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Eviction filing rates show impact of rent assistance; housing stability issues continue for many

Posted on November 5, 2021

By Matija Jankovic, Tom Hopper and Callie Clark, MHP’s Center for Housing Data

BOSTON -- Since the start of the pandemic, our team has been reporting on key metrics related to housing stability, including ability to pay, rent collections, layoffs, eviction filings and the ever-changing patchwork of legal protections and supports for households facing the financial impacts of the pandemic. Our last brief in November 2020 explored the landscape of housing stability in Massachusetts roughly one month after the state moratorium on evictions ended. About one year later, this brief will explore recent trends and ongoing concerns around housing stability. We feel this is a time of great uncertainty regarding this topic, with deterioration of some policy approaches and improvements in others.

In late August 2021 the Supreme Court overturned the federal moratorium on evictions, and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) programs ended in early September. These policies provided critical protection and support for struggling renters, and their termination could endanger the housing security of many renters. Simultaneously, we’ve seen great progress in the development of programs and deployment of resources under the various rental assistance programs the state now offers. These programs are reaching more tenants in need and are providing deeper levels of support than ever before. The impact of these policy developments and how they either mitigate or intensify the displacement pressures facing renters will be discussed throughout this update.

This brief explores recent trends in eviction filings, details the factors that might be mitigating increases in filings, discusses ongoing concerns and vulnerabilities facing Massachusetts renters, and concludes with a discussion of what might happen next and what work we still need to do to ensure stability for as many renters as possible as the pandemic continues.

Recent trends in eviction filings 

As we observed in our November 2020 brief on evictions, in the weeks after the state moratorium was lifted on Oct. 17, 2020, and despite the federal moratorium remaining in effect, thousands of landlords and property management companies headed to the courts to file evictions, primarily for non-payment of rent. After this initial surge, eviction filings steadily decreased and reached a relatively low weekly rate in 2021.

Since the end of the federal moratorium in Aug. 2021, the courts have received roughly 400 to 500 weekly evictions, far below last year’s rates after the state moratorium ended. There was a delay between the initial surges in weekly eviction filings and the end of the state moratorium last fall, likely due to the fact that landlords are required to serve a notice to quit 30 days prior to filing a case for eviction due to non-payment. In recent weeks, however, we have yet to see a similar surge in filings, even after taking this potential delay into account. While hundreds of weekly eviction filings is by no means an ideal trend, especially during a global pandemic, these levels are below worst-case scenario rates that many researchers feared at this point last year.  Furthermore, these are filings, not executed eviction judgments, and a number of court interventions introduced by the state’s Eviction Diversion Initiative are aimed at connecting at-risk tenants with resources and supports that will settle the case and avoid a judgment altogether.

What factors have kept eviction filings rates stable and below pre-pandemic levels?

The stability in eviction filings can partially be attributed to the expansion of the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) programs, including the launch of the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) in March, the expansion of the RAFT maximum rent relief benefit from $4,000 to $10,000, and the expansion or creation of various other programs such as Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance (ERMA), Subsidized Housing Emergency Rental Assistance (SHERA), HomeBASE, Rapid Rehousing, and the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP). These improvements considerably increased the amount of money the state paid out to households in need of rental assistance. They also increased flexibility in the application of rent relief funds, creating new pathways to rent assistance for households that may have not been eligible prior to these improvements—particularly for renters in subsidized housing.

Roughly 60 percent of rent relief cases are processed and paid out to landlords prior to an eviction case being filed in housing court. The goal of each rental assistance payment is to prevent a potential eviction filing. While reaching tenants with rental assistance in advance of a filing is preferable, the state’s Eviction Diversion Initiative (EDI) has created interventions throughout the court process that steer tenants and landlords toward rental assistance programs. This means that many of the eviction filings for non-payment tracked above have been resolved through rental assistance and fewer eviction cases have resulted in adverse judgments. 

In the absence of a state moratorium, some municipalities have opted to implement local moratoria, including Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Malden, Salem and others. These local eviction bans have been effective at slowing displacement and are part of an overall strategy to delay a large potential wave of eviction filings as the state continues to improve rent relief distribution efforts.

