WORCESTER – The City Council’s three-week discussion around the possibility of a moratorium on local evictions and foreclosures to keep more people in their homes as the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus tore through the region has finally done his way through the subcommittee last week.
What began as a simple request for the city manager to consider implementing the moratorium quickly became a question of the financial implications of such a measure on the livelihoods of landlords.
Landlords and a few councilors argued that a moratorium on evictions/foreclosures could have unintended consequences and said that ultimately if a landlord cannot pay their bills because they have no paying tenants, he will lose his property, and those tenants will be evicted anyway.
Several owners who spoke at the debate said they, too, were struggling. They said they relied on rent to pay their bills and maintain the homes they rented, and said many of them ran very small businesses.
Instead, landlords have been pushing the city and local agencies to do a better job connecting vulnerable tenants to the rental and mortgage assistance that has flooded into the city since the pandemic began.
As judgments, legal opinions, public statements, amendments and discussions were completed, a watered down order to have a broader discussion of “all legal and financial resources available to protect tenants, landlords facing the eviction and foreclosure, recommendations to support landlords through mortgage, renovation and rent arrears resources, including a discussion of how the city can increase housing affordability for those living and work in the city” was referred to the council’s economic development committee on Tuesday, along with two other items related to rental and mortgage assistance.
Reached on Friday, Grace Ross, founder of the Worcester Anti-Foreclosure Team, which advocated for the moratorium, said the way the discussion spun out of control was heartbreaking. He missed the point, she said.
Ross, who said WAFT has several owners among its members, said the moratorium was a sensible way to apply what has been learned about how the pandemic works and to use a moratorium to simply allow more people to stay at home, where they would be less likely to catch or transmit the virus.
Like washing hands and wearing masks, staying home has been shown to impact transmission, Ross said. But the debate over three council meetings quickly turned into something else.
“The conversation just got moved by the owners – not all of them – freaking out at the city council, making it us against them,” Ross said.
Ross said part of the Anti-Foreclosure Team’s proposal was to have a moratorium that would stop evictions in the city unless a tenant does something that puts others at risk.
The two main areas of evictions that would be covered would be those for non-payment of rent and evictions “without cause”. Instead, Ross said, the conversation immediately turned to getting rent assistance for those in arrears.
Ross said while neither evictions nor foreclosures are through the roof right now in Worcester, there are signs a wave is coming, and she said it’s already starting. She said federal assistance during the pandemic has slowed foreclosure and eviction rates, and courts have become clogged with cases that still haven’t been fully processed.
But, she said, a disturbing set of data shows that in Massachusetts right now, there are 134,000 households somewhere in the foreclosure pipeline — whether it’s a mortgage default or final stages before the auction. She said the current economy is terrible for many people, which could make the crisis worse.
“That’s a very high number of people anywhere in the pipeline at any given time,” Ross said. “How is this going to unfold? Nobody knows. »
Tenants often unaware of their rights
Ross also said that one of the reasons WAFT pushed for a moratorium was that people facing foreclosure, intimidated by the legal process and unaware of their rights, often decide to forgo the process altogether. And she said that in eviction cases, 75% of defendants in housing court eviction cases do not have a lawyer, while only 25% of plaintiffs do not have a lawyer.
Ross said with foreclosures, nearly 100% of people have no representation, while nearly all banks and third-party plaintiffs have attorneys.
“People are afraid to step out of their homes while they still have legal rights,” Ross said. “And when the issue is transmission (COVID-19), we want everyone to have one message that says, ‘Stay put’.”
Sherry Stanley is a member of the Worcester Anti-Foreclosure Team and is in the midst of a five-year foreclosure battle. The single mother of five said her Worcester home was foreclosed due to divorce in 2017, and she has been battling ever since.
Stanley said that during the pandemic, despite an open case in Housing Court, the bank unknowingly sold his house to a third-party buyer.
Stanley said she was surprised and disappointed with how the council discussion went. She said at this stage of the pandemic it shouldn’t be about money, but rather about health and safety and stopping the spread of the virus. Keeping people at home should be part of that strategy, she said.
Stanley said people are facing seizure because of real issues they are falling into, and she said a lot of people are having a terrible time right now. Combine that with rapidly rising gas, oil and food prices, and people are left trying to get by, she said.
Ross said the council ended up taking the advice of city attorney Michael Traynor, who said he was of the view that evictions and foreclosures were a matter of state law, not of local control. She challenged that notion and said there is recent case law and action that supports the idea that a municipality can essentially turn someone’s home into a hospital for quarantine purposes.
But in a broader sense, the board avoided taking a moral view of the issue, Ross said. She said a woman from the national network that WAFT works with lost five family members to COVID-19. She said she thought of the woman when a lawyer representing the owners at the council debate explained how devastating the pandemic had been for them.
“They don’t know what devastation is,” Ross said. “There are people in this pandemic who know what real devastation is.”
Contact Steven H. Foskett Jr. at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @SteveFoskettTG