The House advanced a compromise bill Wednesday afternoon to temporarily ban almost all eviction and foreclosure proceedings statewide shortly after Democratic negotiators made a breakthrough, but appeared unable to win over their Republican counterparts.
Six days after the branches established a conference committee because they could not reach agreement informally on the time-sensitive topic, the panel's Democratic leaders announced a deal on legislation that would impose a moratorium on most housing removals. Within an hour, the House adopted the committee's report.
Depending on the proposal's fate in the Senate, the legislation could reach Gov. Charlie Baker as soon as Thursday. Baker said on Saturday that he hopes to receive a version he can agree with and sign it quickly.
"This legislation will offer much needed relief to thousands of renters, homeowners, and small businesses across the Commonwealth," Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Brendan Crighton, who led the private negotiations, said in a joint statement. "It is our hope that the Legislature will approve this bill and send it to the Governor as quickly as possible."
The bill (H 4647) aims to prevent residents from losing housing during the coronavirus pandemic by mandating a pause on all non-emergency evictions and foreclosures on occupied properties.
Under the compromise, landlords cannot terminate tenancy or send notices to quit in cases deemed "non-essential." Courts — which already are not scheduling new hearings to comply with a Trial Court standing order — are banned from accepting new complaints, entering judgments or default judgments, issuing executions or holding trials for non-emergency eviction processes.
"It's going to be a big difference for those folks who fear they can be put out of their homes during this crisis," Crighton told the News Service. "Obviously we applaud the Trial Court for taking the action they did, but the people I talk to every day want a sense of certainty, and I believe this legislation will give them that."
Both residents and small business owners who rent property cannot be charged late fees for not paying rent as long as they submit notice and documentation within 30 days that the missed rent "was due to a financial impact from COVID-19." Landlords are also barred from notifying consumer reporting agencies about failure to pay.
The bill explicitly notes, however, that it does not relieve tenants from their rent obligations or prevent landlords from recovering rent.
Property owners can dip into the final month's rent paid ahead of time when possible, but they can only use that money on expenses such as mortgage and repairs and cannot use it to cover a month of unpaid rent. They must notify tenants in writing of any decision to do so, and they will still face obligations to consider the final month covered.
Mortgage holders can seek forbearance from monthly payments for up to 180 days under the bill in another form of attempted financial relief.
The bill's moratorium and loosened restrictions would expire 120 days after it is enacted or 45 days after Baker rescinds his emergency declaration, whichever comes sooner, though it allows the governor to extend the timeline if the crisis continues.
Advocates have been pushing for a codified statewide moratorium for weeks, arguing that low-income and minority tenants in particular could be vulnerable if courts unfreeze their pause on hearings or if middle steps in the removal process, such as notices to quit, were allowed to continue and tenants felt pressured to move during the pandemic.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka announced support on March 22 for a moratorium, but in the ensuing weeks, the branches could not find consensus on language. Versions passed by the House (H 4615) and Senate (S 2361) differed in whether non-default judgments were covered and on how long the temporary ban would last.
The four Democrats on the conference committee — Michlewitz, Crighton, Rep. Kevin Honan and Sen. Michael Rodrigues — all signed the bill jacket to indicate their support on the resolution, but the two Republicans, Rep. Peter Durant and Sen. Bruce Tarr, did not.
Durant told the News Service that he is "not comfortable with the end result" of the negotiations, describing the lack of late fees or consumer reporting as changes that could carry unintended consequences.
"What we're doing is trying to use a sledgehammer to solve a problem that could be solved with a screwdriver," Durant said. "We're allowing people to stop paying their rents with no mechanism to get that money back, and I'm afraid we're putting the public, we're putting renters, in a position where they have the potential, some renters, to dig themselves a deeper hole."
Two Republicans, Rep. David Vieira of Falmouth and Rep. Donald Wong of Saugus, were in the House when the chamber accepted the conference committee report and did not object.
Durant said he may consider standalone legislation seeking changes that would allow landlords to use the pre-paid last month of rent to cover non-payments during the emergency, but he did not say whether he supported Republicans digging in their heels to stall the compromise.
"I'm going to let that one sit right now," he said. "We're weighing our options."
During informal sessions, any single member can halt a bill by doubting the presence of a quorum.
Rep. Mike Connolly, who co-filed the original House bill, in a tweet called the conference committee's version "a strong Eviction and Foreclosure Moratorium that will ensure housing stability in this time of #COVID19 emergency."
A leader with the coalition of community, housing, faith and union groups that worked on the legislation also called it a "very good" bill.