With the possibility of government relief in limbo, collective action could be the most reliable way to fight the pending wave of evictions
By Sarah Robertson
With millions out of work across the country, unpaid rent piling up, and emergency eviction moratoriums approaching their end, a unique public health crisis is brewing in the United States. Millions of people could face eviction and homelessness in the coming months just as a second wave of COVID-19 infections hits many communities, exposing more people to the deadly virus at a critical time.
“We know another crash is coming, and add COVID into that, with more tenants being displaced, we’re looking at a big crisis worse than the crash of 2008,” said Rose Webster-Smith, the program coordinator for Springfield No One Leaves. “I think it’s going to be on a scale worse than what it was during the Great Depression unless we act now.”
In Massachusetts the emergency eviction moratorium is set to expire on Oct. 17, when housing courts open and landlords can begin sending eviction notices for nonpayment. While Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker has the ability to extend the moratorium again, as of right now, he does not plan to. In preparation for that day, housing justice organizations like Springfield No One Leaves (SNOL) are getting ready to defend more people than ever before from displacement.
“We’ve definitely amped up our eviction defense network,” Webster-Smith said. “We’re getting ready to hire (more people) to make sure the capacity is there to cover other counties.”
According to one August report, of the roughly 43 million renters in the U.S. today, between 29% and 43% of them will face housing insecurity and potential eviction in the coming months. Additionally, more than 570,000 Massachusetts renters and homeowners doubted they could make payments for August. With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations on the rise in Massachusetts, the pandemic has the potential to cause even more housing instability and heighten the public health crisis.
Kicking The Can
The federal eviction moratorium, issued on Sept 4 by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), lasts until the end of the year. Unlike the Massachusetts moratorium, lauded as one of the most comprehensive in the country, the CDC’s order still allows landlords to charge late fees and report non-payment to credit tracking agencies, and is far less comprehensive. To qualify, renters must sign an affidavit explaining how they’ve been affected by COVID-19, prove they made an effort to pay rent, and have already sought other forms of government assistance.
“That moratorium, it does the bare minimum. It only protects tenants. There are no protections for homeowners or landlords,” Webster-Smith said. “It’s definitely kicking the can.”
Springfield No One Leaves (SNOL) is a housing justice and advocacy organization that helps prevent displacement, organizes direct action campaigns, and seeks long-term community ownership over land and housing. Webster-Smith leads the organization in their organizing and advocacy work, functionally as their executive director, but she refuses the hierarchical title.
Everyone who works for No One Leaves has faced eviction, foreclosure or displacement at some point in their lives and found the organization that way, as a member. After the ‘08 housing crisis threatened her own home with foreclosure Webster-Smith joined SNOL in 2011. This November will mark her tenth anniversary with the organization.
“We all lived through this,” Webster-Smith said. “While we do provide some services, we are more a movement fighting for housing to be a human right and for economic justice.”
By her organization’s estimates, Webster-Smith says about 250,000 to 300,000 households in Massachusetts could face eviction by the end of the year without rent relief, and legislation that would provide that relief is moving slowly. In Massachusetts the Guaranteed Housing Stability Act, H.4878, would forestall evictions for non-payment due to COVID-19 job losses and establish a Housing Stability and Recovery Fund to relieve small property owners.
“I’m really hoping Baker gets off his butt and extends this moratorium,” Webster-Smith said. “At least until we pass this bill.”
The bill, drafted in partnership with the Homes For All Massachusetts coalition and SNOL, recently made it past the Housing Committee and is now onto in the Ways and Means Committee. It creates an oversight committee to make sure the money goes to the smallest landlords first, “so they’re getting relief instead of the corporations,” Webster-Smith said.
“I’ve never worked with so many politicians as I have in the last five months,” Webster-Smith said. “For me having lived this, I’m really scared to see what happens if we don’t have bold leadership.”
With the possibility of government relief in limbo, fair housing organizations are building support networks and prepping for the pending crisis. Most agree that collective action could be the most reliable way to fight the wave of evictions.
Four months into the pandemic, the prominent Northampton landlord (and co-founder/former owner of the Iron Horse), Jordi Herold bought two more buildings in Northampton, one of them on Belanger Place. Tenants there were given two options: sign new leases with scheduled rent increases and more restrictive terms, or move out in 30 days.
“Luckily everybody in my building started talking right away and decided not to sign the new lease,” said Grace McCabe, a resident of Belanger Place. “For us, rent stabilization was vital because most tenants are low income or underemployed due to COVID.”
