Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Eviction cases have been filed against Cambridge tenants at mixed-income developments such as Walden Square Apartments and Huron Towers. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge eviction filings for nonpayment of rent shot up in April, most of them against tenants living in affordable housing, court records show. Many were filed by the Cambridge Housing Authority, which had refrained from moving against tenants who owed back rent for most of the pandemic.

The housing authority is the landlord for the poorest tenants in a high-rent city. In April it filed 18 eviction cases in the eastern district of Housing Court for nonpayment of rent, the first such filings by the authority in months. A court system dashboard of nonpayment eviction filings shows a total 50 filings against Cambridge tenants in April, compared with 28 in March.

“We have sent multiple notices to households, we have knocked on doors, called residents and have had city staff set up at the sites to talk about arrearages and have provided information on places that will assist them to get caught up, but we are at the point where we need to move forward on those that have not made any effort to clear the arrears,” housing authority executive director Michael Johnston said in an email.

He also said “there is a fairness issue” if most tenants pay their rent and “we allow others to reside rent-free.” CHA has a low delinquency rate, with almost 98 percent of tenants up to date on rent, Johnston said. The authority takes legal action only when tenants owe more than $250 in back rent, he said.Tenants generally pay 30 percent of their income for housing.

Just A Start, another affordable-housing landlord, filed four nonpayment eviction cases in April after not filing any in March. Executive director Carl Nagy-Koechlin didn’t immediately respond to an email. Affiliates of Homeowners Rehab Inc., a major affordable-housing developer, have also filed nonpayment cases in Cambridge District Court, said Susan Hegel, a lawyer at Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services. None could be identified among the April filings, though there were cases filed against tenants at mixed-income developments such as Walden Square Apartments and Huron Towers. The vast majority of eviction cases are filed in Housing Court, not District Court.

Eviction protections for some low-income tenants ended March 31 when a state law expired that had postponed evictions for tenants who had applied for state help with back rent, Hegel said. That may have caused the increase in filings in April.

Places to turn

“For resources there is still” the state Rental Assistance for Families in Transition program, but it’s become difficult for families in subsidized housing to get approved, Hegel said. Even in 2021 it took a median of two months to get approval and thousands of applicants were rejected, according to figures from the Department of Housing and Community Development, which runs the program. At that point, 235 Cambridge tenants and homeowners had received about $1.1 million for rent and mortgage payments in the first 14 months of the program.

Cambridge also had distributed about $4.6 million in aid for rent and other needs to households hurt by the pandemic, but public housing tenants generally weren’t eligible and CHA asked the city to refer tenants to it for help because they were eligible to have their rent reduced if their income dropped.

Nine hundred calls for help

City spokesman Lee Gianetti said he would make Maura Pensak, the housing liaison, available for an interview about the increase in evictions, but did not. Pensak told the City Council’s Finance Committee on May 9 that her office had responded to 900 requests for help in the past year, including 160 people who needed “intensive” assistance. Of those, “fifty were housed,” she said. It wasn’t clear how many of the requests for help involved evictions.

The housing authority also tried to sign up tenants in trouble with rent for a state program called Subsidized Housing Emergency Rental Assistance, but it proved difficult and confusing to use. Landlords such as the authority could collect money for back rent on behalf of tenants after persuading them to apply. That program ended last year and landlords had to agree not to pursue eviction for six months after getting benefits, Hegel said. She estimated the grace period expired around November.