As coronavirus cases surge, community members grapple with a housing crisis.
“My fellow organizers at City Life / Vida Urbana put it clearly and simply: evictions are death,” said Nicole Eigbrett, the director of Community Organizing at Collective Action Agency Somerville (CAAS).
Eigbrett was an organizer of the Somerville “Homes for All” rally, where participants marched to City Hall and demanded that Governor Charlie Baker extend the Massachusetts eviction moratorium. The moratorium helped to delay the evictions of those not able to cover rent due to the pandemic.
Although the moratorium put in place by Baker in early April was beneficial to Somerville residents, the legislation expired at midnight on October 17.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only negatively impacted the global economy but has tripled the unemployment rate in the United States since 2019. With nation-wide income cuts continuing to impact residents from state to state, the Somerville community is trying to figure out how to protect their residents from housing instability and displacement.
According to Eigbrett, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) estimates that 200,000 to 300,000 Massachusetts households would be at risk of eviction or foreclosure due to COVID-19-related income loss.
“Service providers and housing justice advocates all recognized that without a state eviction moratorium, during this ongoing global health crisis, there could be a mass wave of evictions,” Eigbrett wrote in an email.
Somerville mayor Joseph A. Curatone and the Somerville Board of Health issued the Emergency Order Establishing a Moratorium on Eviction Enforcement in Somerville. On March 28, the City Council unanimously passed the order, which prohibited evicting renters and owners due to nonpayment of rents or mortgages. However, because Somerville does not have jurisdiction over the courts, this effort did not prevent property owners or lenders from filing evictions or getting an “execution of possession.”
As Somerville residents continue to cope with financial hardship and health concerns this year, the statewide eviction moratorium has allowed them to temporarily have guaranteed stable housing.
The “Homes for All” rally, organized by Eigbrett and other community activists and organizations, took place a few days before the moratorium was set to expire. According to Eigbrett, the rally highlighted the importance of the eviction moratorium by sharing stories of vulnerable tenants.
“Evictions are traumatic events that not only destabilize the household experiencing it but entire neighborhoods and communities,” Eigbrett said. She stated that the rally also championed the Guaranteed Housing Stability Act (GHSA) put forth by Representative Mike Connolly and Senator Pat Jehlen. The Act accommodates residents experiencing housing issues.
A longtime proponent for housing stability, Connolly filed the original bill to put the moratorium in place.
“Following that effort, the thinking turned to, ‘well, what happens when the moratorium expires?’” said Connolly. “And so our collective response to that question is this bill, the [Guaranteed] Housing Stability Act. On the one hand, it’s been pretty amazing to see how much support the bill has garnered, but on the other hand, the moratorium has expired, and we’ve still been unable to get legislative leaders to agree to bring it forward.”
While there is no clear reason that the bill has not been passed, Connolly believes that it is, in part, due to opposition from the real estate industry.
“The real estate industry itself, developers and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board… they’re opposed to it,” said Connolly. “And so it’s challenging, trying to overcome that kind of opposition.”
According to Connolly, the real estate groups were also opposed to the initial eviction moratorium.
“I think, during that initial shock when the world was falling apart all around us, despite the fact that the real estate industry and landlord groups were strongly opposed to the eviction moratorium, we were able to convince legislative leaders that this action was needed,” he said.
Greg Vasil, chief executive officer of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board (GBREB), opposed the moratorium and emphasized the issues that arise from lack of communication between landlords and tenants– something he feels the moratorium amplified. “We oppose it for the simple reason that it’s so restrictive, it cuts off dialogue,” Vasil said.
According to Vasil, the moratorium also cut off access to courts, which play a key role in determining the number of people affected. “From a business perspective, what we really needed to know was, how many people are really struggling with COVID,” he said. “You’ve got a situation that’s going to have to come down to a monetary number. So when you cut off all access to the courts, you have no idea what you’re dealing with, in terms of the number of people affected.”
Somerville still has its own eviction ban in place. Similar to the CDC moratorium, it provides protection to residents but only stops the physical evictions.
With its proximity to Boston and the many colleges located in and around the city, housing stability was an area of concern for Somerville residents prior to the pandemic. Now, with the eviction moratorium’s expiration, housing is a top priority.
The Boston Globe reported that a primary reason for rising rent prices in the Boston region is the city’s rapidly increasing economy. In 2008, 2.5 jobs were created per each new unit of housing and contributed to economic growth. As the economy rose, so did the price to live close by.
