by Amir Shahsavari
On August 12, 2021, SPOA provided oral and written testimony against continued eviction moratoriums before the Massachusetts State Legislature, which is considering bills that would prolong eviction moratoria in the forms of House bill 1434 and Senate bill 891, as numbered currently. President Allison Drescher and Vice President Amir Shahsavari spoke to the Joint Committee on Housing regarding the concerns of many housing providers, who have continued to shoulder the burdens of providing safe and maintained housing to their tenants without the ability to collect their hard earned rental income, as a result of eviction moratoria imposed by the state and federal governments since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Introducing SPOA as an organization advocating for small rental housing providers, who supply over half the rental housing in Massachusetts, President Allison Drescher informed the Committee that SPOA’s members are both small business owners and housing providers, who continue to play an integral role in the Commonwealth’s housing infrastructure. Drescher added that SPOA wants to work with both elected officials and tenant organizations to strengthen and stabilize the rental housing market for all income levels of both property owners and tenants in Massachusetts.
During her prepared remarks, Drescher said, “During the pandemic, rental housing providers, especially small property owners, have been asked to provide essential housing to renters regardless of their ability to pay rent. There have been assistance programs to be sure, but they are almost all tenant-based, meaning we cannot apply for assistance ourselves like so many other small businesses owners. And despite best efforts, these programs have been relatively slow to ramp up due to the size of the problem they are now being asked to address. Small property owners have continued to pay mortgages, taxes, insurance, and maintain the safety of their properties for tenants with less or, in many cases, no rental income.”
Continuing from Drescher’s comments about working together to create a stronger private rental property market that provides stable and affordable housing, Vice President Amir Shahsavari asked the Committee to consider the way in which relief dollars have failed to reach small property owners during the pandemic. Nation-wide, of the $47 billion allocated to housing assistance, only $3 billion had been dispersed as of the date of the hearing. Shahsavari said that this national data mirrors the situation in Massachusetts, where high application-rejection rates and complicated application procedures have slowed the process down significantly. “We implore the Committee to take notice of the fact that the dollars have been allocated, but they are not reaching property owners,” said Shahsavari, who stated further that House bill 1434 and Senate bill 891 would exacerbate this issue by continuing the eviction moratorium without addressing the fundamental problem at hand.
“No small rental property owners want to be in a situation where they are forced to commence eviction proceedings. However, the eviction process must be maintained as a last resort where no State-of-Emergency exists,” said Shahsavari. “Moreover, it is not enough to require, as these bills do, that tenants have an active application pending for rental assistance. Small property owners are small business owners—women, minority, and family owned businesses—who provide an essential service to the community. In addition to providing stable and affordable housing, they also contribute significantly to municipal tax bases. However, they cannot pay their taxes, utilities, or upkeep their properties—let alone make any income—if their tenants do not pay rent,” Shahsavari continued.
Shahsavari concluded his testimony by asking the Committee to work with all stakeholders to develop an owner-based relief program that allows rental property owners to apply directly for assistance, as was not the case on the date of the hearing. “The creation of such a program is vital under any circumstances, but especially if present restrictions on property owners are to continue,” he said.
Rental property owners not only lack access to relief in the same way that other small businesses do, but they are also the only ones who rely on their customers, in this case the tenants, to apply for that relief. This is essentially the same as asking the customers in restaurants to apply for financial assistance on behalf of the restaurant owners. While many tenants are genuine in their attempts to pay their rent, non‑paying tenants have little incentive to assist their housing providers with obtaining relief because the eviction process, while technically still available under these circumstances, is too costly and arduous, in reality, to be a viable option for financially stressed property owners. Moreover, in many cases, tenants are afraid to provide the personal information necessary to complete RAFT or other program applications.
The solution is to remove the middleman. If the system works as intended, rental assistance eventually flows to the rental housing provider anyway, which strengthens the practicality of allowing the rental housing provider to apply directly for assistance. If government, rental property owners, and tenants all agree to tackle the whole problem together, rather than with stopgap, piecemeal solutions that only address one side of the issue, we can get relief to those who need it and move quicker towards a return to normalcy.
Owners, for their part, have been playing their role. We have not witnessed a so-called “tsunami of evictions” in large measure because owners have worked with tenants on rent reductions, discounts, and payment plans. Empty units do not help meet financial obligations. It is therefore in the interest of rental property owners to work with their tenants. Furthermore, housing providers have been flexible with tenants to keep them in their units if at all possible. But we cannot keep doing this forever. This situation, if left unaddressed, will eventually drive down rental housing stock in Massachusetts at a time when we should be doing everything possible to preserve as much rental housing as possible.
SPOA used the above comments to sum up its testimony, while asking the Committee to take this opportunity to address the issue properly in helping both small rental property owners and their tenants alike.
As these bills remain under consideration by the Housing Committee, you still have an opportunity to make your voices heard. For the reasons stated in our testimony, as covered in this narrative, we respectfully ask our members and all those who care about maintaining affordable rental housing to join us in opposing continued eviction moratoriums. We also ask that you support direct assistance for housing providers, in order to expedite a return to normalcy following the pandemic and to create fair solutions that respect the dignity and survival of housing providers, as they continue to shelter their tenants and serve the community. Please contact your representatives as soon as possible to support these efforts.