Included in most of these leases were built-in rent increases each year, a change from their month-to-month living arrangement to signing year long leases, and further restrictions that would force some to give up pets.
“A lot of people wouldn’t think a rent increase was something they could organize around,” said McCabe. “It’s scary and people don’t know what their rights are and what their power can be.”
In early August McCabe and her neighbors announced their formation of the Association of the Buildings of Jordi Herold. In declaring themselves a formal entity the group made it so, legally, they are better protected against retaliation from the landlord.
“A lot of the time when you’re forming these tenants’ unions they try to spot the leader and evict them,” Webster-Smith said. “There’s power in numbers.”
For help negotiating their new leases, Grace and her Belanger Place neighbors connected with the Central Valley Tenants’ Union. With help from the organization they were able to negotiate rent stabilization for one year, the ability to keep their existing pets, and other more favorable terms.
“The best way to negotiate is collectively with other tenants under the same landlord,” said Oriana Reilly, a leader of the Central Valley Tenants’ Union. “Part of the reason I got interested in tenant organizing, before facing my own (housing) issues, is because I was concerned about the displacement crisis and not seeing any other solution besides tenants getting organized.”
The Central Valley Tenants’ Union materialized after a virtual meeting hosted by the Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center last spring for renters to discuss landlord disputes and their rights. Today around 40 people call themselves members of the newly formed tenants union, which is seeking new members to expand their support network throughout western Massachusetts.
“And out of that meeting all these different people and people affiliated with different groups… we just started meeting together,” Reilly said. “We just supported each other while learning more about tenant organizing and our rights. We got connected to our lawyers, (and then) got connected to Springfield No One Leaves.”
With at least 350 active families within the organization, Springfield No One Leaves has trained over 9,000 people through Know Your Rights workshops while helping families fight eviction and foreclosure. Twelve attorneys volunteer their time to help run workshops, craft petitions, and communicate with landlords on behalf of renters and mortgage holders.
“The legal stuff sounds intimidating, but the most important thing is to be united with other tenants and write a letter,” said Reilly, a Umass Amherst graduate student studying regional planning. “Even if you don’t know all the laws you can still do that and you’re much safer and protected that way.”
These housing organizations can also send letters on behalf of a tenants organization negotiating with their landlord, giving the group a more formal air and an official letterhead. In response to a letter from the Central Valley Tenants’ Union, Jordi Herold sought his own legal counsel to negotiate with the Belanger Place tenants.
“Recently we’ve been seeing a lot of landlords doing what Jordi was doing in trying to get tenants to move without technically sending them a notice to quit,” Reilly said. “I’ve actually seen landlords say you have to move out… because I have new tenants, but not actually send an eviction notice.”
When legislative means don’t achieve the desired results (a.k.a. preventing homelessness), direct action protests and civil disobedience can help fill the gaps. Recently SNOL held eviction blockade defense trainings, which teaches people how to protest and forestall eviction cases outside courthouses, in Springfield, Northampton and Pittsfield. Their next training will be in Greenfield scheduled for the day the eviction moratoriums end, Oct. 17.
“It’s not just about people risking arrest. There’s other roles people need to fill like jail support, court support, media liaison, police liaison,” Webster-Smith said of the eviction blockades. “It’s almost like a production of a play, there’s so many roles that go into it.”
Unfortunately, an eviction case can leave a permanent black mark on your record, making it possible for landlords to search an applicant’s name and make rental decisions based on the existence of past housing court cases, won or lost. A bill making its way through the Massachusetts legislature, the HOMES Act, would allow defendants to seal their cases after three years, redact their names, and prevent this kind of discrimination.
“Landlords don’t read,” Webster-Smith said. “They don’t read whether you won your case, they just put your name in there. They just see the name and say no I’m not going to rent to you.”
Massachusetts Fair Housing Center, a free legal service focused on housing discrimination cases, has provided vital resources to housing advocates in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester counties for many years. They deal with over 300 housing discrimination complaints per year based on race, religion, sex, gender identity and Section 8 housing status with a legal team that consults with each client and presents their options. Formerly incarcerated or undocumented people tend to face more illegal evictions and housing discrimination, and could be among the people most vulnerable in the coming crisis.
Resources and Relief
Both the Massachusetts and federal eviction moratoriums are being challenged in court by groups like MassLandlords, the National Apartment Association and the New Civil Liberties Alliance. Arguing that the eviction moratoriums, as unfunded government mandates, prevented them from collecting rent and paying their own bills, some say that the government should pay the difference or allow them to pursue unpaid rent through aggressive legal means.
