Carolina lives in East Boston with her husband and four kids — her newest child was born at the start of the pandemic in March. The couple lost their cleaning jobs shortly after their baby's birth, and the family has almost no income. Because Carolina and her husband are undocumented immigrants, the family can’t get the kind of federal benefits that have helped others in the state keep up with their rent.
We've agreed to use only Carolina's first name because she and her family fear legal repercussions due to the couple's immigration status.
"As a mother, I am very concerned about not having money to pay the rent,” she says, looking worried as she sits on a couch in her living room. "My kids have watched me crying, and they've asked if we'll have to live on the street."
Now the family owes $6,000 for three months in back rent, and their landlord has threatened to take legal action.
“It's not that we want to live for free. We can’t work now — and we’ve never been short on the rent before."
Renters Can't Pay
Evictions could soar in Massachusetts in the months to come, as housing relief measures and pandemic unemployment benefits expire over the summer. The state could extend its current moratorium on evictions, but critics say any new laws must protect landlords as well.
Carolina says landlords need to understand the situation tenants are facing: “It's not that we want to live for free. We can’t work now — and we’ve never been short on the rent before."
The other side of the coin is that without income, landlords can't keep up on their payments either.
In normal times, Carolina and her family might be facing eviction. But renters across the state are protected by the moratorium on evictions that’s been in place for the last three months. It's set to expire on Aug. 18, however, and advocates say Massachusetts could see a massive wave of displacement that would hit hardest in Black and brown neighborhoods.
For a sense of how many evictions could be brewing, the state Housing Court tells WBUR that last year saw an average of 7,653 evictions per quarter. Today, the court is already sitting on roughly 5,000 eviction cases, all paused because of the pandemic.
But the coronavirus crisis could multiply the normal number of evictions, experts say.
“It’s going to tremendously increase the number of evictions,” says Steve Meacham, an organizer with the tenants’ rights group City Life/Vida Urbana. “If you look at people who are on unemployment, or how many renters are expected to be behind on their rent when the moratorium ends … we’re gonna see a huge upswing.”
Mass INC estimates that between April and June, nearly a third of renters in the state missed paying at least some rent — and the longer the pandemic continues, the worse the numbers could be.
Meacham also points out that the coronavirus struck while Massachusetts was already in the midst of a housing crisis: “Mass building clearcuts … it was just awful. We don’t want to go back to that normal.”
Now housing advocates say something has to be done, either to guarantee incomes through the epidemic, or to prohibit evictions — or both.
And Meacham’s group says if the government is going to come up with vast sums of money to cover rent past and future, it has to be part of a negotiation for “long-term housing stability,” meaning some form of rent control.
As advocates seeking to extend the evictions moratorium argue it's a public health necessity, critics say that would be devastating for some small landlords.
Landlords Can't Pay
Carline Chery walks through the two-family house she owns in Dorchester, complaining about all the lights on in broad daylight, and air conditioners humming in the windows. She says one of her two tenants stopped paying the rent in March. The tenants cited the evictions moratorium as a justification for not paying — even though they appear to be working, she says.
The moratorium doesn't mean they can live rent free — it’s just that Shery can’t evict them even though they owe her $10,000 in back rent.
"It's just like everything I'm trying to do is working against me, because they know the law,” she says. "I can't evict them. I'm forced to sell."
Chery says after four months in the red, she wants out of the property. And she has a buyer, only she can’t close until the current tenant moves — and there’s no indication that’s going to happen any time soon.
"I can't evict them. I'm forced to sell."
Chery says if the rent moratorium is extended, legislators should create a mechanism to prevent bad-faith tenants from abusing the law.
And she's not alone, according to Doug Quattrochi, head of the advocacy group Mass Landlords. He says about 5% of his members are unable to pay their bills and are ready to sell — and another 20% don’t know how they're going to make ends meet at the end of this year.
"There's a lot of frustrated landlords who do feel like the eviction moratorium, by being so broad — you don't have to prove you're impacted by COVID — it just enables some people to take advantage," Quattrochi says. "We don't think it's many, but it's enough."
Clark Ziegler, head of the quasi-public Massachusetts Housing Partnership, says stopping evictions alone won't solve the underlying problem.
"It costs money to provide housing," he said. "And in addition to mortgage expenses, there are utilities and insurance and maintenance and so on. And so unless we sort of replace this lost income at some scale, it's hard to imagine other interventions that can be very effective.
To keep the rental market afloat, Ziegler says, could require a huge infusion of state or federal aid over the course of a year-long moratorium.
Some of the solution could come with the bill state lawmakers are weighing to extend the moratorium through next August. It would establish a relief fund to help landlords collect rent lost because of the pandemic, freeze rents during the 12-month period and establish a temporary "just cause" rule to limit evictions to certain causes unrelated to the health crisis.
Last month, Democrats in Congress proposed a new stimulus bill that would include $100 billion in rental assistance for low-income individuals, and ban all evictions for 12 months. But it has made little progress in the Senate.
At the state level, the Baker administration announced this week a new $20 million rental and mortgage assistance program.
Quattrochi from Mass Landlords says we need to think bigger — far bigger.
He wants to see a new tax directed at single-family zoning that would generate enough money to guarantee rents are paid until the pandemic ends.
And that could encourage municipalities to allow more multi-family zoning, addressing one of the biggest underlying problems of the state's housing market: the lack of supply.
This segment aired on July 6, 2020.