Online Exclusives

When Your House Can No Longer Be Your Home

The Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy continued its spring webinar series February 16 with “Evictions: Consequential Crises,” a discussion about housing stability, specifically, the impact of evictions during the current public health crisis. Panelists explained how the Covid-19 pandemic and economic depression have inflamed the threat of eviction for tenants all over the country, hitting hardest in working class communities of color. 

In his welcome, BC Law Professor and Faculty Director of the Rappaport Center Dan Kanstroom outlined the issue at hand. “Housing and evictions have become particularly salient in light of Covid-19 and the terrible economic challenges faced by many, especially faced by communities of color, but these issues have long been fundamentals of human rights, racial justice and societal apathy,” he said. “As [sociologist and Princeton professor] Matthew Desmond puts it on his website, ‘Without a home, everything else falls apart.’”

In an effort to keep renters housed at this time, federal, state, and local governments have passed emergency policies such as eviction prevention moratoriums and increased data sharing. Panelist Callie Clark, director of policy and co-director of the Center for Housing Data at the Massachusetts Housing Partnership (MHP), is part of a team focused on providing data to inform public policy conversations. 

Clark walked listeners through selected data from the Boston Indicators’ Covid Community Data Lab. Her team, in partnership with the Boston Foundation’s Boston Indicators research center, created the website in May of 2020, providing crisis indicators, briefs, and up-to-date data on housing and other issues related to Covid-19.

“We are hoping that this is a space where people can get information they can use as a jumping off point to have good conversations about what’s really going on in their community,” said Clark.

A portion of the data showed a spike in eviction filings for non-payment of rent in Massachusetts since the end of the moratorium in October, with a big jump happening right after Thanksgiving. More important, noted Clark, was the data collected by the Census Pulse Survey on fear of imminent eviction  in the state. The 23 weeks of data collection show that tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents fear imminent eviction. The most recent survey suggested that around 60,000 households believed they were likely to have to leave their homes in the next two months. “Think about the people behind those numbers,” she added. 

One way Massachusetts has been attempting to reduce these numbers is by dispensing state emergency rental assistance (ERA) funds to communities and households. From the beginning of the pandemic to the end of 2020, at least $32 million in rental assistance was distributed to households of families in transition; that was an average of $4,000 to each household.

“In 2021 the demand for this rental assistance is immense,” she said, “and the state and now federal government will be matching this with $457 million coming to Massachusetts for emergency rental assistance specifically. 

Clark offered the following suggestions to inform policy moving forward: better define the scope of the crisis over time; streamline delivery of emergency rental assistance; rationalize documentation for financial support; accelerate property-level assistance; expand delivery channels; increase transparency of local ERA program; improve transparency and alignment in the courts; improve data transparency around ERA funds; and ensure equitable access to assistance. 

“There is more collaboration now than I can ever remember between landlords, resident leadership, organizations, city and state agencies, advocacy groups, and legal service groups in every state where we operate.” —Trevor Samios, WinnCompanies

Panelist Andrea M. Park, staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI), has paid close attention to the recent drop in filed evictions cases and the simultaneous rise in fear of eviction. “The high number fear of imminent eviction and the number of cases that are filed can both be true because there are so many people who leave because they are afraid,” said Park. “They know they can’t pay, they don’t want to get taken to court, they don’t understand that they have rights in court, and they just leave.” This makes it difficult to define an eviction in terms of the court process, she noted.

Park broke down the process and goals of establishing the state and federal moratoriums, but alluded to the need for a less temporary solution. “The real problem is there wasn’t any money that we could point to that we had available, and as many states and localities dealing with the same question found, it wasn’t a problem that any one city, any one county, or any one state could really solve on their own. Locally, it comes down to who is left holding the bag, who needs to be the one to pony up all of the money?” 

In discussing the need for transparency, Park drew parallels to the vaccine rollout. “Getting the money out to people quickly is very important but it also matters who we are prioritizing and how we are deciding where this money is going to go first,” she said.

