Explainer: Will Massachusetts Do Enough To Limit Evictions?

FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

BOSTON (AP) — A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire Saturday, after President Joe Biden’s administration extended the original date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants said the distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who were behind on their rents.

Even with the delay, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here’s the situation in Massachusetts:

WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

Massachusetts is one of several states that enacted a moratorium last year halting eviction proceedings due to the pandemic. The state’s pause on evictions expired on October 17, 2020, at which point the CDC moratorium became effective in Massachusetts. A bill signed into law by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker in June also aims to help prevent evictions in cases where tenants are unable to pay rent due to COVID-19-related financial hardship until April, 2022.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

When the state moratorium on evictions and foreclosures expired, Baker outlined a $171 million plan to increase rental assistance and help landlords negotiate with tenants. While much of that money has been spent, an additional nearly $440 million in federal money was set aside in December for rental assistance in Massachusetts and approximately $300 million more was received through the American Rescue Plan Act. Much of the federal aid remains.

The new law signed by Baker also includes provisions aimed at helping tenants who are facing possible eviction understand their legal options. The law requires that landlords notifying tenants to leave a dwelling for nonpayment of rent also provide a form explaining the notice is not the same as an eviction and that tenants don't immediately have to leave the unit.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

The same law provides hardship protections to those facing eviction by maintaining the court practice of offering temporary continuances to tenants who have filed applications for rental assistance. The law also requires that the form landlords must give to tenants when they notify them to leave because of nonpayment of rent must also include information on rental assistance programs, trial court rules and relevant federal or state legal restrictions on residential evictions.

HOW AFFORDABLE IS HOUSING IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

Massachusetts has long had one of the country’s tightest rental housing markets — driven in part by a strong economy and a shortage of affordable housing — although the pandemic put a dent in rising rents at a time when a vast numbers of college students stayed home to take classes remotely. As of June, the median monthly rent in the Boston-Cambridge-Newton area had fallen 2% over the last year to $2,450, according to a report released by Realtor.com. Median rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $2,700, down 3.6% from 2020.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

It isn’t clear how much homelessness will increase in Massachusetts. One indication of the scope of the problem is census data showing 11,980 state residents are concerned that they could very likely be evicted over the next two months. Another 17,411 say they are somewhat likely to be evicted over the next two months.