The eviction ban is necessary and Baker is ending it

Worcester will be hit hard by an entirely avoidable wave

On Saturday the statewide ban on evictions comes to an end and that is bad, bad, bad news for Worcester. We’re already dealing with so much and adding this on top is a big fat middle finger from the Baker crew if I can be so frank.

What that means is landlords will be able to file for eviction proceedings for the first time since April and all the cases that were suspended now become active. That means a wave of evictions all at once, putting an impossible burden on a social safety net that already leaves a lot to be desired. 

People are out of work or they’re not getting the hours they used to and the unemployment checks ain’t what they used to be either, that’s for sure. Businesses in Worcester continue to shrink and close and there’s no sign of that slowing. None at all. In the restaurant industry where I can speak from personal experience this winter is going to be hard to impossible. With patios closed capacities will shrink greatly, employees will get less hours, and businesses will go under at a faster clip. 

Now is not the time, given all this, to allow landlords to restart or open eviction proceedings and all the bullying and scare tactics that go along with it. 

Even before the pandemic, eviction rates were going up up up — we love them, folks. We love our big, beautiful eviction statistics. They go hand in hand with a hot real estate market and that’s what it’s all about is getting these homes for our homeowners who are the only people who vote to be worth more than they were when they bought them. Look at these absolutely staggering findings in a recent report from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

We estimate that 45,000 renter households and 35,000 owner households with a worker on standard unemployment assistance will have trouble covering their housing costs and basic needs this month. The housing gap for rental households could exceed $40 million in October alone. We also know that tens of thousands of other households are also in trouble, although their numbers are more difficult to estimate. This includes people receiving PUA, undocumented workers who can’t apply for unemployment at all, workers with reduced hours and wages, and households who are working again but owe back rent. The Census Bureau Pulse survey indicates that nearly one in six renters in Massachusetts are already behind on their rent payments and one in five were not confident they could pay October rent. An estimated 60,000 Massachusetts renter households fear imminent eviction.

60,000 renter households face evictions, and the governor is going to let this moratorium expire. That’s inexcusable.  

The thing about Worcester’s housing market which makes it particularly hard for people is there are no vacancies at any strata save for the highest possible rents you could pay. All the vacancies are on the luxury end of things, not the sort of places where people who would ever seriously face the hardship of evictions could afford to live. Everywhere else vacancy rates hover around or under 1 percent. 

This, from an old Worcester Mag story of mine on the subject of gentrification.

The trouble, (Mullen) Sawyer feels, is the city’s housing market, especially at the lower ends, is in a squeeze – far more demand than available supply. Vacancies are nearly non-existent, at less than 1 percent net, per his research, and folks even up into the middle class are spending far too much of their income on housing already. The only area where there has been significant growth in the Worcester housing market is at the highest levels, what we might call luxury or market rate housing. The most plausible result, Sawyer said, is that home prices and rental rates are bound to rise.

“We’re going to look back and say this is a tipping point,” he said. “It’s a citywide tipping point.”

The city needs to take more action, Sawyer said, to create housing units for low- to middle-income families, and do more to encourage investment and home ownership. Units can be created through rehabilitating old triple deckers and multi-families to open up units that may not be available. Local employers also need to do more to place their workforce in affordable units, he said. Local CDCs are organizing to come up with a way to introduce more units to the market, which Sawyer said are needed in the thousands to keep the city stable.

What that means is it’s hard to find a place, and landlords can be more picky about who they chose to rent to and they can charge more and get away with it. What would even that out is if we built more units for the sort of people who already live here and not luxury units for young “creative professionals” who are going to live here for two years and go huh, this in’t enough like the HBO series Girls for me, and they’ll find a new urban experience to consume like a brand in some other city foolishly betting on this transient class of people to save them.

This is how gentrification happens, baby. What’s cool and unique about your city slowly gets steamrolled by private equity firms creating a prefab urban experience while the people who already live here get slowly pushed to the fringes.

Unsurprisingly because this is just the way ~society~ goes the pandemic and gentrification disproportionately affect the same people the hardest — working class people and people of color and the intersection of the two. The people who will be pushed out of this city by the unchecked forces of gentrification are the same people who are more likely to get sick and die because of COVID. Going back to my favorite saying here Baker’s getting two birds stoned at once in lifting this moratorium.

But we have to take a look at the other side here. You know, it’s only fair. So let’s see how the landlords are doing.

The eviction ban went into effect on April 20—that’s 420, nice—and it was quickly challenged in court by landlords in Worcester and Randolph. Unsurprisingly, these little crybabies were arguing that the ban is an abuse of power and violates their constitutional right to put desperate people on the street. Luckily they argued this thin and tenuous case in front of a somewhat reasonable judge. The judge had this to say, according to Sarah Betancourt over at Commonwealth Mag (she’s one of the best in the game btw). 

