Guest Op-Ed: Chief Gants Saw Coming Evictions as Looming Civil Rights, Public Health Crisis

By Joan Quinlan, Leslie Aldrich, Melanie Gleason and Deborah Ramirez

(The following op-ed first appeared in Commonwealth Magazine last week)

Before passing away earlier this fall, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants was clear about what he saw as the largest civil rights and public health crisis in his lifetime: widespread evictions during COVID-19.   

As the head of the state judicial system, Justice Gants had a systemic overview of the eviction crisis. He recognized that eviction is not merely a symptom of poverty. Evictions actively cause poverty—and disproportionately so for communities of color.

A recent report by City Life/Vida Urbana and MIT stated that as many as 1 in 3 Massachusetts tenants are presently at risk of eviction—over 300,000 renters. The study also found that 78 percent of eviction filings in Boston were in communities of color during the first month of the Massachusetts state of emergency. They also analyzed eviction records in Boston from 2014 to 2016, and confirmed that evictions are filed up to seven times as often in communities of color compared with predominantly white communities. 

Furthermore, eviction proceedings on a tenant’s record are an enormous barrier to being able to obtain subsequent housing. Research from the Massachusetts Legal Reform Institute indicates that tenants were rejected from future housing solely because eviction cases had been simply filed against them—regardless of the outcome. Even when there is an amicable settlement or if the court ruled in favor of the tenant, the eviction record is permanent and will follow a tenant for life.  

This tenants’ crisis also co-exists with a once-in-a-century pandemic. Escalated housing instability during COVID-19 threatens Massachusetts renters, families, children, and public health. Evicted individuals and families will face impending homelessness—forcing people to try to “double up” with family, friends, or seek space in overcrowded emergency shelters. This will disrupt vital social distancing and increase risk of COVID-19 exposure, transmission, illness, and death. Increased chronic stress, which is associated with worse health outcomes if the virus is contracted, will be inflicted on those evicted. 

It is also well known that there are significant health disparities surrounding COVID-19 itself, particularly along pronounced racial lines.  

Data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 Health Equity Advisory Group found that black and Latinx residents have contracted the coronavirus at a rate that is three times higher than white residents. The advisory group also noted that nine out of 10 of the towns and cities with the highest rates of COVID-19 in the state were in communities where more than half of the residents identify as a person of color—including Chelsea, Everett, and Revere—all cities where MGH HealthCare Centers have been established and play a critical role in providing life-saving medical care and treatment.  

Since the state eviction moratorium expired on October 17, tenants are in a full-fledged crisis and need urgent, immediate assistance. There are presently three solutions that the state needs to enact immediately. 

First, the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program needs to be further funded and better operationalized. Gov. Baker recently allocated an additional $100 million for the RAFT program to keep Massachusetts renters in their homes. While the governor is to be applauded and commended for this investment, it is unfortunately not enough, given the scale and scope of the housing crisis. Doubling this investment must occur to ensure all eligible tenants and landlords can meaningfully participate. This is critical to ensure that families and communities are not displaced and devastated. 

Additionally, more state capacity-building resources must be dedicated to the nine Housing Consumer Education Centers (HCECs) statewide, which are responsible for distributing RAFT to tenants in need. More staff need to be hired and trained to build more effective rapid-response systems to dispense RAFT funds on an expedited basis in response to the eviction crisis.  

Second, state agencies and non-profit organizations need to be educating tenants of their rights under the CDC moratorium, which is in effect until December 31, 2020. At-risk tenants are eligible for the moratorium if: 1) there is an individual net household income of less than $98,000 ($198,000 for a couple); 2) they cannot pay the rent due to a substantial loss of income or extraordinary medical expense; 3) they would likely become homeless if evicted; 4) they have tried to obtain state or local rental assistance; and 5) they are making their best effort to pay as much rent as possible. 

Eligible tenants must fill out a CDC Moratorium Declaration Form and provide it to their landlord. Multilingual forms are available at the HUD website. Every tenant on the lease needs to print and sign a declaration and send it to their landlord via certified mail or email for proof of submission. If a landlord ignores or challenges a declaration, tenants should seek legal help at: www.masslrf.org.  

Lastly, more pressure needs to be placed on the Legislature and Gov. Baker to enact the Housing Stability Act. The Legislature has the ability to be able to enact longer-term relief for both tenants and landlords, yet it has not had a formal session in over two and a half months. The Housing Stability Act would aid both vulnerable renters and landlords up to 12 months after the end of the governor’s declared state of emergency. This emergency legislation addresses not only an eviction ban for tenants, but also offers other protections to renters—as well as assisting and stabilizing landowners and homeowners. 

Undoubtedly, the state has already committed a laudable total of $171 million to its Eviction Diversion Initiative to help vulnerable tenants and landlords. However, funds are not being distributed swiftly or effectively enough. Since July 1, more than 25,000 requests for aid were submitted—more than four times the number of RAFT applications approved for the entire 2019 fiscal year. Since April, only 5,169 households have received $15.5 million in aid.   

Chief Justice Gants spent the summer before he died preparing the courts for a torrent of eviction cases—aware of the deep intersectional crisis between civil rights and public health. For the good of the Commonwealth, particularly in our communities of color, it is imperative that the state take necessary, urgent action in protecting tenants where they are the most vulnerable: in their homes. 

Melanie Gleason is a medical-legal partnership staff attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights. Deborah Ramirez is a professor of law at Northeastern University School of Law. She is the widow of late Chief Justice Gants. Joan Quinlan is vice president for community health at Massachusetts General Hospital. Leslie S. Aldrich is executive director of the Center for Community Health Improvement at Massachusetts General Hospital. 

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