Virus housing crisis brewing
Lowell Sun Wednesday, 1 April 2020
By Elizabeth Dobbins
edobbins@ lowellsun. com
As the coronavirus pandemic impacts the paychecks of many in the Greater Lowell area — and rent and mortgage payments come due — officials are asking how to keep people housed.
“ Making rent in the coming months is going to be a big concern,” said Lowell City Councilor John Drinkwater.
Last week, Drinkwater made a motion asking the City Council to support a Statehouse bill placing a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the current emergency. Councilors unanimously voted in favor.
“ I think it’s a good motion and a very timely motion,” said Councilor William Samaras.
The bill proposed by state Rep. Mike Connolly, D- Cambridge, and state Rep. Kevin Honan, DBrighton, was referred to a committee on housing on Monday. The bill accompanies a mid-March court order, which suspended most eviction proceedings in the state until April 21.
“ In many ways it’s the same proposal,” said Democratic state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D- Acton, who is supportive of the bill. “ It was filed before the courts took action.”
Mike Weinhold is the supervisory attorney for Northeast Legal Aid, a nonprofit that represents low- income clients in Lowell and other areas. He said even with the new court order, navigating the eviction process still poses challenges for tenants, who very rarely have legal representation.
For example, he said the courts are notifying tenants of eviction proceedings and, in initial communications, provide court dates that do not reflect the stay on evictions, resulting in inaccurate dates.
“ They’re going to think they’re going to have to go to court in the middle of the outbreak,” he said.
With the courts almost entirely closed to in- person proceedings, he said it’s harder for people to connect with legal aid. Usually “ lawyers for the day” are set up at a table in the court to offer services to those who qualify.
Eldridge said the legislation also addresses the issue of foreclosures, providing some relief for people who own their own properties, including landlords who may not be collecting as much rent to pay mortgages.
“ Certainly we need to take action there,” he said.
Not all are fans of the proposal. On March 19, Executive Director of MassLandlords. net Doug Quattrochi wrote a 10- point rebuttal. He argued against the stringency of the penalties landlords could face and instead called for an extension of the court order if necessary and establishment of an emergency basic income.
President of the Greater Lowell Landlord Association Dick MacDonald said last week that he isn’t sure what actions are needed.
Many people, including landlords with other jobs, are out of work, he said. The federal Department of Labor reported 147,995 nonseasonally adjusted advance unemployment claims in Massachusetts for the week ending on March 21, a nearly 20 fold increase over the previous week.
“ It would be helpful if tenants were able to get some funds to help pay their rent,” MacDonald said.
He said the situation will be challenging for both landlords and tenants.
“ What would be helpful is if this thing would be over with,” he said.
Eldridge said he is sympathetic to the challenges facing smaller property owners, but larger property owners likely have the capital to forgo full collection of rent. Financial assistance to residents from the state or federal government could help, he said.
Lowell Mayor John Leahy, who supported Drinkwater’s motion, said banks could alleviate some of the strain if mortgage holders were able to extend their mortgage and delay payments in the wake of the crisis.
Still, eventually, everyone needs to pay their mortgage or rent, he said.
“ Fair is fair,” Leahy said. “ Everybody has to take a little bit of responsibility on this.”
Drinkwater said he believes the eviction issue isn’t just about housing, but also supporting small businesses, many of which owe rent during this period even as revenues plummet.
The pandemic also raises challenges for homeless shelters where people are often living in close quarters, he said. The city can work with institutions to provide types of housing that limit the spread of COVID-19 better than the traditional shelter, like dorms, according to Drinkwater.
Organizers at Lowell nonprofit Community Teamwork Inc. — which provides a variety of services from meals to fuel and rental assistance — said they are already seeing the impact of this crisis on people contacting their office.
“ The impact is really profound for so many of our clients who are facing job loss and all those other impacts that we all know about,” said Connie Martin, division director of energy and community resources.
Martin said the agency has seen an uptick of people who need food and housing support. Last week, CTI received $ 1 million in additional funding from the state to provide short- term financial assistance for people at risk of becoming homeless.
“I think that’s going to be what allows us to keep people housed once the courts open ( and owe) that back rent,” Martin said. “ Landlords are going to look to being made whole.”
Though the CTI offices are closed, staff members are still available by email or phone, including at 978- 654- 5607 and C o v i d R e s p o n s e C T I @ c o m mteam. org, according to CTI Director of Development and Marketing Kathleen Plath.
“ We’re not going to capture every need, but we want people to know we are open,” Plath said. “ We’re open for business and we’re basically taking care of our client’s needs in a different format.”
Plath is also the owner of two restaurants: Cobblestones in Lowell and Moonstones in Chelmsford. When dine- in services around the state closed, she said she had to lay off over 75 employees.
“A lot of them we are sending them to resources like Community Teamwork,” she said. “ We set up our own emergency fund with what we had and what we’re able to provide just to help them out. And the first two people who asked us to help was to help with rent.”
As a business owner, she believes local government could help ease the burden on businesses through tax abatements. Like tenants who have lost their jobs, the business will not make up this lost revenue even after they reopen for dining- in, she said.
“As we know it’s a chain,” Plath said. “ It’s a cascading effect. It’s going to hurt everyone.”