In an effort to shed light on potential solutions to this funding problem, moderator Norrinda Hayat, associate clinical professor of law and director of the Civil Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School, posed a question to panelist and WinnCompanies vice president of resident services Trevor Samios, whose view of the issue, as a housing development executive, provided a perspective different from that of other panelists.

Hayat asked: “Who is going to help us get over the fiscal hump?” 

Samios replied, “We are definitely part of that puzzle, and a big and important part, and we need to assume responsibility for that piece.”

He explained that WinnCompanies is a large, mixed-income and affordable housing developer and property manager. It operates hundreds of communities nationwide that are home to some 350,000 people. “Our clients are in many cases non-profit organizations, large and small; community development corporations; resident-owned cooperatives—some of the folks that have been hardest hit by this,” said Samios. 

Part of his role as a resource coordinator is to help people navigate resources effectively and efficiently. In addition to the harmful effects of evictions on tenants, the costs to a property manager and owner are quite exorbitant, Samios said. “We knew that there was a business case for this far beyond the most important piece of it, which are the social implications.”

He discussed the negative effects of evictions on social determinants of health, families, children, education, healthcare, and landlords across the country before providing information on WinnCompanies’ Housing Stability Program, a nine-part initiative focused on stopping evictions. One part of the initiative is to create a series of interventions into the typical collections process so people can avoid court.

“A recent study found that lifting state eviction moratoriums and allowing conviction proceedings to continue caused as many as 433,700 excess cases of Covid-19 and 10,700 additional deaths in the US from March to November of 2020.” —Katie McCann, City Life/Vida Urbana

Panelist Katie McCann, a community organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana, said her grassroots organization is committed to fighting for racial, social, and economic justice and gender equality by building working class power.”  

The country’s history of racism plays a major role, she said, in how the eviction crisis is disproportionately affecting communities of color because of practices such as redlining.

Citing a research report conducted by City Life and MIT last summer, McCann said that over two-thirds of market rate eviction filings in Boston were in census tracts where the majority of residents were people of color. Before the eviction moratorium, over three-quarters of all evictions filed in Boston were in census tracts where the majority of residents were people of color. “This is happening because of the way that the market works. The market is displacing working class communities of color and that’s why we need strong protections at every level—local, state and federal—to prevent residents from being displaced from their homes,” said McMann. “Human needs need to be prioritized over profits of investors and companies.” 

She also said that additional protections, such as rent control and just-cause eviction protection, are needed beyond the pandemic. To that end, City Life Vida Urbana is pushing for state legislation to address the issues, and the organization’s hotline is available to people who seek information about resources, initiatives, and support. 

Panelists agreed that while the housing stability crisis was a public health concern before the pandemic, it is now a far more significant threat as people need adequate shelter in order to safely distance themselves.

“A recent study found that lifting state eviction moratoriums and allowing conviction proceedings to continue caused as many as 433,700 excess cases of Covid-19 and 10,700 additional deaths in the US from March to November of 2020,” said McCann. “No non-emergency evictions should be happening, no one should be displaced from their home and not be able to safely distance during a pandemic. This is why we need strong protections for renters and homeowners.”

While their efforts are a start and the problems ahead are many, the panelists agreed that not having the answers yet, does not mean they don’t exist. 

“There is more collaboration now than I can ever remember between landlords, resident leadership, organizations, city and state agencies, advocacy groups, and legal service groups in every state where we operate,” said Samios. “Everyone’s looking for an answer and trying to navigate how this is going to work because it’s a giant mess.” 

“Although these problems are obviously profound, and can be profoundly demoralizing, I feel inspired by your work,” Rappaport’s faculty director Kanstroom told the panel. “When you have people with this kind of energy and intelligence and commitment and solidarity, we find ways through it.”

Photo, from left: Callie Clark, Norrinda Hayat, Andrea M. Park, Trevor Samios, and Katie McCann

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