Connolly cites an array of components that have contributed to the housing crisis in Somerville, including increased investment in the Somerville community, income inequality, systemic racism, and government disinvestment in areas such as affordable housing.
“All of those different factors combined to create the circumstance where people who have spent their entire lives or a significant portion of their lives contributing to the fabric of the local community find themselves, through no fault of their own, no longer able to afford their community,” Connolly said.
Ellen Shachter from Somerville’s Office of Housing Stability believes that legislation, funding, and government support is the key to solving the housing crisis at large. She believes that government housing funding, if implemented and distributed correctly, could help many Somervillle residents and families from being displaced.
“When a family gets evicted, it costs about $1,000, on average, to stop that eviction,” she says. “But it costs about $60,000 to keep them in shelter for a year. So it’s really just about looking at what those costs are.”
Shachter hopes that once the pandemic ends there will be a way to continue in the direction of “fuller funding” for eviction prevention programs. She sees president-elect Joe Biden’s administration as one that could potentially bolster funding for affordable housing and is hopeful for a more effective federally-funded stimulus package. Still, she believes nothing will truly change until big, systemic changes come from the Massachusetts legislature.
“I don’t want to make it out like Massachusetts is this horrible place to work on these issues,” Shachter says. “Because we are a leader, but we’re not as progressive on those issues as we are on some others. Anything we do has to be a statewide fight.”
Pre-dating the coronavirus outbreak, the housing crisis in Somerville also corresponded with the rapid increase in rent across the state of Massachusetts. Massachusetts housing data shows that 66% of residents in Somerville are renters. A recent Housing Needs Assessment study shows that more than 70% of Somerville’s existing residents/households could not afford the average monthly rent of the city, which is slightly more than $2,300.
Ben Echevarria, executive director of The Welcome Project in Somerville, said that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened an already ongoing problem with rent affordability and security that Somerville residents have been experiencing.
The Welcome Project’s main goal is to become a community resource for immigrants that are predominantly impacted by Somerville’s housing crisis. The Welcome Project sees the language and cultural divide between immigrants and American policies and legislative systems as one of the major problems, which is why their main goals within the organization are to teach ESL to immigrant Somerville residents, get them familiar with common renting terms and policies, and even encourage bi-lingual children to become community interpreters.
According to the City of Somerville’s website, Somerville is densely populated with different cultural communities, making it one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that the housing crisis for immigrants has been happening for 10 years in Somerville,” says Echevarria. “It’s been going on well before the pandemic, and it’s only been exacerbated considering that now, immigrants, like everyone else, are not getting jobs.”
He explained that because immigrants often work in the service industry, many have lost a main source of reliable income that was not taken away until the pandemic came into full swing. “They’re generally low paying jobs,” he says, “and Somerville is a very expensive place to live.”
For proponents of housing stability like Eigbrett, a primary area of concern is that tenants may not know their rights regarding eviction. “We are worried that tenants receiving eviction notices — a 14 or 30-day notice to quit — may not understand their rights and assume that means they must move out,” said Eigbrett. “This isn’t true: only a judge can evict you, not your landlord.”
As the state moratorium was ending, CAAS convened housing nonprofits, grassroots organizers, and staff members of the City of Somerville Office of Housing Stability (OHS) and Immigration Services Unit (ISU) into a partnership called the Somerville Know Your Rights Coalition. The week of November 9, the organization held its “Know Your Rights Week of Action,” during which members distributed flyers around East Somerville. According to Eigbrett, efforts to educate tenants of their rights continued in the following weeks.
“We want to make sure that our most vulnerable neighbors, especially low-income renters who are undocumented immigrants, know that if they are struggling to pay rent, facing an eviction, or interacting with ICE, they are not alone and that help is available at no cost,” Eigbrett said. “Somerville doesn’t leave its neighbors behind.”
For Somerville residents who are facing eviction, you can contact the City of Somerville Office of Housing Stability for rental assistance, legal help, or advocacy in evictions.
This article was produced by students in Prof. Gino Canella’s Grassroots Journalism course at Emerson College for the Somerville Wire.
The Somerville Wire is an initiative of the Somerville News Garden project of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. All Somerville Wire articles may be republished by community news outlets free of charge with permission and by larger commercial news outlets for a fee. Republication requests and all other inquires should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.