Elizabeth Rucker suspected she and her four housemates in Roxbury might have trouble making their April rent of $3,800 because the shift to remote work had impacted all their jobs. They did manage to pay, a few days late. But, she said, they still received a notice from their landlord warning them to pay up or prepare to move.
“Many people might think that they had to just leave,” Rucker said. “We happened to be able to pay rent this month, but … we’re concerned for ourselves for future months that we wouldn’t be able to pay.”
Even though Chief Housing Court Justice Timothy F. Sullivan has suspended most eviction proceedings in the state, a number of renters are still receiving initial notices like the one Rucker received. Some landlords have been filing them in court, queuing up cases that could proceed once the suspension is lifted.
Rucker’s landlord, City Realty Management, said in a statement to WGBH News that a “small number of notices to quit” were sent to tenants who had not previously communicated with the company under its normal policy.
“However, we understand these are not normal times. That will not happen in May,” company spokesman Sean Martin said, adding that City Realty’s notices were not filed in housing court.
But dozens have been filed this month in Eastern Massachusetts by various landlords, according to the state’s courts database.
Lawmakers in the Massachusetts House advanced a compromise bill Wednesday to address the issue.
Attorney General Maura Healey said also Wednesday that evictions are illegal for as long as the state emergency declared by Gov. Charlie Baker lasts. She said her office has been monitoring the dockets of housing courts.
“Anyone out there who has been threatened with eviction or somebody who shows up to try to evict you, know that that’s not happening now,” Healey said on WGBH News' Boston Public Radio. “That’s illegal. Call the police. Call my office.”
Housing activists renewed their call for the legislature to tamp down initial notices and other steps in the eviction process during the pandemic. On Tuesday, 14 organizations sent letters to the small group of lawmakers who worked in a conference committee to merge the House and Senate versions of an eviction and foreclosure protections bill. The measure now goes before the Senate, and, if passed, to the governor.
Some landlords say, though, a total ban on evictions would obstruct their ability to collect rents so they can pay their own bills. Last year, almost 40,000 eviction cases were filed, according to the state courts’ annual report.
“Landlords are definitely worried about their income,” said Skip Schloming, president of the Small Property Owners Association. The members, Schloming said, manage rental properties in Boston — where more than two-thirds of housing units are occupied by tenants — and elsewhere in the state, where renters take up 38 percent of units.
Schloming, 78, and his wife Lenore manage about 21 units spread across three buildings in Cambridge and Somerville.
“We’re very concerned,” Schloming said, characterizing the moratorium as an invitation for tenants to skip their contractual obligation. “The threat, the possibility of eviction, is the only way that a landlord can control tenant behavior, especially the payment of rent.”
Schloming pointed to landlords’ financial obligations like mortgages, property tax payments and maintenance costs. “If widespread non-payment happens … landlords are forced to fold,” he said.
But advocates like Joseph Michalakes, a housing attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services, expect the final bill to contain provisions to prevent landlords from losing their homes, as well.
“When we talk about what we need to do in terms of a strong moratorium, we’ve always talked about it in terms of evictions and foreclosures,” he said, noting the House and Senate bills contain provisions for both. “You have to address the needs of renters and the needs of homeowners, especially small homeowners, at the same time.”
State Rep. Michael Connolly from Cambridge co-authored one of the two bills that lawmakers are trying to reconcile. He said subsequent financial issues — catching up with rent and mortgage payments — can be dealt with after residents are sure they won’t be kicked out of their homes if they fall behind.
“Really the concept here is to provide stability, particularly housing stability, in the face of this pandemic,” he said.
Connolly told WGBH News there’s broad agreement among lawmakers that the final compromise bill should omit a rent waiver but should include a ban on initial notices.
“Hopefully, we’ll get this done very quickly,” he said.
Back in Roxbury, Rucker said she supports lawmakers creating further eviction protections that would halt notices like the one she received. She called it “a form of harassment and intimidation.”
Martin, City Realty’s spokesman, said the company will not evict any tenant during the public health crisis.