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July 20, 2020

Healey, lawmakers urge Baker to extend eviction moratorium

Photo | SHNS Attorney General Maura Healey

The pressure from Democrats on Gov. Charlie Baker to extend a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures into November intensified on Friday, with Attorney General Maura Healey calling such a step "critical," and a majority of the Committee on Housing urging the governor to keep the protections in place.

The protections under a law signed by Baker in April to prevent landlords from evicting tenants or banks foreclosing on homeowners during the pandemic are set to expire on Aug. 18, but Baker has the authority to extend those measures in 90-day increments.

Baker has said he is talking with local officials and people in the housing industry as he weighs a decision, but acknowledged this week that he must make one "soon."

Healey on Friday said that allowing the eviction and foreclosure moratorium to expire would risk more people becoming homeless at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause economic hardships for families.

Since the law went into effect, Healey said her office had received more than 130 complaints of violations, including illegal evictions and cases of landlords threatening to change locks on units, sending notices to vacate that are not labeled as such and using minor lease violations to claim a health and safety risk to remove tenants.

"It's critical that Governor Baker extend this moratorium to ensure our residents have the resources and assistance they need to stay safe. My office has already stopped more than 70 illegal evictions and will continue to monitor this issue," Healey said in a statement.

Housing Committee Co-chairs Rep. Kevin Honan and Sen. Brendan Crighton also urged Baker on Friday extend the moratorium while the Legislature explores "further funding mechanisms and legislation to extend protections."

Honan, Crighton, and eight other Housing Committee members wrote a letter to Baker describing the 90-day extension as an "urgent need," warning that if it lapsed up to 20,000 evictions notices could be filed in August.

"In order to prevent an unprecedented number of evictions, we must keep these safeguards in place while the Commonwealth continues to safely reopen and businesses and individuals alike begin to financially recover from the impacts of COVID-19," the legislators wrote.

The letter was signed by the two vice-chairs Rep. Joseph McGonagle of Everett and Sen. Su Moran of Falmouth. Senate President Emerita Hariette Chandler and Reps. Christine Barber, Peter Capano, Tram Nguyen, Patrick Kearney and Christopher Hendricks also signed the letter.

Honan, the longtime House chair of the Housing Committee, has also filed legislation with Rep. Mike Connolly and Sen. Patricia Jehlen that would extend the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures until one year after the governor lifts the current state of emergency.

The bills would also freeze rents over the same time period and allow small landlords owning up to 15 units to defer mortgage payments until the end of the mortgage if they lose income due to COVID-19.

The bills were sent to the Housing Committee this week, but with just two weeks until the end of formal sessions their passage could represent a heavy lift for proponents given the known opposition to such measures of some lawmakers and the strong criticism from realtors.

The Greater Boston Real Estate Board, NAIOP Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors and the Home Builders and Remodelers Association are all united in their opposition to the Honan-Connolly-Jehlen bill.

"This bill would paralyze the real estate industry, a vital part of the Massachusetts economy, and further exacerbate the state's longstanding housing crisis. It will have a lasting negative impact that will extend far beyond the timeline outlined in the legislation," the coalition wrote in a new letter outlining their opposition.

The realtors association reported this week that single-family home sales had started to pick up in June, but were down 22 percent from the prior year.

The groups said that the April law was passed after nearly a month of discussions, and they believe that if the governor and Legislature believe an extension is necessary it can be best managed through continued dialogue among Beacon Hill's leadership.

"We do not believe that additional legislative action is required to address housing concerns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. If it is necessary to extend the protections of the emergency housing law, Chapter 65 of the Acts of 2020 already contains a mechanism to do so, rendering HD.5166 and SD.2992 unnecessary," the groups said.

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