Lastly, the rate of unemployment in Massachusetts has gone down considerably since the beginning of the pandemic, which spiked at around 16.4 percent in April 2020, but has since dropped to 5.2 percent as of September 2021. As workers regain employment, more Massachusetts renters may have opportunities to get back on track with their rent payments and avoid eviction. Despite low rates of weekly eviction filings, improvements in the state’s economy, and the expansion of rent relief efforts, many renters across the state remain in a precarious position.

We’re not out of the woods - ongoing instability

Measuring formal evictions using trial court data will never tell the full story. Many tenants are evicted or displaced through informal means without ever interacting with the court system. Often, renters will receive a notice to quit from their landlord and leave their homes thinking they have been evicted, when in reality only a judge can evict them. Some leave voluntarily in order to avoid the trauma of having to defend their tenancy in court or being forcibly removed from their home by police. Additionally, many Massachusetts renters, particularly undocumented renters, don’t have formal lease agreements signed with their landlords. Due, in part, to a lack of legal protections, tenants renting informally may be coerced to leave their homes through misinformation, illegal lockouts, utility shut-offs, or threats of involving immigration authorities, to name a few examples.  

Furthermore, since the COVID pandemic has lasted for well over a year, it is likely that many struggling tenants with standard 12-month leases were not given the opportunity to renew. Rent relief programs can create opportunities for landlords to renew a lease for a tenant unable to pay, assisting with rental arrearages and covering lease-signing fees; however, some landlords may opt to cut their losses and choose not to extend tenants leases in favor of finding new, more financially stable tenants. This may not constitute an eviction in the formal sense if the tenant chooses to move voluntarily at the end of the lease term, but it is a relevant example of tenants losing their housing through informal means. The implications of this issue are particularly relevant in high-demand neighborhoods experiencing gentrification and demographic change, since low-income renters, particularly renters of color, have experienced disproportionate hardship over the course of the pandemic.

Despite low rates of weekly eviction filings, many Massachusetts residents report being behind on rent. Over the course of the pandemic, the U.S. Census has conducted the Household Pulse Survey asking respondents across the country about rent payment status and likelihood of being evicted, among non-housing related questions. While these estimates generally have large margins of error due to small sample sizes, they can provide a sense of the magnitude and overall trends of key housing stability metrics. 

The Census Pulse Survey estimates that hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts households are behind on their last month’s rent payments. In the latest week of survey data from Oct. 11, an estimated 200,000 Massachusetts renters are behind on rent following the end of PUA supports on Sept. 4. The Oct. 11 numbers double those of the previous week, which estimated around 100,000 renters behind on rent payments, suggesting that many additional households fell behind over the past month.

These estimates are significantly higher than eviction filing rates for non-payment of rent, indicating some landlords are slow to initiate eviction or that tenants with arrearages have outcomes that are independent of the court system. Optimistically, low rates of eviction filings despite high numbers of renters in arrears are a result of the various rent relief programs, federal and local eviction moratoria, supplemental income programs (such as PUA), and other factors providing a temporary safety net for families hardest hit by the COVID recession. Conversely, this high volume of renters behind on rent could indicate a potential increase in both formal and informal evictions in the coming months.

Non-white renters are behind on rent at significantly higher rates than white renters. In the last week of available data from Oct. 11, an estimated 36.8 percent of Black renters in Massachusetts were behind on their last month’s rent, along with an estimated 26.1 percent of Asian renters and 21.2 percent of Latine renters, compared to 7.3 percent of white renters. However, due to small survey sample sizes for the bi-weekly Pulse survey, these estimates have large margins of error and should be interpreted accordingly. Nonetheless, racial disparities have been exacerbated by the COVID recession, and housing is one among many issues where non-white communities, particularly Black, Indigenous, and Latine communities, have experienced disparate outcomes. In Boston, according to a study published by City Life/Vida Urbana in April 2021, 70 percent of all Boston eviction filings occurred in census tracts where the majority of renters are people of color, compared to the 30 percent of filings occurring in majority-white census tracts. Similar trends can be observed on the state level, as we will discuss later in this research brief. 

What is the outlook on housing stability for Massachusetts renters?

Hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts renters anticipate being unable to pay their next month’s rent. According to Census Pulse estimates, a consistently high number of households across the state reported having no confidence or slight confidence in their ability to make their next rent payment, with recent weeks’ estimates ranging around 300,000. There could be a variety of factors creating this concern among renters. For some, it may be a looming anxiety that comes with the everyday choices that households have to make to pay for food, childcare, and family medical expenses that make paying rent at the end of the month a constant challenge. For others, it is their reality month-to-month, as evidenced by the estimated 200,000 households who reported being behind on their last month’s rent payment. Of course, the levels in anxiety over next month’s payment for survey respondents in late summer/early fall may also be associated with the end of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provided supplemental funds for those facing unemployment due to the pandemic. At the end of Aug. 2021, over 200,000 households were receiving PUA benefits.

Among Massachusetts households, the Census estimates that 54.3 percent of Black renters have no confidence or slight confidence in their ability to pay their next month’s rent according to the latest week of survey data. Latine and Asian households followed with estimates of 22 percent and 21.9 percent respectively while white households had the lowest estimated rate at 14.2 percent. As mentioned previously, margins of error for these estimates are high due to small survey sample sizes, however even with this in mind, the low estimate for Black households—34.8 percent—is still higher than nearly all estimates for Latine, Asian, and white households within their respective margins of error.

Thousands of renters in Massachusetts anticipate being evicted within the next two months, however estimates appear to be declining. The latest survey data estimates that around 30,000 households report they are either “likely” or “very likely” to be evicted from their homes within the next two months. Since the end of the state moratorium on evictions in October 2020, the trend of these estimates has closely resembled trends in rates of weekly eviction filings. According to Census Pulse estimates from last December, upwards of 100,000 Massachusetts renters anticipated being evicted following the spike in filings at the end of 2020.

Since spring 2021, fear of eviction appears to be on the decline. Though estimated numbers of households fearing eviction remained disproportionately higher than the number of eviction filings, the decline in fear of eviction is likely attributable to various additions and improvements to the state’s suite of rent relief programs.

However, unlike a moratorium, rent relief is not universal. Allocating the funds to assist households behind on rent is a step in the right direction, but we need to connect people to rental assistance supports (among other key supports, including legal aid, utility assistance programs, unemployment benefits, eviction sealing measures, to name a few) to begin to lift individuals and families out of this crisis. When there are disconnects between available supports and the people that need them, we see disparate outcomes. Identifying support gaps is a key next step, creating opportunities to strategize and move forward.

There is still work to be done to stabilize tenants in need

Some communities are experiencing more acute rental stability issues than others. Eviction filings vary from municipality to municipality, with some communities seeing significantly higher filing rates—evictions per thousand renter households—compared to others. 

Among the most populous cities in the state, Boston and Springfield have relatively low filing rates, while cities such as Brockton, Worcester, Fall River, New Bedford, and Fitchburg all have disproportionately higher rates—more than triple those of Boston and Springfield. Regionally, Central and Southeastern Massachusetts are seeing significantly higher filing rates. Additionally, Gateway Cities are generally seeing higher eviction filing rates, with some (Fall River, New Bedford, Fitchburg, Worcester, Brockton) harder hit than others (Springfield, Salem, Lawrence, Lowell).

Several factors may be influencing these trends, including the varied success of rent relief efforts from place to place, the presence of local moratoria banning eviction filings for non-payment, and differences among housing courts and district courts across the state. Additionally, municipalities with higher populations of working-class residents, communities of color, and immigrant communities—which historically have seen higher rates of eviction compared to affluent, majority white communities—are seeing more instances of eviction filings. 

At a glance, cities that have received the highest dollar amounts of rent relief assistance, such as Boston and Springfield, are seeing lower rates of eviction filings compared to other municipalities who may not be receiving adequate support through available rent relief programs. Identifying these disparities may create opportunities to adjust the focus of rent relief programs to ensure that communities across the state are given the necessary support to recover from the COVID recession. In an upcoming research brief, we will take a closer look at these geographic disparities and discuss the different outcomes of municipalities across the state in terms of preventing evictions and improving the state of housing stability.

For additional information about this brief or upcoming topics, contact Matija Jankovic

Also from MHP's Center for Housing Data:

DataTown - Demographic and housing data visuals for all 351 Massachusetts communities. This user-friendly site allows you to compare communities, print out the graphics for presentations and download the supporting information in excel.

TODEX - Transit-Oriented Development Explorer maps housing densities around all 261 Greater Boston transit stops. Like DataTown, TODEX is easy to use. You can print the graphics, explore the methodology and access the GIS files to explore or use the data for your own work.