It will cost around $99.5 billion to provide financial relief to out-of-work or low-income renters nationwide, according to the National Low Income Housing Center. Federal assistance so far has come only in the form of one-time $1,200 stimulus checks and the extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits while lawmakers squabble over the details of a broader relief package.
A federal bill allocating $100 billion in rental assistance, H.R.7301 Emergency Housing Protections and Relief Act of 2020, passed the House at the end of June. If the bill makes it past the Republilcan-led Senate, it would put forth almost $200 billion towards rental relief and other housing and COVID-19 health related resources. However federal aid packages are moving slowly and may be stalled until after the presidential election.
In Massachusetts, the Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance (ERMA) program was first introduced at the end of June and will disperse $20 million in funds to renters or mortgage holders to pay back rent. Modeled after another longstanding rental assistance program called Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT), ERMA is a broader and more generous rental assistance program crafted in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
“From what I’m hearing people are not applying for the RAFT program and they absolutely should be doing that,” Webster-Smith said. “There is money there for people to get access to. It’s just a matter of the tenant filling it out and the landlord doing their part.”
The program can give individuals and families up to $4,000 towards back rent due since April 1, although advocates are trying to increase that cap to $10,000 citing the lengthy pandemic. Anyone in Massachusetts can apply for funds from both RAFT and ERMA with this form, but keep in mind that ERMA funds can only be used for rental and mortgage assistance, while RAFT funds are applicable towards any emergency housing-related costs like utilities, moving costs and security deposits.
Some municipalities have also set aside funds to assist out-of-work renters, too. Springfield set aside $2 million in grant funds to help low-to-moderate-income renters and homeowners impacted by COVID-19, administered in partnership with Way Finders. Amherst also has an emergency rental assistance grant available through a partnership with Community Action.
Know Your Rights
Workers laid off during the pandemic are now coming to realize their job losses, first believed to be temporary, could now be permanent. In the next two months close to 5 million Americans could be facing long-term joblessness, being out of work 27 weeks or more.
Right now, Springfield No One Leaves is working to create a citywide tenants union in Springfield and write a “homeowner’s bill of rights.” They’re looking to hire another part-time tenant organizer, and may be looking to fill another full-time position helping them protect mortgage holders from predatory forbearance deals offered by area banks during the pandemic.
“We know a lot of people got those very bad forbearance deals. When it comes time for them to pay that lump sum what people don’t understand is the bank considers you in default,” Webster-Smith said. “If you don’t pay that lump sum you go right into that foreclose pipeline.”
Before the pandemic there was already a backlog of eviction cases, about 4,000 statewide according to Webster-Smith. The same judge, clerk-magistrate and housing specialist travel between Hamden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire counties to rule on cases in a different district each day of the week.
“The mental anguish you go through living day-to-day, month-to-month not knowing if the decision is going to go your way,” she said. “I was lucky enough to come out on the other side.”
One radical means of housing the houseless is through “community land trusts,” a strategy Springfield No One Leaves is keen on pursuing. In these arrangements a nonprofit community group takes control of abandoned or foreclosed housing units and maintains them as affordable housing in perpetuity, outside the gentrifying forces of the real estate market, reserved for very low-income renters or homeowners.
“Any urban planning discussion or decision has to take into consideration gentrification,” Reilly said. “There’s usually more empty houses than homeless people.”
“2008 was mainly a lot of homeowners, but now you’re going to have homeowners, small landlords and tenants facing homelssness,’ Webster-Smith said. “I actually think this is going to be worse than 2008”.
One community land trust in Philadelphia just made history after a six-month direct action campaign ended with the city relinquishing 15 vacant homes to Philadelphia Housing Action to house 50 mothers and their children. Organizers, all of whom have experienced homelessness or institutionalization, maintained protest encampments for months, took over abandoned homes, orchestrated road blockades and kept pressure on local politicians to confront the affordable housing crisis through this radical act. With the right resources, and enough people on board, Springfield No One Leaves could stage direct action protests like these, too.
“Collective fights are always the better fight because the more numbers you have the more power you actually have,” Webster-Smith said. “We really push for housing to be a human right and for community control over land and housing.”
The Central Valley Tenants’ Union is also working to address the pending crisis by building solidarity among housing organizations to keep as many as possible from becoming homeless in the coming year.
“We are thinking of making a rapid response team to respond to local eviction court cases,” Reilly said. “We plan on showing up for anything Springfield No One Leaves does.”
Sarah Robertson is a freelance reporter who worked as a staff writer for the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Athol Daily News between 2017 and 2019. Photo by Harrison Greene. Cover photo, Central Valley Tenants’ Union.