What to know about paying rent and evictions in Boston during COVID-19

Eileen O'Grady, Editor

UPDATED: April 20, 2020

With the closure of non-essential businesses in response to the coronavirus pandemic, April saw many Boston residents out of a job and struggling to pay rent for the first time since the outbreak began, while some face the threat of eviction.

As uncertainty over future rent payments and eviction cases looms, here is the latest information Boston residents need to know about financial aid and legal support with housing for as long as the city’s current state of public health emergency continues. We will update this page as new information emerges.

Will I have to pay rent in April and May?

Yes, unless the landlords indicate otherwise. There is currently no law in the city about paying rent during coronavirus, so landlords can still demand that rent be paid in full. However, some landlords are individually choosing to decrease or eliminate rent costs for tenants who are struggling with unemployment due to the pandemic.

If I can’t afford to pay rent as a result of coronavirus, are there resources to help me?

Yes. On April 4, the City of Boston launched the Rental Relief Fund, a $3 million program to help Bostonians who are at risk of losing their rental housing due to the pandemic.

Read about how we’re covering COVID-19 and our sustained commitment to telling stories of hope, justice and resilience.

Bostonians can apply if they are not eligible for unemployment, or if unemployment benefits represent a significant decrease in income. To be eligible, applicants must demonstrate that they have no savings or resources available from friends or family to help pay their rent.

“It is our hope that this funding will offer immediate financial relief to renters in Boston who otherwise would be unable to make their rent payment,” said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. “We understand that this resource is critical to have in place not only for economic reasons, but also to protect the public health.”

South End-based women’s shelter Rosie’s Place also has a list of organizations that provide emergency funding for housing including back rent and utilities.

If I can’t pay rent, can landlords evict me during the lockdown?

No. On March 18, Massachusetts Housing Court suspended all non-emergency proceedings, including evictions, until April 21, a date that was later extended to May 4. Then, on Monday April 20, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill placing a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures in the state during the COVID-19 pandemic. This ban will last for 120 days, or for 45 days after the governor lifts the state of emergency, whichever comes first.

However, tenants who already received an eviction order before March 18 can still be forced to leave their homes during lockdown, according to housing activist group City Life/Vida Urbana.

What should I do if my landlord threatens me with eviction?

Become familiar with your rights. Almost all housing cases are being impacted by the pandemic and the court postponement.

Read this fact sheet  from Greater Boston Legal Services for more details about how different eviction situations are being impacted by the pandemic.

Jamaica Plain-based housing activist organization City Life/Vida Urbana has set up a bilingual emergency hotline for people facing eviction during the public health crisis. Tenants can call the hotline at (617) 934-5006 (for English) and (617) 397-3773 (for Spanish) for legal support and advice.

What are public officials saying about evictions?

On March 14, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh urged apartment owners in the city to halt evictions for 90 days.

“Housing stability is crucial at this time,” he said in a statement. “Through these measures to protect residents, we will continue our work to promote the well-being of every community in our city.”

Massachusetts State Reps Mike Connolly and Kevin Honan filed a bill on March 26 to establish a moratorium on all evictions and foreclosures in the state throughout the full state of emergency, not just until April 21. The bill, which was co-signed by 70 other state representatives and senators, is currently sitting in the House Rules Committee.

Gov. Baker told landlords in a press briefing on March 23 that they cannot evict tenants during the pandemic, because the courts are closed.

“We made it very clear that you can’t evict or foreclose on someone in Massachusetts. You can’t,” Baker said. “For evictions, you have to go to court, court’s not open until April 21, and you still need 60 days of process and cure opportunity before you do that.”

Upon passage of the statewide moratorium on evictions last Monday, Rep. Kevin Honan (D-Allston-Brigton), co-sponsor of the bill, wrote on Twitter “This is more than just a housing justice issue, it is a public health issue. In a time where our collective health and safety depends on the ability of each of us to shelter in place, the need for housing stability has never been greater.”

Can I move into a new home during the pandemic?

Yes, there is nothing preventing Bostonians from moving during the pandemic, provided all outdoor activity takes place outside of curfew hours. Moving and storage companies are on Governor Charlie Baker’s list of essential businesses that can remain open, though some have opted to close. What may be challenging is agreeing final walk-throughs with real estate agents, but it is possible to speak with them about your concerns and find a solution that is safe and adheres to social-distancing guidelines.

Can I break my lease early if I’m leaving Boston?

Many students left Boston to return to their family homes after local colleges and universities closed in early March. But not all are permitted to break their leases despite no longer residing in their rental properties. Some landlords allow it, others don’t.

Renters who seek to break their leases could lose the last month’s rent and security deposit that they paid in full when the lease began.

If I become homeless in Boston during COVID-19, what can I do?

Homeless Bostonians who are pregnant or have children under age 21 may be able to get into emergency assistance family shelter by calling the Mass. Department of Housing and Community Development during business hours at (866) 584-0653.

Others can call the Boston Office of Housing Stability at (617) 635-4200 or the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless at (781) 595-7570 ex. 36.

If Bostonians experience difficulty with any of these organizations, Greater Boston Legal Services may be able to help. The number to reach them is (617) 603-1807.

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