How do you shelter in place when you can’t make rent?
That’s the question thousands of Massachusetts residents have grappled with since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which vaporized more than 1 million state jobs last spring. Pair those losses with the cost of rental housing in Massachusetts, and you’ve got a potential eviction and homelessness crisis at hand.
Fortunately, as COVID-19 cases spiked throughout the state, the legislature passed one of the most far-reaching eviction bans in the nation: in addition to freezing all eviction-related court proceedings, the moratorium protected renters from late fees and negative credit reporting. Amidst the chaos and terror of the pandemic’s initial phase, this was a lifesaver for renters who might have otherwise been booted from their housing. (In 2016, Massachusetts saw an estimated 43 evictions each day, according to a study by the Princeton Eviction Lab.)
But how long can an eviction ban last?
Judging from recent comments from Gov. Charlie Baker, the moratorium could end on October 17th, when it’s set to expire.
At a press conference in Lowell, Mass. recently, Baker offered a grim projection for the moratorium’s longevity, noting that “the longer this thing goes on, the deeper the hole gets, not just for tenants, but also for landlords, especially small landlords who ... have in many cases run out of rope.”
Pair those losses with the cost of rental housing in Massachusetts, and you’ve got a potential eviction and homelessness crisis at hand.
The “hole” that Baker refers to here is back rent. While the eviction ban relieves tenants from having to their pay rent each month, it does not release them from the obligation of paying that rent somewhere down the line. As renters’ debts accrue, landlords wait to collect, and for “small” indie landlords who only rent a couple of units, this could strain their resources. Some landlords sued the Baker administration over the ban, alleging financial hardship.
But as WBUR reported in July, renters and landlords actually have common ground here: many agree that an eviction ban isn’t enough to sustain both parties for the pandemic and the aftermath. Both want direct cash relief.
This isn’t a new idea, nor is it a radical one. Earlier this year, Joe Biden argued that rent and mortgage payment forgiveness should be included in America’s pandemic recovery plan. Sen. Kamala Harris joined forces with Senators Ed Markey and Bernie Sanders to co-author a bill that would send direct payments of $2,000 a month to U.S. households, including retroactive payments.
Here in Massachusetts, the duo behind the state eviction freeze, Reps. Mike Connolly and Kevin Honan, have cooked up a legislative sequel to their first bill: this new bill is titled “An Act to Guarantee Housing Stability During the COVID-19 Emergency and Recovery.” Its provisions include a state relief fund for small landlords, new options for deferring mortgage payments and tenant protections from debt collection. Unlike the original eviction freeze, this one would provide more financial relief and it would last for a full year. The bill escaped committee limbo last week and has thus far garnered 89 co-sponsors, though House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka have yet to take up the bill and schedule any votes.
All of these ideas, at a state and national level, would help renters and landlords weather a fall and winter that may be rife with coronavirus transmission and continued economic fallout. (Congress still hasn’t passed a new pandemic stimulus package, and Americans are no longer receiving those enhanced unemployment payments.)
But intellectually and symbolically, ideas such as Connolly and Honan’s Guaranteed Housing Stability bill, or giving everyone $2,000 a month, represent an important change in the way we think about housing and pandemic relief overall.
Back in the spring, Trump infamously predicted that COVID-19 would “wash” away by the summer. Instead, it exploded across the South and Midwest this summer. And now, of course, the president is sick with COVID-19 and there’s a coronavirus outbreak in the White House.
Those unfortunate facts aside, in a way Trump’s words echoed what many of us were hoping: that the worst of the pandemic would be over within a few months.
Most measures of pandemic relief, from the CARES Act stimulus to the Massachusetts eviction ban, were scaled to that hope. Now, we know better.
All that’s missing is the political courage to make this crucial investment in our collective health
This pandemic is nowhere close to being over. Even if a vaccine candidate emerges by the end of 2020, it will take at least several months to vaccinate enough people to declare any sort of end to the pandemic. Rapid saliva tests may give us pieces of our lives back, but people will remain jobless and housing insecurity won’t go away.
Funneling long-term material aid to cash-strapped Americans, including forms of rent relief, isn’t exactly something with much precedent in modern American life. And it’s not exactly a priority for Senate Republicans like Mitch McConnell, who refuses to even consider the HEROES Act that House Democrats passed in May, which included a $100 billion fund for emergency rental assistance.
But housing, of all things, could be the Overton Window through which this idea is mainstreamed. Because what’s more elemental than having a place to eat, sleep, and protect your health (and the health of your loved ones) during a once-in-a-century pandemic? If housing isn’t guaranteed to all during fall and winter, when more people get sick, then what?
We have the frameworks, and the capital, to avoid ever having to answer the second question as a state, and as a nation. All that’s missing is the political courage to make this crucial investment in our collective health — to stop the same homeless crisis that we successfully prevented earlier this year.
But we can’t procrastinate much longer. The days are getting shorter, colder and darker. Renters and landlords are living on borrowed time. The more fiscal and spiritual support we can offer each other now and through the challenging months ahead, the better our odds of recovery, as a homeland.