End date now June 30, 2022
(Somerville Wire) – After the City of Boston lifted its eviction moratorium on March 31, Somerville is now the last municipality in the state to maintain a ban on evictions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Last Thursday, April 21, the city extended that moratorium for two more months.
Mayor Katjana Ballantyne proposed the 60-day extension, pushing the end date from April 30 to June 30. The extension was officially approved by the Somerville Board of Health at its meeting last Thursday, April 21.
Speaking on behalf of the mayor, Chief of Staff Nikki Spencer told the board that the 60-day sunset period is necessary because Covid-19 case numbers are currently on the rise, and many Somerville residents are still suffering from the economic disruptions of the pandemic.
Since housing is a “major social determinant of health,” Spencer said, “we believe that Somerville residents would benefit from additional notice and time to prepare and access resources.”
Ellen Shachter, director of the Office of Housing Stability, gave a detailed presentation on evictions over the past year and services provided by the city to help low-income renters.
“We should do everything we can to protect our residents and make sure displacement is minimized,” she said, “but also to recognize that there needs to be an end date” for the moratorium.
Shachter reported that demand for OHS services for rental assistance and eviction protection have increased this year. From June 1, 2021, to Jan. 31, 2022, the city received an average of about 119 new requests for services per month. Then from Feb. 1 to April 15, 2022, the demand for services rose significantly, with an average of 138 new requests for services per month.
She cited several possible reasons for the uptick, including the end of the state’s “very generous” Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which stopped taking new applications on April 15. The end of ERAP will “create a lot of vulnerability for families,” she said.
A study conducted at MIT for the nonprofit organization Homes for All found that Somerville has had one of the lowest eviction rates during the Covid pandemic, relative to other Massachusetts cities. Shachter credited the eviction moratorium as well as the resources provided to renters by her office.
Between April 2021 and January 2022, there was an average of about 10 eviction cases filed per month in Somerville. From February to mid-April, “somewhat surprisingly,” that number has gone down to 6.8 evictions per month, she said.
Shachter also praised the Homeowner Assistance Fund, a state program funded through the federal American Rescue Plan Act. HAF provides assistance to homeowners and small landlords in owner-occupied buildings with one to four units, which includes most of the housing stock in the city. Owners are eligible if their income is less than or equal to 150 percent of Area Median Income.
“The only downside to this program is that you already have to be three months behind in your mortgage before you can access this program. So not ideal for people who are trying to keep up with their costs of housing, but does serve as a backstop on foreclosures, in a very significant way,” Shachter said.
During the 60-day extension of the moratorium, the city is planning to do two mailings to residents and property owners. One will be sent to all residents to let them know about the ending of the moratorium, and state and local protections and resources that are still available to them. The other mailing will go to all Somerville property owners, to let them know about the status of the moratorium, resources available to them if they are struggling with their mortgages, and also “to really urge them to work proactively with us wherever possible to avoid evictions,” Shachter said.
Despite the eviction moratorium, landlords can begin eviction proceedings now. “There is absolutely nothing stopping a landlord from filing a Notice to Quit or entering a case in court to be prepared for the end of the moratorium,” Shachter explained. “It really would not prevent a landlord from doing anything they felt they needed to do to protect themselves, because it takes more than two months for the process of court anyway. So I don’t think an extension would harm homeowners or landlords in any way.”
She added, “We are trying very hard to make sure that this is done in a way that will keep everybody ‘housing stable’: small landlords, homeowners, and tenants.”
Photo credit: A real Somerville fixer-upper. Photo by Jason Pramas. Copyright 2022 Jason Pramas.
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Linda Pinkow is a reporter for the Somerville Wire. She is also a development consultant for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.