“It was sort of testing the water with it, seeing what [evictions] they can get away with. This legislation stopped folks in their tracks before it caught on.”
An emergency bill stopped eviction proceedings as the coronavirus pandemic continues to roil Massachusetts—but many landlords, including a billion-dollar real estate firm, still got the ball rolling with court filings that will likely pick up again once the legislation expires.
Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation creating a moratorium on most evictions last week, after a month of pressure from housing advocates. The legislation halts notices to quit, evictions, and foreclosures for non-payment of rent—all or any of which may be relevant for tenants who lost employment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many public officials, including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, asked landlords to stop evictions during the pandemic. Several large property owners agreed, but other landlords still began eviction proceedings—even though the state’s courts shut down in the middle of March. While those filings can’t proceed without further hearings, they will be ready to go when courts reopen.
“It’s definitely troublesome,” Alex Ponte-Capellan, a community organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana, said in an interview. “Our organization is looking at this in different phases. The moratorium was the first phase; now we shift to what to do when it’s lifted. What happens to all these cases?”
The Supreme Judicial Court ordered all courthouses closed to the public on March 17, a few days after Mayor Walsh asked landlords to halt evictions during the pandemic. The courthouse closure, which earlier this week the SJC extended to at least June 1, put its own brake on eviction proceedings moving forward.
Beacon Hill actions and SJC decisions aside, until the emergency bill was signed into law, landlords were able to still file eviction notices and send notices to quit to tenants. A notice to quit is the first step in the eviction process, canceling a lease and telling a tenant they must leave by a certain date. A notice to quit will often convince a tenant to leave before fighting an official eviction in court, Ponte-Capellan said; while eviction filings can be tracked, there’s no official city or state record of notices to quit despite efforts to create a central database.
“One of the biggest problems organizers have is they can’t really track evictions and capture data that gives a full picture of what evictions look like,” Ponte-Capellan said, adding it was “huge” that the emergency bill halts notices to quit as well as evictions.
City Life tries to work with landlords to identify and secure resources for tenants in trouble. Some landlords offer information on people who are behind on rent so that the nonprofit can assist them. But others won’t provide it, and Ponte-Capellan said there is no way to know how many property owners sent notices after the pandemic was underway.
Betty White, who’s lived at the complex now known as SoMa Apartments in Mattapan for nearly 40 years, has been fighting a rent increase since 2019. White said she lives on a fixed income and is unable to pay an additional $300 a month, and has been dealing with notices to quit every month since November—including one on the first of April.
“I was surprised, I was angry. When I got the one in April, a pit appeared in my stomach—’What are they doing now?'” White said. “It’s like they really want you to get out. I can’t do that, I have no place to go. I was surprised they’re still sending it to us.”
SoMa did not respond to requests for comment.
“Seeing what they can get away with,” White added.
Actual eviction proceedings did not stop either. City Life found hundreds of eviction filings throughout the state from mid-March until the bill’s passage. Some of those filings would not be barred by the legislation, which allows for evictions if the tenant poses a threat to the building, but many were for non-payment of rent.
In Boston, more than 30 landlords or property management companies filed eviction notices after April 1, with filings often affecting more than one tenant. Some notices were filed by individual landlords, but others by large multi-unit property owners—the Peninsula Apartments, which are across from UMass Boston in Dorchester and owned by billion-dollar ASB Real Estate, filed eight eviction notices.
While those notices were filed, a spokeswoman for Peninsula property manager National Development said they won’t be acted on.
“Peninsula is working with all of our tenants during this crisis and fully complying with the recently passed legislation,” according to spokesperson Kathy McMahon. “There is no intent to take any action to evict any tenant who has been unable to pay rent due to the Covid-19 crisis.”
If Peninsula doesn’t come to an agreement with the tenants it’s filed against, those proceedings will be ready to go when the courts open up again. That’s why it was important to pass anti-eviction legislation fast, Ponte-Capellan said.
“It was sort of testing the water with it, seeing what they can get away with,” Ponte-Capellan said of last month’s eviction filings. “This legislation stopped folks in their tracks before it caught on.”
And while Ponte-Capellan stressed that some landlords have been working with advocacy groups during the pandemic, others are continuing business as usual during the crisis.
“I think landlords are trying to squeeze as much money as they can out of folks because things are going haywire … They’re just caring about their bottom line, not about residents’ safety, health or security,” Ponte-Capellan said. “These big companies are in a much better position to weather this storm than renters of Boston.”