Massachusetts is again considering another eviction moratorium, much to the frustration of real estate industry groups. While the bill is well-intentioned and some aspects could fix key problems, it will send the wrong message to tenants and poison its own efforts to address a building crisis. 

First, it’s important to note that the state is in this position because Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration has completely and shamefully failed to deliver an adequate eviction diversion program. 

Despite grand rhetoric and an equally grand budget of nearly $1 billion in combined federal and state money, only about $280 million in rental assistance has been distributed since October 2020. The culprit: an overly complicated application process. In fact, the 13-page application is so byzantine, and demands so many different types of documentation, that only about half of all tenants who start the process end up submitting an application. Of the applications actually submitted, 80 percent are incomplete by the administration’s own reckoning.  

If nothing is done to accelerate the distribution of rental aid, tens of thousands of renter families will be marked with the “scarlet E” of an eviction case, making it much harder for them to rent quality lodgings. And equally large numbers of small landlords will be pushed off a financial cliff, forced to sell their properties and exit their businesses through no fault of their own. 

The eviction bill currently gathering steam on Beacon Hill (H.1434/S.891) comes from a good place. No one wants to see anyone evicted because they lost their job or a percentage of their income after COVID-19 wrecked the state economy.  

It also contains some important provisions. It directs the Baker administration to make rental aid more flexible by minimizing the paperwork tenants must present and prioritizing small landlords. 

It also lifts an idea that’s seen some initial success in Connecticut: Requiring any landlord who wants to evict their tenant over COVID-19-related arrears to first work with that tenant to file applications for rental aid. While many landlords have already done this or would be open to doing this, it’s an important protection against unscrupulous actors and a reasonable concession to Beacon Hill Progressives and tenant-rights groups. 

Unfortunately, the bill has two failings: It only allows landlords with more than 15 units to apply for rental aid directly, and it reinstates a ban on evictions and foreclosures related to COVID-19.  

Enough anecdotes have come out of the last 18 months demonstrating that more than a few tenants have treated the succession of eviction moratoria as an excuse to not pay rent, even when they are able to meet the terms of their contract. The precise numbers don’t matter here: This phenomenon has become a key frustration for landlords statewide, and a failure to acknowledge it could easily derail what is otherwise an important step to fix a rental aid system the administration can’t or won’t repair.  

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Don’t Poison Rental Aid Fixes

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min