By Joyce Doherty
Boston University Statehouse Program
A crumbling ceiling, unlevel toilet and mushrooms sprouting in the bathroom. Since Michelle Sullivan moved into her New Bedford apartment two years ago, it has needed multiple repairs.
Sullivan tried talking to her landlord, before filing complaints with the New Bedford Board of Health to get the apartment repaired. Sullivan said she refused when the landlord tried bribing her with money to keep quiet.
Now her landlord has petitioned to evict her.
“She wants me out because of my record of all my complaints about the building and her,” Sullivan said. “And I can’t find housing anywhere else, so I’m stuck.”
Following the end of the state eviction moratorium in October last year and the CDC moratorium on Aug. 26, evictions are still lower than before the pandemic, according to state housing court data. While the number of eviction petitions has risen in the past few months, they have not reached pre-pandemic levels in Massachusetts.
Since the beginning of 2020, Middlesex County has had the highest number of eviction cases, at 3,930. Bristol County has issued the most court orders for evictions at 692. Worcester and Middlesex counties followed closely behind.
Bristol County representatives met with Chief Justice Tim Sullivan of the Southeastern Housing Court to investigate the number of eviction orders. Sullivan cited the difference between evictions and execution of evictions – a court order allowing landlords to evict – according to Rep. Chris Hendricks, D-New Bedford, a member of the Legislature’s Committee on Housing.
Other reasons for the rise in cases in certain counties may have to do with landlords’ miscommunication with tenants, how aggressively the courts are processing these cases, or the effectiveness of mediation and access to legal aid, according to housing committee co-chair Sen. John F. Keenan, D-Quincy.
Representatives and advocates point out that the biggest culprit is a lack of knowledge of government programs for tenants and small building owners aimed at helping promote housing security.
“One thing that we had been seeing across the board was a lack of awareness of financial support through federal funding that’s available to both tenants and landlords,” Keenan said.
A state law from January stipulates that landlords are required to notify their tenants of programs that can help them meet rent or avoid eviction. When a landlord begins the eviction process, they must file for eviction, after proving they have provided legal notice to quit.
But that notice – which notifies the end of tenancy – is written in legal jargon that is difficult to understand. Tenants will not fully understand the process and move out without an understanding of their rights and government programs that can help avoid eviction, according to Andrea Park, an attorney at Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.
“We need to get better notice to tenants about what they can do, especially during a pandemic,” Hendricks said. “They are being forced to make these types of agreements without knowing what they are entitled to.”
Multiple government programs can help tenants keep their homes and ward off eviction, such as the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance and the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
RAFT has helped over 23,000 households in Massachusetts and distributed over $118 million and ERMA has served over 1,500 having distributed $8.2 million, according to data from the Department of Housing and Community Development.
Even with financial and legal aid, going to court can permanently impact tenants and create housing insecurity.
When a tenant gets taken to court, even if the case is resolved, the tenant will have an eviction record, which could bar them from securing a housing lease in the future, according to Park.
“Landlords don’t take the time to go through what happened in an eviction record, because in a market like this, you don’t really need to,” Park said. “They will move on to the next applicant and see no record.”
This was true for Michelle Sullivan, whose record of complaints and current eviction is barring her from signing a new lease.
“Everywhere I go, they pull my name and they see that I have complaints,” Sullivan said. “It seems that I have complaints against the landlord and they want nothing to do with me.”
Court records do not tell the whole story, as rent-paying and compliant tenants can be evicted simply because the owner wants to sell the building. The record gives potential landlords the impression that the court ruled against the tenant, according to a Massachusetts Law Reform Institute report.
While the moratorium provided safety for tenants, it also affected landlords. Many owners, frustrated with non-compliant tenants and nonpayment of rent, sold out of the business, according to Doug Quattrochi, Executive Director at Massachusetts Landlords.
“In August and September 2020, when the state moratorium was at its longest duration, we had landlords selling out of the business at two to three times the normal rate,” Quattrochi said, noting the fall in membership renewals. “People [were] running out of money and there was no end in sight.”
Dave Branagan, a landlord with 20 years of experience, sold multiple properties due to the moratorium in mid-2020. His final property sale went through in August of this year and while Branagan still owns a couple of properties, he has separated himself from the business as much as possible.
“I didn’t have problems with the ones who lost their jobs. I had problems with the ones that were opportunistic thieves,” Branagan said. “I’m glad I’m out of the business, and I would never do it again.”
Branagan’s problems came from tenants whose employment status didn’t change during the pandemic and were refusing to pay rent and violated lease agreements. Branagan tried taking them to court but was barred due to the moratorium.
“Landlords sold their buildings … and it made a lot of corporate landlords a lot bigger,” Quattrochi said. “A lot of the small mom and pop landlords who provide affordable housing got squeezed out.”
Before the pandemic, there was worry about corporate landlords getting larger and taking out smaller ones. Massachusetts worked to put in place forbearance programs and changed the application for federal funding so landlords could apply without having to rely on tenants, according to Keenan.
“The housing committee is reviewing legislative proposals that would assist smaller, local landlords, and legislation that would empower tenants to form associations to purchase buildings targeted by large investors,” Keenan said.
Individuals worried about making their mortgage payments can apply for ERMA funds, even though payments are capped at $10,000 and many people can get pushed over the cap and can only make partial mortgage payments that are not accepted, according to Park.
“In the way that we now have a patchwork of tenant protections, there has been a patchwork of federal protections on the mortgage side, but a lot of people don’t have federally backed mortgages,” Park said. “So one of the things that we are advocating for is to make sure that everyone in Massachusetts has a forbearance program that mirrors what the federally backed programs have.”
Even with a breadth of programs available to tenants and landlords, evictions and housing security is a problem that continues in the commonwealth.
A protest outside the state capital on Thursday implored lawmakers to reinstate the state eviction moratorium, arguing that stronger protections are still needed in the pandemic, the State House News Service reported.
Protestors favored a bill that would reserve eviction as a last resort after a landlord proved they used all rental assistance options. The bill would also simplify the process for receiving aid and would restore the eviction ban until 12 months after the end of the state of emergency.
“We are getting a clearer picture of what the current rate of evictions is like through ongoing conversations with advocates, constituents and government officials,” Keenan said. “I plan to continue to work with tenants and property owners and will continue to monitor eviction data closely.”
This article was part of a package created by the Boston University Statehouse Program about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in Massachusetts.