Baker Announces Additional Housing Support Funds, Sees Decision 'Soon' On Eviction Moratorium

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito watches as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker addresses the media.(Chris Van Buskirk, SHNS)
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito watches as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker addresses the media during one of his daily press conferences.(Chris Van Buskirk, SHNS)

Gov. Charlie Baker acknowledged Thursday he needs to make a decision "soon" on whether to extend a temporary ban on evictions and foreclosures, but did not indicate which way he's leaning, as he announced another $20 million in funding for homelessness prevention and other community aid.

During a midday press conference, Baker also reiterated his opposition to a bill that would limit local law enforcement interaction with federal immigration officials, voiced concerns about declining access to Centers for Disease Control data, and said his order requiring face coverings in public would remain in effect until the end of the state of emergency.

Baker said Thursday that Massachusetts has made "considerable progress" in its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that the seven-day positive test rate of about 1.7 percent is about one-twentieth what it was in mid-April.

Cases continue to surge in many states across the country, though, and Baker again stressed the importance of Massachusetts residents remaining committed to precautions that limit the virus's spread.

The governor did not answer directly when asked if he supports newly filed legislation that would enshrine in statute several requirements he established by executive order, such as a mandate to wear face coverings in public. He instead spoke generally about the importance of masks and other facial coverings.

"That order is going to remain in place until we don't have an emergency," Baker said. "If people want to engage in a discussion about masks as they relate to COVID, my view is: masks are a fundamental part of how we contain and fight the virus, and we believe the proposal we put in place, which gives locals the ability to also enforce this order with a variety of means and mechanisms available to them, has worked enormously effectively."

After the White House shifted federal guidelines on data reporting, public information on the availability of hospital beds began disappearing from the Centers from Disease Control website.

Baker said he is concerned both about a "sudden increase in the number of elements" federal officials want states to report and what looks to be movement away from the CDC, which he described as a "source of truth" amid the pandemic.

"Many of us believe that that is, in fact, where that data should be gathered — we should be chasing data based on protocols and rules and definitions that have been part of the way the CDC has done this forever," Baker said.

The change, he said, "sets us up for a situation where it's going to be very hard to understand what truth actually is."

Housing supports have become a growing focus in recent weeks amid widespread economic strain and record levels of unemployment, as well as the forthcoming expiration of a law designed at keeping people safely housed during the crisis.

A law Baker signed in April imposing a moratorium on most non-emergency housing removals is set to expire on Aug. 18, after which tens of thousands of residents could suddenly face eviction or foreclosure proceedings. Baker has authority under the law to extend it in 90-day increments, and as of his Thursday appearance, he has not yet taken a public position on whether he will do so.

"We've been having regular conversations with our colleagues in local government, with folks in the housing community, with folks in the advocacy community and folks in the Legislature about this," Baker said. "We recognize and understand that we're going to need to make a decision on that soon."

Rep. Kevin Honan, who co-chairs the Housing Committee, joined with Rep. Mike Connolly and Sen. Patricia Jehlen to file legislation that would automatically extend the moratorium until one year after the state of emergency ends, pause rent increases, and make funding available to small landlords affected by the policies.

Their bill (HD 5166), which has nearly 90 co-sponsors in the two branches, was reported from the Rules Committee to the Housing Committee on Thursday.

The administration will make the latest $20 million batch of CARES Act funding that Baker announced Thursday available to 181 municipalities through the Community Development Block Grant program, aiming the relief at municipalities with fewer than 50,000 residents to help with homelessness prevention, food pantries and job training.

Last month, Baker unveiled a separate $20 million fund to supplement the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program, and a spending bill that's close to reaching Baker's desk includes another $20 million for residential assistance.

With 15 days remaining before the Legislature plans to end formal sessions for the year, lawmakers have been rushing to tie up loose ends and wrap up key priorities for the two-year session that have been left until the last minute.

Baker and Polito made another pitch at Thursday's press conference for the zoning reform legislation they have been unsuccessfully pushing for years. The proposal, which would lower the local voting threshold for zoning changes from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority in an attempt to spur more housing development, features as a piece of a $275 million jobs and COVID recovery bill the administration rolled out last month.

"With COVID-19, the impact of stable housing has never been clearer," Polito said Thursday.

Legislative leaders have not indicated if they have plans to tackle the bill, and their bandwidth is already crowded with a range of other proposals.

One issue that advanced this week — but has an uncertain path to a vote in either branch — is the so-called Safe Communities Act, which would bar police and court offices from inquiring about someone's immigration status and limit their collaboration with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The bill received a favorable recommendation from the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, where it faltered last session amid heated public debate.

Baker has previously threatened to veto the bill if it reaches his desk. Asked Thursday if his view has changed, he replied simply, "No."

This article was originally published on July 16, 2020.



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