There are two COVID-19 commonwealths. In one version of Massachusetts, single family homes prices are up 2.9 percent since last year. True, inventory is down a third, but demand for safe, private yards and socially distant housing has not fallen so fast. Many have found that working from home is nicer with more interior space and a yard.
But in the other Massachusetts, the last half–year’s worth of rent remains unpaid. With the physical service sector in tatters, there is little hope of earning enough to afford an apartment. And there is no hope at all of earning more than before, such as would permit a renter to pay off the arrears and stay where they are. Surveys and other econometric data consistently indicate between 10 percent and 30 percent of the commonwealth’s 1 million renter households are unable to pay forward or back rent.
Renter advocates have described a looming “tsunami” of evictions; we have described it as a smaller but more long-lasting “tidal wave.” Whatever the metaphor, the problem is large and looming. The legislature and the governor applied a Band-Aid to this COVID-19 eviction crisis in April, when they established the eviction moratorium. Originally scheduled to end in August, it is now extended to October. No reasonable, empathetic person expects it will lapse then, right before the holidays. Surely it will be extended again to January 2021.
But housing is not free. Housing providers have ongoing upkeep and maintenance, mortgages that are not forgiven, real estate taxes, utilities, insurance, extermination and more bills to pay. Long-time MassLandlords members, including one of our directors, have sold out of the business. The number of units held vacant for reasons other than for renovation, rent or sale has more than doubled. Our housing is disappearing underneath our feet for lack of income or subsidy. Better to mothball it if possible than remain on the hook for winter heat.
A Guarantee Would Solve Everything
It is in the power of the commonwealth, without federal assistance, to guarantee all rental housing. It can be occupied and paid for throughout the pandemic and in the long recovery. The mechanism is akin to insurance: “If someone can’t pay due to COVID-19 or the resulting shut-down, the commonwealth will pay, we guarantee it.” It’s that simple.
We can generate $200 million to $300 million a year to fund this new safety net and simultaneously address the root of the problem. Single-family zoning and large minimum lot sizes are together the single biggest barrier to housing supply, the reason rents have put so many households on the brink. And a 1 percent tax on the sale of any land that is currently zoned for single–family housing would generate the millions needed to fund our idea. Homeowners could even avoid the tax if their property was up-zoned prior to sale
But no leader in the legislative or the executive branch has taken us up on this bold new initiative. And so, it’s time to turn up the heat on those with the power to act.
Hundreds of Lawsuits? Or Thousands?
MassLandlords has not engaged in a full-throated opposition to the constitutionality of the moratorium, although we believe it is indeed unconstitutional. Instead, we have created an Individual Claims Council, a network of attorneys who are now collaborating and available to help landlords make claims against the commonwealth. Intake will be via MassLandlords.net/icc.
The purpose is to not evict anyone. The purpose is to call the eviction moratorium what it is: a temporary public taking of private property, a free redistribution to the renters who need it during this pandemic. We seek to obtain reasonable compensation for providing this housing, what the emergency law describes as a public need. We will thereby eliminate our renters’ unpaid obligations and any worry of eviction.
The applicable statute has been on the books and plain to a lay person, waiting for someone to make the argument. The courts have the power to order the commonwealth to pay.
We will be demonstrating our legal approach and how to apply at an event on Sept. 10. Separate litigation on the constitutionality of the moratorium (e.g. Baptiste v Commonwealth) may prompt us to alter our approach, which the Individual Claims Council are well equipped to do. This initiative will run parallel to our advocacy for a legislative response.
Together the commonwealth can keep us all housed. The only question is, which branch of government will take the first step toward lasting stability?
Doug Quattrochi is executive director of MassLandlords Inc.