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Massachusetts legislature leaves eviction crisis to Baker, courts, attempt to force an emergency extension falls short

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By Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 15, 2020…..House and Senate leaders on Beacon Hill chose not to intervene Thursday to block the expiration this weekend of the state’s moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, despite the efforts of one Democrat to force an emergency extension of the ban through the end of the year.

Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday put forward an eviction diversion plan that allows the moratorium to expire on Saturday, but also pumps $171 million into rental assistance and other measures to try to keep people facing economic hardship from the COVID-19 pandemic in their homes.

Baker said his approach was preferable to allowing renters and homeowners to fall deeper into debt, but many advocates and lawmakers said the initiative was insufficient to meet the need and prevent a housing crisis at a time when coronavirus infection rates are rising.

Rep. Michael Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat, showed up during a lightly attended informal session of the House on Thursday to file an emergency petition that would extend the moratorium until Jan. 1, 2021.

Connolly said that the extension would give Baker more time to get the pieces of his eviction diversion plan in place, and also allow the Legislature to continue to work on legislation he filed with Housing Committee Chairman Kevin Honan and dozens of other Democrats in the Legislature to extend the moratorium for much longer.

“Most of the key pieces of the governor’s initiative that will help tenants and even help landlords aren’t in place yet, the legal representation, the community mediation,” Connolly said after the session.

The House admitted Connolly’s petition and referred it to the Joint Committee on Housing, but further action required concurrence from the Senate, which had already adjourned for the day. Connolly ultimately doubted the presence of a quorum to force the House to end its session Thursday, though it was unclear whether the House had any business left on its agenda for the day. Both branches plan to return on Monday.

“I think it’s a matter of the action that we need to take requires a quorum and we haven’t had a formal legislative session in two and half months, which is frankly disappointing to me,” Connolly said about the actions he took.

While Connolly was inside the State House, demonstrators had planned a march from the Brooke Courthouse in Boston to the State House to protest the expiration of the moratorium, which some advocates have estimated could lead to the evictions of 80,000.

Homes for All Massachusetts and the Massachusetts COVID-19 Response Alliance also demonstrated outside the governor’s house in Swampscott on Wednesday to seek his support for the Honan-Connolly bill (H 5018) that would keep an eviction and foreclosure moratorium in place until one year after the COVID-19 state of emergency ends, freeze rent during that time, and create a fund to help distressed small landlords.

The COVID-19 Housing Stability Act has cleared the Housing Committee, but Honan said this week it requires more time and work and he had hoped Baker would extend the moratorium to allow that work to happen.

Connolly said that despite voting in July to extend the legislative session until the end of the year lawmakers have “ceded our responsibility for policy making in this critical moment of pandemic and economic meltdown” to the governor.

“When you think about the concerns of our constituents, the challenges facing the commonwealth, I would like us to actually utilize the abilities we have to make policy and pass legislation,” Connolly said

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