WORCESTER — Housing advocates and landlords speaking at the City Council Tuesday came down on both sides of the prospect of an eviction and foreclosure moratorium in the city amid surging COVID-19 case numbers.
Councilors also debated at length whether a moratorium was necessary or that it would serve its intended purpose, but ultimately, Councilor-at-Large Morris Bergman used his personal privilege to hold the item another week.
District 5 Councilor Etel Haxhiaj had an order on the agenda asking City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. to consider using an executive order or a city ordinance to enact the moratorium.
Haxhiaj said she was sure the entire council shared the common values that it should work to protect the well-being of children, seniors and vulnerable families. She said right now, somewhere in the city, someone is getting evicted.
She said evictions in the midst of a surge of COVID-19 cases jeopardize public health, and said the city should also advocate for more rental assistance from the state to help make landlords whole. Haxhiaj said the moratorium would be a temporary response in the name of public health; it would not be a free pass for people not to pay their rent.
Haxhiaj, along with District 4 Councilor Sarai Rivera, Councilor-at-Large Thu Nguyen, District 1 Councilor Sean Rose, Councilor-at-Large Khrystian King and Mayor Joseph M. Petty supported the idea of sending the item to the council's Economic Development Committee for further discussion.
Rivera said the subcommittee was the proper forum to find a balance of interests after a more in-depth discussion. Nguyen said despite an attempt to shift the narrative, the city is not yet at the recovery stage of COVID-19 — it's still in a state of emergency, and as policy makers, the council needs to take items like Haxhiaj's order seriously. Nguyen said people carry the burden of the impact of the pandemic and the city needs to do a better job supporting them.
"It's time to think about collective care and what that looks like," Nguyen said.
King said the message he received from the public discussion is that there is interest in working together. He said he didn't think the council should be pre-empting further discussion.
City Solicitor: City does not have legal authority to enact moratorium
But after City Solicitor Michael Traynor — in response to a query from Bergman — said it was his opinion that the city did not have the legal authority to enact a moratorium, Bergman asked to hold the item another week, particularly in light of a court hearing this week in Boston, where the city is seeking a stay after a judge last year struck down that city's moratorium.
Bergman said emotional issues like the moratorium are important to hash out. He said councilors don't want to see anyone become homeless and councilors also want landlords to be paid rent.
"I don't see anything in this proposal that is balanced that way," Bergman said, adding that Haxhiaj's order "leans hard" toward the tenant side of the argument, while making landlords whole appeared to be included as "wishful thinking."
District 3 Councilor George Russell, who reminded councilors and the public that he is in the real estate business, said he couldn't support Haxhiaj's order the way it was written. He said it needed a clear path for both renters and landlords to seek assistance, and it needed a funding source identified. People need help, Russell said, and they shouldn't be bounced around from agency to agency.
Councilor-at-Large Donna Colorio said she understood the balance in the discussion, but she said the order didn't address both of those needs. She said if local moratoriums have been struck down elsewhere, she didn't understand why the council was entertaining it.
Haxhiaj asked Traynor about moratoriums that remained in effect in communities like Somerville and Malden. Traynor said it was his understanding that the attorneys seeking to shut down Boston's moratorium were also seeking for those communities to stop as well.
Boston is seeking a stay related to a judge's decision in November to strike down an eviction moratorium. The judge in the case said evictions are part of state law and the city has no jurisdiction.
Bergman said he is willing to see what happens at this week's hearing in Boston, but asked the item be held a week.
King said we are living in unusual times, and said Haxhiaj's order simply asks for the consideration of the city manager — it doesn't direct anyone to do anything. Waiting a week to move the item forward might not seem like a long period of time, but for someone getting evicted, it could make a difference.
"I think it's in the best interest of people who own and rent that we have that discussion," King said.
Rose, who chairs the Economic Development committee, said people are going through real challenges and agreed with King that there is a sense of urgency to further examining the prospect of a moratorium. He said his committee would thoroughly examine the legal issues and would try to make people aware of resources while bringing groups to the table to explore every option.
He said he would hate to see the item held for another week; that would realistically push out a hearing at the Economic Development committee four to six weeks.
Public discussion mixed
Public discussion Tuesday included a mix of support and opposition to the possibility of a moratorium, largely split — but not entirely — along landlord/housing advocate lines. Landlords said they, too, are struggling. They said they rely on rent to pay their bills and maintain the homes they rent.
Housing advocates said time is of the essence and that the city should do everything it can to help renters at a time when the pandemic and the impact of rising rents, skyrocketing home values and large-scale purchases of rental properties by outside investors are combining to displace more and more residents. They said public health is put at risk when evicted residents are forced into crowded shelters or forced to "double up" in apartments with friends or family.
Landlord Ted Kostas said he noticed Haxhiaj's order did not have an end date. He said it has been a tough couple years to be a landlord. People are struggling, but he said he thinks it's a minimal amount. There are jobs available and rental assistance programs, he said. Small landlords, including elderly homeowners, would be impacted, Kostas said.
Resident Nelly Medina said residents need to stay in their homes as they battle the pandemic. She said the statewide parent group she helps coordinate has close to 200 families and 50 to 70 of them are struggling to pay rent or facing eviction.
Grace Ross of the Worcester Anti-Foreclosure Team said her group pushed the order and said it includes a lot of homeowners who have two-family homes and three-deckers. It's a problem that affects them, too, she said. She said she hoped Haxhiaj's order would be sent to subcommittee quickly for a full hearing. It would provide an opportunity to craft a program that works for everyone.
But landlord Michael DeLuca said landlords would bear the brunt of a moratorium situation. He said the state is awash in funding to help renters and he has helped multiple tenants access that money to make ends meet. He said he couldn't believe the council was entertaining a moratorium as similar measures are struck down by the courts.
Ultimately, despite Bergman's hold on the item, the council approved several requests for reports associated with the item including a legal opinion.
This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Landlords say no, but Worcester City Council considers local eviction moratorium