Out of time and without enough money, Massachusetts’ political leaders are gambling with the lives of hundreds of thousands of apartment tenants across the commonwealth.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s plan to address our massive crisis of unpaid rent and potential evictions is in good faith. But the $171 million effort – only about $67 million of which will actually be available for rental assistance programs – is transparently insufficient for the task at hand.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimates, using recent Census Bureau survey data, that around 60,000 Massachusetts renter households will be at risk of eviction starting Monday.
Some portion of those renters are only behind in rent by a small amount, and others with greater debts may be lucky enough to have a sympathetic landlord who also has the cash reserves to carry them through what is shaping up to be a grinding recession. But many, many tenants statewide are struggling under months of unpaid rent thanks to a Republican Party in Washington that callously allowed expanded government unemployment benefits to lapse. Many in Massachusetts relied on that income to close what MAPC estimates as the nearly $1,000 gap between their monthly bills and their monthly unemployment checks.
Sixty-seven million dollars isn’t going to be enough to solve this problem, even for the vulnerable seniors and families with school-age children at risk of getting evicted once the federal moratorium ends Dec. 31. The result? Baker and the legislature have left all of us in Massachusetts to depend on landlords’ kindness rather than hard-nosed business calculations in order to stave off a wave of homelessness.
The large landlords like Peabody Properties and Trinity Financial who banded together in recent weeks and pledged to hold off on evictions in Boston into next year should be lauded. But many – particularly smaller landlords – lack the cash reserves to keep hosting non-paying tenants until the election hopefully delivers a Congress that can supply states with another infusion of aid payments to fund an appropriate response.
Faced with this situation, Baker and the legislature must immediately take another look at the state’s stash of federal coronavirus aid money and the $3.5 billion rainy day fund and find at least another $100 million or more for rental assistance. Small landlords – nearly all of whom are decent, compassionate people – need confidence they have a shot at getting some income to shore up their finances. And those on a more stable footing need an incentive stronger than the certainty they will ultimately get paid that comes with victory in an eviction case.
At the same time, landlords must, if at all possible, hold off on filing notices to quit (the first step in an eviction proceeding) until they have gone through the mediation programs Baker’s plan also sets up and helped their tenants apply for rental aid. The election may yet deliver a more helpful balance of power in Washington.
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