When Marvin Moreno lost his job at a fish processing plant last spring, he knew he’d have to scramble to pay rent on the East Boston apartment he shared with his wife.
He should have been OK for a while. That’s because a statewide ban on evictions was in place, to protect tenants like Moreno during the coronavirus pandemic. But by late July, tensions rose with the landlord as Moreno fell behind on rent. The landlord got angry about Moreno using the grill, and then wanted him out by August, Moreno said.
“You’re only giving me eight days to leave. I’m not going to find a place,” Moreno, in Spanish, recalled telling the landlord. Moreno asked for three months to find a new place.
The answer was no.
Unofficial eviction tactics like these have ratcheted up amid the pandemic, especially in communities home to immigrant workers and Spanish speakers, according to housing advocates and tenants. The state's moratorium was supposed to prohibit any attempt to evict people during the six-month period that ends this Saturday. But WBUR found some landlords, frustrated because renters couldn’t pay, have been pressuring tenants to leave.
“Any report is frankly concerning because you're talking about the housing insecurity of a family.”Attorney General Maura Healey
Some demands are verbal. Others come in a torrent of texts or phone calls, badgering tenants for rent money. And some go further, with landlords changing locks, contacting the police, or threatening to call immigration officials.
“This is where we see landlords who are going around the court process, going around the law and trying to get people removed,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in an interview.
Her office has received more than 200 complaints from tenants related to the moratorium, 46 of those specifically about landlords trying to evict tenants without going to court, in so-called “self-help evictions.”
“Any report is frankly concerning because you're talking about the housing insecurity of a family,” Healey said.
Moreno, like others, felt he had little choice but to leave. He moved to a new apartment on Oct. 1 because the pressure was too much, he said. “I don’t want to fight with anyone.”
Moreno’s landlord, Saul Santiago, did not respond to requests to be interviewed.
Most of the threats are happening under the radar, out of sight of public officials, in places with high concentrations of working-class immigrants like East Boston, Chelsea and Lynn, housing advocates say. Many people fear retaliation by their landlords if they complain.
A number of tenants did share their stories with WBUR. A Lynn woman battling cancer is now fighting her landlord too. After she lost her job and couldn't pay rent amid the pandemic, he asked her to leave the rooming house where she and her daughter have lived for 13 years. A slew of text messages show the landlord haranguing her for rent and micromanaging which parts of the house she can use.
A widowed mother in East Boston, who works as a cleaner at Harvard University, is facing pressure from her landlords of 11 years. They’ve asked her to move out during the crisis, she said, so they can remodel and charge more rent. The housing group City Life/Vida Urbana is helping her.
A Framingham couple with a special-needs child was so hounded to move that they borrowed money to find another place, only to have the new landlord renege on a promised apartment and keep their money. Email correspondence with an attorney backs up their story.
Threats And Intimidation
In some cases, the confrontations have even more extreme consequences.
Robelio Gonzalez was already having a tough year before things soured with his landlord. The Lynn resident and his family caught COVID-19 in the spring. They recovered from the virus, but over the summer, in the run-down three-decker where they rent an apartment for $1,600 a month, an upstairs pipe burst, Gonzalez said, wrecking his bedroom and belongings in a foul, watery gush.
Gonzalez had to shell out $900 for a new bed, he said. Then there was more water damage, and a cockroach and bed bug infestation on top of that, photos show. In July, Gonzalez started withholding his rent, insisting that the landlord fix the problems.
Gonzalez said he wasn’t hurting anyone. “All I did was stand up for my rights.”
But on Aug. 24, the landlord, She Ling Wang, gave Gonzalez’s family a “Notice to Quit” — to vacate the property within 14 days, for failing to pay rent. That was a violation of the state’s eviction ban, housing lawyers say.
“The landlord's duty to repair remains intact, and the landlord was prohibited from serving the notice to quit because of the moratorium,” according to Andrea Park, a housing attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute in Boston.
Gonzalez said, “We wanted him to pay for our bed and fix the pipes. And he said, ‘No, you’re out of here in two weeks.’ ”
Things only grew worse. Gonzalez said the landlord warned him, “Either you leave, or I’ll call immigration on you.”
