immediately created a $5 million expansion of the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program to assist households who may have lost their jobs, had their incomes reduced or had increased expenses.  

The problem with moratoriums comes when they end. It’s a certainty that at the end of the moratorium, thousands of workers will still be without jobs, with rent and mortgage payments that have accumulated since April. Before that day arrives, the Neighborhoods and Housing team has been connecting with housing policy makers, affordable housing lenders and owners to assess the potential impact, and the policies and resources that will be necessary to keep residents stably housed while helping owners and landlords avoid mortgage and tax delinquency, property deterioration, and future foreclosures. 

We’re working on a number of fronts:

First, like many of our Foundation colleagues, we reached out to our grantees to quickly convert any project support grants to general operating grants, and are working with potential grantees this quarter to assess how to support their COVID-19 responses. 

We’re seeking to expand our role sharing information and bringing together organizations in positions to help renters and homeowners. Every week, we are curating and emailing lists of housing-related resources and policy updates for grantees. On May 7th, we brought together legal, policy and community-based housing organizations to share information about the state moratorium and the strategies to communicate directly with residents about rapidly-evolving programs.
We’re also accelerating discussions with several stakeholders about how they might position themselves to acquire occupied properties as a way to preserve tenancies, stabilize households in their homes. We are pivoting our long-standing Greater Boston Housing Report Card research and report to COVID-19 related forum series that will look at housing impacts and policy solutions. And we’re looking afresh at the early outcomes in our Health Starts at Home initiative to bring that learning to the current health and housing crisis we find ourselves in.

All of these efforts are designed to sharpen our focus on the programs and policies that will promote housing stability for residents. Together, we see five imperatives as we look ahead.

First, we must work together with partners across sectors to identify the policies that will most effectively address racial equity in the housing response –  within the communities and the households disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

We must build the political will for the policies that will help residents keep their housing, and also help landlords and owners stabilize their properties. These are mutually supportive and are necessary to stabilize households. We must also invest in the support services that will help residents stay in their homes: eviction prevention counseling, legal representation (right to counsel), foreclosure counseling.

We must double down on data, quickly and effectively synthesizing the latest numbers to create responsive programs and policies, and better understand the experiences of racial and ethnic groups and how they are impacted.

We must underscore the connections between health and housing. This is playing out in stark reality through COVID-19, as individuals and families in congregate settings and overcrowded homes are seeing higher rates of infection and are unable to quarantine effectively.

And lastly, we must prepare now to counter displacement when the real estate prices soften in the future and speculators re-enter the housing market.

The issues of housing instability and inequities we see today took root well before the COVID crisis. They stem from a deep and significant gap in affordable housing. Even before COVID-19, almost half of renters in Greater Boston and one quarter of homeowners were paying more than 30% of their income towards rent. The data also lays bare the disproportionate impact of COVID on people and communities of color, low wage and undocumented workers. The question is whether we have the foresight and strength to ensure that our solutions to the crisis break rather than perpetuate old patterns of housing inequities.