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January 7, 2020 Chloe Gotsis
AG HEALEY ISSUES ADVISORY TO INFORM TENANTS OF THEIR RIGHTS DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
Advisory Advises Tenants Facing Eviction of the Financial and Legal Assistance Programs Available and Offers Information about Eviction Court Process
BOSTON – With hundreds of eviction cases piling up in the courts, Attorney General Maura Healey today issued an advisory to ensure tenants who are facing financial hardship and are at risk of losing their homes are aware of their rights and know how to access state assistance programs.
“Families across the state are continuing to suffer financial hardship from this pandemic and we want to ensure those who may be at risk of losing their homes know their rights,” AG Healey said. “If you’ve received an eviction notice, you do not have to move out immediately and you are entitled to a court hearing. This advisory helps tenants and landlords understand the resources available to them, including financial and legal assistance.”
Today’s advisory follows a sharp rise in eviction cases for nonpayment of rent being filed in the state’s housing courts. According to state data, there were more than 4,000 eviction cases filed between November 2 and December 14. In October, AG Healey called on Governor Baker to extend the state’s eviction moratorium to give safety net programs for landlords and tenants time to be fully operational. After the expiration of the Massachusetts moratorium, the AG urged the Administration to prioritize the hiring and training of additional legal counsel and mediators, and to streamline housing assistance applications. The AG’s Office has been working with Local Consumer Programs throughout the state to help tenants and landlords apply for rental assistance.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, AG Healey’s Office has been closely monitoring the housing court docket, responding to complaints from residents and reviewing referrals from partner organizations for violations of the state and federal moratoriums on evictions. Through these actions, the AG’s Office handled more than 200 complaints relating to the eviction moratorium and has been able to stop more than 80 illegal evictions.
The AG’s advisory offers guidance including the following:
Evictions Must be Court Ordered
Tenants cannot be evicted and forced to move out of their homes without a written court order. During the public health crisis, the AG’s Office has prioritized addressing complaints related to “self-help” evictions – where landlords attempt to circumvent the court process and forcibly remove tenants from their homes. It is unlawful to threaten, intimidate, or coerce a tenant to get them to leave the property, including by changing their locks, shutting off their utilities, interfering with their use of the unit, or by threatening to report them to immigration authorities. This protection applies to all tenants, whether they have a lease, a sublease, or no lease at all.
Tenants who have experienced a “self-help” eviction or those whose landlord has threatened to forcibly remove them, should call the Attorney General’s Office at 617-727-8400.
Available Financial Assistance
If a tenant is unable to pay their rent because of a COVID-19 financial hardship, they should work with their landlord to seek financial help from the state. Tenants and landlords can apply for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) benefits of up to $10,000 of assistance in a one-year period. Tenants who are unable to pay for rent for a reason other than the public health crisis may seek up to $4,000 in RAFT benefits. Once approved, these payments are sent directly to landlords.
The Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance (ERMA) program also helps households who are behind on rent or mortgage payments or are at risk of falling behind due to the pandemic.
Tenants cannot be evicted while a rental assistance application is pending. Specifically, the court cannot “enter a judgment” against a tenant or “issue an execution” before the tenant’s financial assistance application has been approved or denied.
State law protects tenants who rely on temporary or emergency rental assistance like RAFT or ERMA from being discriminated against by their landlord. In some circumstances, a landlord who refuses to accept RAFT or ERMA benefits or complete their portion of the application may be in violation of state law.
Landlords who own less than 20 units of housing may apply directly for RAFT/ERMA on behalf of their tenants. They should, however, coordinate with their tenant before applying and they must obtain and submit a signed consent form from the tenant in order to apply. If a tenant has already applied to RAFT/ERMA, the landlord can help expedite the review process of the application by providing requested documentation, including a copy of the lease or a summary of the amount the tenant owes.
Tenants and landlords can also use community mediation to resolve their problems without any court filing, or through court referrals. For more information visit the Eviction Diversion Initiative website.
Households that are financially struggling due to the pandemic and meet certain criteria may also qualify for the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) federal eviction moratorium. To qualify for the CDC moratorium, tenants must have an income of less than $99,000 (or $198,000 if you filed a joint tax return), make their best efforts to obtain government rental assistance, and complete a CDC form, available here, and give it to their landlord. This moratorium has been extended to Jan. 31, 2021.
Legal Assistance Services
Tenants who have received a notice to quit, summons or other legal documents from their landlord and cannot afford an attorney may qualify for free legal assistance through the COVID Eviction Legal Help Project. The AG’s Office urges tenants who have a court hearing and have not yet obtained an attorney to tell the judge or court mediator that they would like to speak to a lawyer. Tenants can also learn about the court process and how to fill out the necessary court documents through the Court Service Centers, which are available via Zoom Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m.
The AG’s Office will be funding sites across Massachusetts where individuals can use computers to attend their virtual court hearings. The full list will be posted on www.Mass.gov/ago/covid19 or tenants can call (617) 727-8400 for more information.
Small business tenants who have been impacted by the COVID-19 public health crisis and are facing difficulty paying their rent should reach out to the COVID Relief Coalition for more information on the pro bono legal support available to them. The coalition is made up of law firms, nonprofits and government agencies including the AG’s Office and led by Ropes & Gray, Lawyers for Civil Rights, and Lawyers Clearinghouse. The coalition’s website includes information about the emergency loans available to small businesses.
Defenses to Eviction
Tenants who receive a notice from their landlord about overdue rent may have a defense to eviction that would allow them to stay in their home. Those defenses include if there is a problem with the condition with the housing unit; if the landlord did not provide any written notice required by the lease or by law; if the landlord is retaliating against the tenant for exercising their rights; or if the landlord is discriminating against the tenant based on their race, national origin, religion, familial status, age, disability, source of income, or any other protected status.
The AG’s Office urges tenants who have questions about their options to call the state’s information hotline at 211or to call the Attorney General’s Office at 617-727-8400.
AG Healey’s Civil Rights Division urges any tenant who is being harassed, threatened or discriminated against to call the division’s hotline at (617) 963-2917. Click here for information from the AG’s Office reminding landlords and other housing providers that all tenants have a right to be free from harassment and intimidation.
Visit the AG’s COVID-19 resource page for information about how the AG’s Office can provide support during this crisis.