A bill that would halt evictions and freeze rents for a year after Gov. Charlie Baker lifts the coronavirus state of emergency has cleared its first major hurdle but faces staunch opposition from landlords who say it would lead to foreclosures, slums and worse.
“The further people get behind in their rent, the less likely they will ever be able to pay it. If we don’t deal with this problem and we wait another year, there’s a lot of money that will never get paid,” said Greg Vasil, CEO and president of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. “It’s the property owners who lose. We’ll see foreclosures and properties will start to fall into disrepair.”
The eviction protection bill cleared the Joint Committee on Housing in a 14-3 party-line vote on Thursday. Proponents say the bill aims to keep tenants in their home after losing jobs due to the pandemic. It now heads to the House Ways and Means Committee.
Per the bill, small landlords — property owners with fewer than 15 rental units — would be able to pause their mortgages and put missed payments onto the end of the loan.
“Deferring payments isn’t going to be enough because those payments are going to come due sometime and the money isn’t going to be there,” Vasil said.
A temporary ban on evictions and mortgages expires on Oct. 17 and Baker has been noncommittal on whether he will extend it for a second time. Last month, the Republican governor told reporters he’s working with judges in the state’s Housing Court to find a solution to the housing crisis.
Vasil favors letting the current ban expire and instead relying on a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order that blocks evictions through the end of the year. The federal ban requires tenants to sign an affidavit asserting they are unable to pay due to the COVID-19 crisis. It’s an added layer of protection Vasil says will “keep people from gaming the system.”
But lead sponsor on the bill Cambridge Rep. Mike Connolly called Vasil’s concerns “really out of touch and off base.”
“It’s unfortunate when these landlords spread misinformation and doubt on what we’re trying to do when in reality we’re putting programs in place to help landlords too,” Connolly said.
Connolly pointed out several “powerful” tools included in the bill designed to help landlords and tenants weather the economic storm caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
One provision allows landlords to draw on security deposits held in escrow to offset the cost of repairs. Another allows landlords to write off any back rent owed as a tax credit and requires those landlords to forgive tenants that rent.
“In terms of helping landlords and supporting landlords — that’s always been core to what we’re talking about,” Connolly said.