Last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a nation-wide moratorium on evictions, preventing millions of people behind on rent from being removed from their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. The order was extended by the Biden administration in June and expired on July 31. However, on August 3, the CDC issued a new, more limited moratorium covering “areas of substantial and high transmission,” which is expected to end on October 3. Harvard Law Today reached out by email to Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB)’s president, Courtney J. Brunson ’22, and housing practice area head, Vincent Montoya-Armanios ’22, about what the end of the moratorium could mean for many of America’s most vulnerable families — and how their clinic is poised to help.
Harvard Law Today: Who has been protected by the moratorium, and what has been the impact of the order over the past year?
Courtney Brunson: The global pandemic had a devastating impact on the world. Across the planet, people lost their loved ones and their livelihoods. In the United States, millions of families who were one paycheck away from being out on the street missed their rent payments. The federal moratorium gave more than 100 million renters the necessary relief they needed to rebuild their lives and remain in their homes.
The impact of the moratorium nationally cannot be overstated: it saved lives. Recently published academic papers have found that the elimination of moratoriums at the state level had a direct link to thousands of additional COVID-19 cases and deaths. With coronavirus infections increasing around the country, it is important to remember that stable housing, beyond the impact it has on the economic and emotional wellbeing of its inhabitants, is a crucial part to this nation’s fight against the pandemic.
Vincent Montoya-Armanios: I would add that the requirements for protection under the CDC moratorium were worded stringently and that those who affirmed that they were covered were forced to do so under the penalty of perjury. We have no way of knowing how many eligible people were deterred by the moratorium’s requirement that renters had “applied for ALL available rental assistance,” especially since it was unclear what rental assistance was made available. It also required that people lost income because of COVID, which could mean that they incurred individual expenses for having to order groceries, for example, but qualifying expenses were vague at best.
Further, Massachusetts state law (Chapter 257 of the Acts of 2020, which was extended by Chapter 20 of the Acts of 2021) was supposed to stay proceedings for everyone with a pending rental application. At least one of our clients, an essential worker, who already had an eviction judgment against him when we took him on, was evicted while a rental application was pending, so enforcement was at best imperfect. Overall, most tenants still lack legal assistance at crucial points in their cases and this has led to wholly unnecessary displacement despite the protections of Chapter 257.
HLT: Are there any additional protections for people in Massachusetts beyond the federal moratorium?
Brunson: To be transparent, there aren’t many. The best resources Massachusetts renters currently have center around funding at the federal, state, and city level that are used to help renters pay their arrears or money owed. One prominent program many Harvard Legal Aid Bureau lawyers work with is the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program.
Montoya-Armanios: The federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) is also a helpful resource that offers significant amounts of money. The problem is that it moves on a slower timeline than the eviction process, and despite protections like Chapter 257, we still see people being evicted because their landlord has refused rental assistance, or it has come through too slowly. Fortunately, the latest round of ERAP funding comes with a requirement that the state give the money directly to the tenant if the landlord is uncooperative, but Massachusetts has only just begun to implement that rule, and the timeline issues remain.
Brunson: There is legislation on Beacon Hill that is seeking to provide them with more protections.
The COVID-19 Housing Equity bill (H.1434/S.891), which has almost 70 cosponsors, does the following:
- Ensures landlords cooperate with rental assistance programs before resorting to eviction;
- requires the state to simplify the application process for rent and mortgage assistance;
- protects the most vulnerable tenants from forced removal for COVID-19 debts;
- requires lenders to offer sustainable forbearance plans to homeowners and to protect homeowners whose forbearance plans are ending;
- and temporarily pauses foreclosures and no-fault evictions during the COVID-19 recovery period.
HLAB has endorsed the bill and supports our community partners who are leading the charge on its passage.
HLT: What do you expect will happen once the moratorium is lifted? What impact will it have on tenants?
Montoya-Armanios: It’s important to note that the moratorium did not stop eviction cases from proceeding; it stopped only the final act of physically removing the person from their home. The lifting of the moratorium leaves a large number of eviction judgments ready to be carried out, at a time when the virus is surging. The moratorium was necessary but not sufficient to protect against the public health effects of evictions during the pandemic. Its expiration in the middle of a surge makes state measures even more crucial.
Brunson: This will have a disproportionate impact on minorities in the Commonwealth. A recent report by researchers at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning found that evictions during the pandemic were filed at more than twice the rate in neighborhoods where a majority of renters are people of color than in neighborhoods where most renters are white. In other words, the elimination of the federal moratorium will likely lead to more renters, especially minority renters, becoming homeless or housing insecure. As I mentioned earlier, this has serious consequences. Various research has found links between evictions and diminished health outcomes for parents and children, reduced earnings and job instability for parents, and negative effects on children’s education attainment.
HLT: What types of housing solutions do you believe we should implement going forward?
Montoya-Armanios: We could start with a better funded moratorium or process for evictions that requires landlords to pursue available options to allow their tenants to remain in their homes before evicting them. We could require all landlords to complete a rental assistance application on behalf of their tenants before initiating a summary process case.
Navigating rental assistance agencies was difficult even for legal aid attorneys. I called multiple times to receive no answer. This was improved after additional funding was made available. In my hometown in Pennsylvania, the expectation was that tenants would call and leave messages to be connected with a caseworker, but there was nothing in the voicemail to suggest to tenants that this was the case. It’s scary to think that people who were eligible for assistance were evicted because they thought no help was available.
Brunson: Housing solutions I would like to see would focus on maintaining the quality of current public housing, increasing the supply of low-income housing, and the more robust enforcement of fair housing laws. I believe these three solutions would fight the displacement of low-income renters from many Massachusetts cities and towns and better ensure that housing discrimination is prosecuted.
In addition, we should expand the legal resources tenants have when facing evictions. Throughout the nation, different states are considering a right to counsel law, which would give renters a better chance in court. In Massachusetts, most landlords are represented by counsel while the vast majority of tenants who face eviction are not. Groups like the Massachusetts Right to Counsel Coalition are fighting to change that reality to increase housing stability and fairness in the legal system. There are two bills that have been filed in the State House to achieve these goals: S.874 and H.1436.
HLT: What will the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau be working on this year?
Brunson: We will continue to do what we have always done: represent poor residents throughout the greater Boston area on their housing, wage, benefit, and family related issues. The only change to our work is the magnitude of its importance. Like last year, we have seen how the devastation of the pandemic has disproportionately affected our clients and the communities they are from. Our organization has risen to the occasion, thanks to our students, clinical instructors, administrative staff, and community partners. But I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that our work is directly impacted by the policy decisions being made at the State House and on Capitol Hill.