With thousands suddenly unable to work and large-scale disruptions to our state economy inevitable as the COVID-19 pandemic swept into Massachusetts in early March, the commonwealth needed to make housing security a top priority.
Just three days after Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency on March 10, we filed an eviction and foreclosure moratorium bill. The urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic required us to move quickly to protect tenants across the state from being removed from their homes. Our efforts were supported by input from advocates and followed calls from housing justice groups such as City Life/Vida Urbana, the Chinese Progressive Association and Lynn United.
Contemporaneously, we also joined with others in calling for the shutdown of the courts for non-emergency hearings. Within 24 hours, the Housing Court and the District Court each issued standing orders closing their courtrooms to all non-emergency business.
While these orders helped to reduce the number of proceedings on the docket in the interest of public health and safety, we continued to see hundreds of eviction cases being filed in the late weeks of March and early weeks of April. This underscored the pressing need for real legislative action on this issue.
Our legislation garnered 73 cosponsors and ultimately won the support of scores of community, faith-based, social justice and labor groups. After both branches of the legislature swiftly acted to pass their own versions of the bill, a conference committee was convened to negotiate the differences, and the governor signed An Act Providing for a Moratorium on Evictions and Foreclosures During the COVID-19 Emergency on April 20.
While objections to the bill were raised during the enactment stage of the process, opponents ultimately decided not to stand in the way of the bill’s passage. Our ability to build a broad-based coalition, grounded in the concerns of people most impacted by COVID-19, was absolutely pivotal in allowing us to overcome opposition and build consensus around basic housing protections.
By passing this legislation quickly, the legislature acted with the urgency that the COVID-19 emergency required. In fact, following the governor’s approval of the bill, the Princeton University and Columbia Law School analysts at the Eviction Lab moved Massachusetts up to the No. 1 spot in their rankings of states with strong COVID-19 housing policies.
Practical Effects of the Legislation
We are proud to say this is a truly comprehensive bill – it provides protections for a range of interests, including renters, homeowners, landlords, small businesses and local nonprofits.
This legislation does many important things, starting with establishing a moratorium on evictions of residential tenants, small businesses and local nonprofits.
It stops landlords from attempting to terminate tenancies or sending notices to quit for non-payment of rent or no–fault evictions.
It prevents courts from acting on non-emergency eviction matters. The eviction moratorium extends to all phases of the legal process, preventing courts from accepting filings, entering judgements or default judgements, issuing executions for possession, or scheduling a court event. It also stops sheriffs and constables from enforcing executions for possession.
The act prevents late fees and negative credit reporting for COVID-impacted tenants; the state Department of Housing and Community Development has issued documentation to facilitate these protections.
Crucially for homeowners and “mom-and-pop” landlords, it establishes a moratorium on residential foreclosures, for owner-occupied buildings of four units or less. The moratorium forbids creditors or mortgagees from publishing notices of foreclosure sale or exercising any power of sale or entry.
The law also requires mortgage forbearance and deferment programs for these mortgagors impacted by COVID-19 for up to 180 days. Fees and interest may not accrue while mortgage is in forbearance. Excused payments will be tacked on as additional monthly payments at the very end of the mortgage.
Landlords benefit from the law’s provision that provides them with access to last month’s rent to cover expenses, without any negative impact on tenants. Tenants will be entitled to interest that would have been earned on last month’s rent had it remained in escrow.
Eviction and foreclosure protections will run for 120 days – until Aug. 18, 2020 – or 45 days after the end of the governor’s emergency declaration, whichever is sooner. The protections may also be extended by the governor if necessary. We will closely monitor situation and advocate for extensions, as needed.
For the Sake of Public Health and Safety
This is more than just a housing issue: It is also a public health issue. In a time where our collective well-being depends on the ability of each of us to safely maintain physical distance from other people, the need for stable housing has never been more important.
We cannot in good conscience insist that people are “safer at home” while at the same time removing them from their homes through eviction and foreclosure proceedings. In the face of the worst pandemic in over a century, we are only as strong as the most vulnerable among us.
With so much uncertainty, anxiety and isolation involved in this pandemic, we are proud that we were able to work in partnership with our colleagues and those most impacted by housing insecurity to provide families and individuals some peace of mind and take just one potential worry off their plates.
While we physically keep our distance from one another, caring about our collective humanity has never been more important.
Kevan Honan represents the 17th Suffolk district in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and co-chairs the Joint Committee on Housing. Mike Connolly represents the 26th Middlesex district in the House.