By Brian Skinner, Esq.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker on Monday unveiled a $171 million package of programs aimed to keep struggling renters in their homes.
Baker said he’ll pump $100 million into the state’s main rental-relief program and boost the amount tenants can claim to $10,000 a year, up from $4,000, to keep up or pay off unpaid back rent. He also earmarked funds for homelessness prevention and for counselors, attorneys, and mediators to help tenants and landlords work together to keep renters in their homes. State Housing Court judges joined in, saying they’ll rehire retired judges to help process cases more smoothly and expand mediation programs.
I have written on several occasions about the severe housing crisis in the U.S. brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and the looming financial disaster for millions of households on track to owe as much as $34 billion in past-due rent by January. There appears little hope for relief from Washington. A proposal by House Democrats that included relief for renters as part of their $3 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, has encountered steep opposition on Capitol Hill as Republicans who continue to waver on the size, scope and necessity of another round of federal relief.
The current economic recession, coupled with job and wage loss, has magnified and accelerated the existing housing crisis. The order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on September 1, to prevent wide-spread evictions will terminate on December 31, 2020. However, the CDC’s moratorium on evictions does not cancel rent, nor does it prevent landlords from adding late fees or interest for missed payments.
Massachusetts has the strictest-in-the-nation ban on evictions which is set to expire Saturday. That measure, which blocks nearly all evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, has likely forestalled thousands of evictions since lawmakers passed it, as the state’s economy has shed more than 400,000 jobs since March. But it has drawn mounting complaints from landlords, who say it forces them to provide housing essentially for free, and the federal judge hearing a lawsuit challenging the ban said last month that he’d likely overturn it if it goes on much longer.
So far in West Virginia, neither the governor nor the legislature has shown any interest in addressing this crisis.
Because 2021 is a year in which a governor is inaugurated, the regular legislative session will not begin until February 2021, far too late to provide relief for financially desperate renters. To avert a catastrophe, the governor should call the legislature into special session to enact legislation that not only would curb evictions and foreclosures, but also provide financial relief to renters who will be unable to pay their rent when it comes due.
As I noted in my previous article, this is not a crisis that can be addressed retroactively. Action must be taken now since the cost of inaction is enormous, in both lives and money. The economic impact of the pandemic on renters, landlords, and communities is extraordinarily large. It is imperative to the preservation of families and communities that West Virginia act to ensure everyone has access to affordable housing.
Brian is the former counsel to the West Virginia House of Delegates Judiciary Committee and counsel to the West Virginia Senate Minority Caucus. He was also general counsel to the West Virginia State Health Officer and Commissioner for the Bureau for Public Health. He has almost two-decades of experience as a strategic advisor and chief legal counsel to both executive and legislative branch public officials.