“I cannot see my way clear in finding that Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on merits of their claims that the Eviction Moratorium Law is an unreasonable exercise of power having no actual relation to the public safety, public health, or public morals,” wrote Judge Paul Wilson. 

What a foul argument. These landlords really went and said that a measure preventing homelessness during a global pandemic has “no actual relation to the public safety, public health, or public morals.” The word “cretinous” comes to mind. 

But a judge upholding a ban and Governor Charlie Baker extending the ban are two different things. Baker has to juggle political pressure from both sides, after all. The side that wants to protect people from homelessness during a global pandemic and the side that could give two shits so long as the check comes in on time. It’s a really hard call. 

Though he has about a day left to extend the moratorium, it appears he’s going to let it expire. Instead, he’s proposing a $171 million investment in a patchwork of programs aimed to help both tenants and landlords alike because we mustn't forget the hardship of landlords. About $100 million is going toward the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program, which is the sort of thing that if you manage to get past the red tape or even know that it exists you can get a little bit of help catching up on owed rent or moving costs. Another $49 million is going toward “rapid rehousing,” a program that is already part of Worcester’s homelessness strategy, which gets people into short-term apartments and off the street, or at least it works that way in theory but also you have to know about it and how to apply for it and there really aren’t enough caseworkers out there to help people through this stuff. The investment in rapid rehousing seems to me a tacit admission that lifting this ban will create homelessness, so that’s cool. What we need during a global pandemic are more vulnerable people on the street and exposed to the elements. Bet that’ll help our case rate!

In Worcester, the City Manager is suggesting an investment on this issue that to my mind also rings a bit paltry. Ed Augustus is recommending the city steer $1.96 million toward a new Emergency Rental Assistance Program. It’s better than nothing, to be sure, but let’s put it in perspective the city has paid more than twice that to settle police misconduct lawsuits in the past decade according to public records painstakingly compiled by Defund WPD.

But there are also local groups getting involved in the issue and doing good work so here’s a little rundown.

The Worcester Anti-Foreclosure Team staged a day of demonstrations. This morning they protested in front of the courthouse and the Register of Deeds building down the street. In a statement, WAFT member Lori Cairns captures the situation pretty perfectly.  

Lori Cairns, WAFT organizer, said:  "Worcester County has reentered the red zone with Governor Baker letting the Moratorium.  We have members whose entire family have come down with COVID. We have members whose entire elder generation died alone in nursing homes. We have kids being sent home because of positive tests, families where no one is working.  Baker simply must get out of the way of the legislature extending the moratorium on foreclosures and evictions.  We have small landlord members, as well. Not one of them has said that the moratorium on foreclosures and evictions should end.”

Meanwhile THAW, or Tenant and Housing Alliance of Worcester, is gearing up to take some direct action. The group is working to organize building-wide tenant unions to keep people from being evicted, they’re working on legal support for people facing eviction proceedings, and they’re training to physically blockade evictions. 

I caught up with a few of the THAW members via a video chat, and they said the wave of evictions coming is going to take a widespread community response. 

“It is going to hurt the most vulnerable people in our city and that’s really the bottom line here,” said Claire, a THAW member who did not feel comfortable giving their last name, but trust me they’re a real person, ok?

“It looks like there is going to be an eviction wave,” they said. “It’s going to accelerate the process of families being pushed out of the cities.”

The group’s demands are lofty in the political nightmare in which we live but reasonable in the abstract. They want to see back-owed rent canceled, and they want to see money diverted from the Worcester Police Department budget to help people in danger of losing their homes. 

Andy, another member of THAW that I spoke to, put it like this: 

“Evictions are a form of police violence.”

Hard agree.

While writing this piece, I kept thinking back to this tweet I saw the other day.

No war but the class war and lifting this moratorium is indeed class warfare.

~/~ 

Here’s links to both WAFT and THAW should you want to get involved with either group. Hit ‘em up and get active! Also if you are experiencing eviction or you’re close to it reach out to them as well. Reach out to me too if you’d like to tell your story. Billshaner91@gmail.com.

My piece earlier this week on my trip to Joshua Tree went over pretty well. A lot of good feedback which I wasn’t expecting because the piece was sort of a weird reach for me. If you have any interest you can read it here, but you’ll have to subscribe first because it’s only for paying readers. This is my first “paid-only” post, one because it’s not necessarily important or even journalism, and two because it feels good knowing only a certain amount of people who actually care can read it. Smash the button below to get access to that type of content. 

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If you haven’t seen this, DPW Director Paul Moosey passed away today. My love to his friends and family and everyone he worked with at City Hall. In my limited interactions with him he seemed a very nice, honest guy who cared about the city. Rest in peace.