Driven Out: COVID-19 & The Crisis of Eviction

The Massachusetts state legislature passed a COVID-19 eviction moratorium in mid-April that froze all five stages of evictions for commercial real estate, residential real estate, and foreclosures. The legislation was intended to stay in effect for either 45 days after the governor’s declared state of emergency ended or 120 days total, whichever came first. On July 21, when the moratorium was set to end but the pandemic was far from over, the order was extended through October 17, 2020. As the new deadline approaches, many residents face uncertainty surrounding their housing security in the months to come. 

The Massachusetts orders constituted some of the strongest protections for renters during the pandemic. However, without further action on rental debt, Director of Housing Advocacy at Community Action Agency Somerville Ashley Tienken believes that Massachusetts will see a surge of evictions soon after the state of emergency ends. The current orders in Massachusetts do not prohibit landlords from raising rent when renewing leases during the pandemic. Combined with the lack of an explicit grace period to repay back rent that accrues during the pandemic, Tienken argued that this will leave many tenants vulnerable to eviction when the moratorium expires.

Furthermore, medical professionals from across the country have publicly voiced concerns that the eviction crisis will exacerbate the ongoing COVID-19 public health emergency. In early August, 26 US medical associations authored a letter to Congress urging them to provide housing resources and protections in any future COVID relief packages. “As leaders in the health sector,” the letter explained, “we understand that now, more than ever, housing is health.” 

According to research from Opportunity Starts at Home and other housing justice organizations, health outcomes have always been closely tied to housing security. Quality, affordable housing can prevent long-term health problems and increase favorable health outcomes, while unaffordable and unstable housing often perpetuates existing health disparities and balloons healthcare costs. The National Housing Conference & Children’s Health Watch reported that “young children in families who live in unstable housing are 20% more likely to be hospitalized than those who do not worry about frequent moves or have anxiety over rent.” 

Profesor Penn Loh, a senior lecturer and the director of the Master of Public Policy Program at Tufts’ Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, emphasized that the pandemic has revealed the ways in which the country’s health, housing, and economic crises are intertwined: “We can look at the housing crisis as a market failure, or we can look at it as a product of a system that is working exactly the way it was designed. When we treat housing as a commodity to trade and not as a human right, we end up reproducing structural inequities like gentrification, displacement, and overcrowding, which endanger the health and safety of our most vulnerable communities—especially during a pandemic.” 

While the protections for tenants and landlords in Massachusetts are strong, MA’s existing homeless population is one such community that remains uniquely vulnerable to the negative effects of the pandemic. According to the Boston Globe, the virus has “produced a surge of people living on the streets with many homeless people choosing to avoid the cramped quarters of shelters, where, in some cases, more than a third of the guests tested positive for the virus last spring.” The decreased capacity of shelters and addiction recovery centers, combined with the release of many incarcerated people during the pandemic, has led to an influx of residents with nowhere to go and limited access to care during a global health crisis. 

In terms of immediate assistance for this vulnerable population, Tienken believes that Governor Baker should not only extend the moratorium until at least January 31, but also put a stop to rent increases for the duration of the pandemic. “A lot of our residents have not paid rent since March,” Tienken explained. “A wave of evictions once the moratorium ends would lead to overcrowding in the already maxed-out shelter system and could potentially cause an outbreak in COVID cases.” 

A recent study conducted by Boston University’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism found that even the comprehensive legal protections for tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic are still not airtight enough to prevent loopholes: “At least 70 illegal eviction cases were filed in Massachusetts Housing Court this spring, including 50 violating the national ban that blocked displacing renters in most federally subsidized properties.” Even if these cases are dismissed, many housing providers will categorically deny anyone who has been sued for eviction, potentially leaving former residents trapped in a cycle of homelessness. The study also states that landlords have utilized “self-help eviction techniques” like threatening to change locks or alert immigration officials in order to scare tenants into paying or leaving.

As the author of the highly acclaimed book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Michael Desmond, wrote for the New York Times, “Eviction solves nothing. Landlords don’t need to resort to the threat of eviction to get paid…There is no discernible difference in rent collection rates between states with eviction moratoriums still in place and those whose moratoriums have expired. Eviction is not a solution to landlords’ fundamental problem of maintaining rental income. Rent relief is.” If the US wants to recover fully from the pandemic, Desmond argues, the country must do more to protect tenants’ rights and help families keep their homes long after eviction moratoriums and other temporary measures end. 

One possible long-term solution, according to Loh, is the popularization of community land trusts. Community land trusts are local non-profit organizations designed to ensure community stewardship of the land. Instead of government ownership of a community asset, like a public housing complex, a community land trust can own that property and decide how best to lease it out to meet community needs, while also preventing gentrification-induced displacement or foreclosure due to economic downturn. According to Loh, community land trusts are one way to “make governance of land decentralized, democratic, and locally controlled.”

This idea is not new to the greater Boston area—the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative is the oldest community land trust in the area and began in the 1980s. DSNI owns 30 acres of land and has built over 200 units of permanently affordable housing. Today, DSNI acts as a blueprint for community land trusts to come, ones that could potentially meet the pressing needs of thousands of people still displaced and unprotected during and after the current global health crisis. “We’ve been dealing with a housing crisis for 20 years,” Loh said. “We’re at an inflection point, but there is still more work to be done.”