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A false sense of housing security

La-Brina Almeida

Maria has been living in fear. Her landlord has been rapping on her door, harassing her and her children for the rent. But, since both Maria and her husband have lost their jobs during the COVID-19 crisis, they can’t pay rent.

“We cannot pay the rent if we don’t have jobs,” Maria said through an interpreter at an Oct. 21 rally to pass the COVID-19 Housing Equity Bill. “This is so scary, and this bill … is the only solution to protect us from being evicted, from going to the streets.”

The eviction crisis in Massachusetts has been a tale of two realities. For those who do not work directly with renters facing eviction, the picture is rosy: The superficial data show no tidal wave of evictions. But for those who speak daily with renters, much of the state’s promised aid is not reaching them and has not stopped the bleeding. For those on the ground, programs like the Eviction Diversion Initiative and existing court processes are far from adequate.

People are still fighting evictions — both formal and informal (through notices or threats that never make it into the court database). At the recent rally, organizers, advocates and direct-service housing professionals took to the streets to raise awareness about the ongoing evictions in Massachusetts.

The system is missing much of the real picture for several reasons:

No-fault evictions are still happening, leaving a pathway for landlords to circumvent the protections put in place for people at risk of eviction due to an inability to pay.

Landlords don’t need to explore options through rental assistance programs before filing to evict their tenants.

Even if a landlord starts the eviction process but doesn’t ultimately evict their tenants, those tenants can have a permanent stain on their court record, leaving them vulnerable to future housing discrimination.

It misses the reality that many small landlords — who also have been financially impacted during COVID — are not being fully protected from foreclosure by the state.

The bottom line is this: Help has not arrived — and we need to increase eviction protections while people wait for that help to materialize.

The reality people are facing makes the case for why the state needs to pass the COVID-19 Housing Equity Bill, an act to prevent COVID-19 evictions and foreclosures and promote an equitable housing recovery.

The bill would offer more protection than Governor Baker’s eviction moratorium, which expired more than a year ago, in the following ways:

1. It temporarily pausing no-fault evictions.

2. It reinstates a pause on foreclosures and requiring forbearance based on federal standards to better protect homeowners.

3. It requires the state to make the rental-assistance process more accessible, transparent and navigable.

The tenants that are slipping through the cracks of existing systems aren’t just a few for whom the protections aren’t enough. Many of these tenants were already the most vulnerable to disparities in housing, income and wealth. They are now among those hardest-hit by the pandemic. When our solutions center them, they better serve everyone.

La-Brina Almeida is a policy analyst at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

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