City Councilor Lydia Edwards (District 1) held a virtual “coffee hour” Saturday morning via Facebook Live to discuss housing concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. She was joined by Joey Michalakes, an attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, to discuss housing resources and tenant/landlord rights as well as answer questions from residents online.
Councilor Edwards, who represents the North End, Charlestown, and East Boston, started the conversation by urging residents to remain at home, citing recent data that shows younger people have the highest rate of infection while the elderly remain the most vulnerable to becoming critically ill. As of April 19, Massachusetts is third in the country for infection rates behind only New York and New Jersey.
Housing Crisis Prior to Pandemic
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the City of Boston was already facing a housing crisis. As more Bostonians face unemployment, the inability to pay rent is expected to increase considering the fact that many were already struggling before this unprecedented public health crisis.
According to Councilor Edwards, the average rent price for a one bedroom in Boston was $2500 and steadily increasing. Approximately half of Boston residents make no more than $50,000 per year, demonstrating the ever-widening income and wealth gaps present in the City. With 66% of residents being renters, Boston was experiencing a large amount of resident displacement due to unaffordable rent.
Before COVID-19, there were some housing legislature pending in the State House that set out to alleviate some of the problems faced by tenants such as the real estate transfer fee, the Housing Opportunity and Mobility through Eviction Sealing (HOMES) Act, and the City of Boston’s first ever city-funded voucher program for rental assistance.
Landlord and Tenant Rights That Stand Regardless of a Pandemic
As this public health crisis continues to disrupt the daily lives of Bostonians, it’s important that tenants and landlords understand their rights. While common sense and good health practices are crucial components to navigating housing during a pandemic, there are some basic rights that will always stand regardless of a public health emergency.
Tenants should understand that no one can evict them from their housing unless it has been ordered by a judge. Regardless of an authoritative figure threatening your removal, notices from your landlord, or the fact that you’ve been late on rent, evictions can only be processed through a court hearing and judgment overseen by a judge. Michalakes emphasized that residents should not leave their home as this could put them at risk of contracting the virus. More information on evictions can be found here.
The Right to a Safe and Secure Home
As a landlord, there is the continued obligation to provide repairs to tenants. The advice that many landlords are following is to limit this to emergency repairs such as plumbing, leaks, extreme infestation, etc. However, as the law currently stands, landlords are still obligated to perform repairs that aren’t necessarily deemed as an emergency. Michalakes admitted the current circumstances create some “gray areas” in regards to making non-urgent repairs due to the reasonable concern over contracting or spreading the virus.
It is encouraged that tenants communicate their need for non-urgent repairs to their landlords so that maintenance can be performed as soon as the public health emergency is lifted. If a landlord needs to make any repairs, proper notice to tenants is still expected. Both the tenant and the landlord should practice social distancing and other health practices to ensure the safety of all involved.
Many Bostonians have suffered unexpected unemployment and income loss during this crisis. However, the obligation to pay rent still stands for tenants. Although eviction processes have been halted until May 4th, there is no guaranteed protection against eviction once this pandemic ends. Residents are encouraged to pay their rent if possible. If you are experiencing extreme financial difficulty, Michalakes’s advice is to communicate with your landlord in order to reach some sort of payment agreement.
Pending Housing Legislature at the State Level
An emergency COVID-19 housing bill is currently pending in the State House that would implement a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the public health crisis faced in Massachusetts. The legislature would benefit residential and small business tenants by halting evictions based on nonpayment of rent. Evictions would no longer be allowed, except in the case of an emergency, until forty-five days after Mayor Walsh’s state of emergency is lifted or for 120 days (whichever is longer).
Foreclosures would also be halted under this bill; the process of a foreclosure could not even be started. Mortgage bearers would be given the ability to seek forbearance, which would delay payment for 180 days. At the end of that allotted time, residents would then work out a payment plan with their lender or the payment could be pushed to the end of the mortgage’s life.
Evictions Under This Bill
Under this pending legislature, residential and small business tenants would be protected against all processes of eviction. This means that any evictions that were already in action would stop until after the crisis has ended. Landlords would not be allowed to send eviction notices, incur late fees, or engage in credit reporting that would negatively harm their tenants until after the crisis.
However, tenants whose conduct warrants immediate action could be evicted. Situations that could require emergency eviction are tenants who have exhibited violence or engaged in criminal activity that poses a risk to others, tenants who have thrown parties or exhibited other behavior that goes against social distancing, etc.
Mortgage Relief for Landlords
Landlords would be given the ability to use their tenant’s last month’s rent toward their mortgage payments and other utilities. However, landlords must give a written notice to their tenant and are required to honor that last month’s rent and the interest accrued.
The bill narrowed the definition of a small business to a company that is not multi-national, not multi-state, not publicly traded, and has less than 150 full-time employees.
Rights Under Bill Are Not Automatic
The protections outlined in the bill for residential and small business tenants are not automatic. A written statement to your mortgage lender or landlord explaining that you are experiencing financial troubles due to COVID-19 is required.
CARES Act Housing Protection
In a response to the global coronavirus pandemic, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law by President Trump in late March. The legislature provides protection for residents who live in federal housing and those with federally backed loans. A moratorium on rent and evictions was included in the bill for 120 days from signing, which would end on July 25th, 2020.
Boston Housing Authority (BHA) and Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA) Protections
The Boston Housing Authority (BHA) has agreed to cease evictions during the pandemic. Tenants with direct leases with the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) will also not be evicted at this time.
Resources for Homeless
Following mass testing at homeless shelters, it was discovered that one in three of Boston’s homeless were positive for the coronavirus. In order to allow proper social distancing, the City of Boston has teamed up with local colleges and universities to secure empty dormitory rooms for the homeless population.
Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT)
The Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) is an assistance program for families experiencing homelessness or close to homelessness by providing short-term financial assistance. The program offers up to $4,000 in assistance, however, it cannot exceed that amount within a twelve month period.
Rental Relief Fund
The City of Boston is offering rental relief to Bostonians who are at risk of losing their housing due to COVID-19. Tenants eligible for the fund are those who do not qualify for the expanded unemployment benefits or those who the unemployment benefits would represent a significant reduction of their normal income. The Rental Relief Fund was exhausted within the first round; however, a second round is expected and residents can fill out a contact form to be notified when it reopens.
Watch Councilor Edwards’ complete update in the video below. Additional information on relief funds and Boston’s developing response to COVID-19 are posted at boston.gov/coronavirus.