On Oct. 5, agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement showed up at Gonzalez’s apartment. They shackled him outside, with his partner’s 13-year-old daughter studying inside, and loaded him into a black SUV. They held him for over an hour.
About 30 neighbors and protesters gathered outside the house, led by Lynn United for Change, a housing advocacy group that’s helping Gonzalez with his landlord dispute. They chanted “Stand up, fight back,” urging officers to let Gonzalez go, and surrounded the vehicle to keep them from driving off.
“This is an attack on our community and on this family,” Isaac Simon Hodes, director of Lynn United for Change, told the crowd. “It’s not about one person.”
Ultimately, the officers did release him. Gonzalez said they told him it was because of the crowd that had gathered to support him — and because the teenager would have been left alone at the house. Gonzalez must appear in immigration court later this month.
Wang, the landlord, happened to show up at the house right after Gonzalez was released. When a WBUR reporter asked if he had called ICE on his tenant, he insisted he had not.
“No, because ICE will not care, you know,” Wang said. “I’m busy enough.”
In subsequent phone interviews, Wang said he was unaware of the moratorium at the time he sent the notice to quit, and did not know it was illegal to order the family to leave. He also said Gonzalez was not doing his part to keep the house free of insects.
Wang added, "I respect the tenants. I respect the law."
Landlords Face Challenges
There’s no question landlords are on edge these days. Doug Quattrochi of the group MassLandlords said the moratorium has been particularly tough on small property owners, who depend on rental income to pay mortgages, utilities, taxes and repairs.
He said the partial shutdown of the housing courts has hurt not only landlords but tenants like Gonzalez.
“There are supposed to be protections against that kind of retaliation,” Quattrochi said. If the courts were fully functional, “the renter would have the opportunity to say to the judge, ‘I didn't pay the rent because the place is unsafe. It doesn't meet the code.’ ”
But Gonzalez had no such protection. And now, like thousands of others in the state and across the nation, he is worried about whether his family can stay in their home.
The state’s eviction moratorium, imposed by Gov. Charlie Baker in April, is slated to expire Saturday. A federal ban on evictions continues through December, but state officials say not everyone will qualify for it. Court officials and the attorney general are working to clarify the details for the public, and to share more on how that ban can protect tenants who’ve lost income due to COVID-19.
As stressful as the situation is here for tenants, Massachusetts is ranked first in the nation for protecting renters during the pandemic, thanks to the moratorium, according to the Eviction Lab, a research group focused on housing.
But that could soon change. As many as 60,000 Massachusetts renters fear they are in danger of “imminent eviction,” according to the Census Bureau’s Pulse survey.
The housing courts are backed up with some 11,000 cases filed statewide before the pandemic. “We’ve been working nonstop to shore ourselves up,” said Paula Carey, chief justice of the Trial Court. New cases will likely take months to process, due to the backlog, she said.
A WBUR data analysis of pending evictions in the Boston area showed at least 743 cases in the court pipeline from January through September alone. The areas with the most cases include poorer parts of Roxbury, Dorchester, Revere and Chelsea — communities that are expected to be hard hit as the moratoriums end.
The tenants interviewed by WBUR are not in any official count of pending evictions, however, because their landlords have tried to dodge the system.
Stefanie Coxe, executive director of the Regional Housing Network of Massachusetts, said her group urgently wants to get assistance to people in vulnerable communities before relationships with landlords break down — and tenants are out on the street.
The agency, which administers a program called Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, or RAFT, is now offering up to $10,000 per household, paid directly to landlords. Coxe said they’ve seen unprecedented demand since the pandemic started, and anticipate needing at least $200 million to help keep people in their homes — twice what the Baker administration has pledged to provide so far.
Many tenants don’t know their rights, she said. And some landlords still don’t know about RAFT or understand the program.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Coxe said, “we’re worried about the people we’re not hearing from.”
WBUR's Saurabh Datar contributed to this report.
This segment aired on October 15, 2020.