NEW BEDFORD — Two young children peeked out from behind their mother as she opened the door to their second-floor apartment in the South End. 

Lenny Fernandez, 47, a lunch lady for the city School Department, has lived in this apartment with her children for more than six years. But the pandemic put her out of work for over six months. She fell behind on rent, she said, as her standard contract did not allow her to qualify for unemployment benefits through the summer. Now she and her children are facing the possibility of eviction.

“I couldn’t pay rent because I was not working; the kids were home with me.” she said. “I’m working again now … I still owe money.”  

Fernandez is one of many in New Bedford who have fallen through the cracks of an expansive state and federal effort to prevent evictions over the past 15 months. She and others are caught between pandemic-related loss of income, backlogged rent, sluggish rental relief programs and now a federal moratorium on evictions set to expire at the end of the month. 

In New Bedford, landlords have filed 407 individual evictions against renters since October of 2020, when the state moratorium on evictions expired.

In New Bedford, landlords have filed 407 individual evictions against renters since October of 2020, when the state moratorium on evictions expired, according to the Massachusetts Trial Court database. 

Bristol County currently has the highest number in the state of executions of eviction issued to renters. Executions are a court order that authorizes an eviction, which can then be enforced by a sheriff or constable. In Bristol County, 518 executions have been issued since October 2020, when the state moratorium on evictions expired, according to the Massachusetts Trial Court database. In New Bedford, 186 executions have been issued since October.

The eviction and execution rate statewide is lower than in pre-pandemic levels, tamped down by a deluge of federal relief funds and the ongoing federal moratorium on evictions.

But housing advocates in New Bedford say the eviction rates are still higher than many expected. Much of the federal housing funds aimed at preventing eviction have not reached renters, landlords and homeowners in need, they say. With the federal moratorium on evictions set to expire at the end of June, many fear that eviction rates will soar through the summer.

“When the federal protections lift, people with backlogged rent will run the risk of not having that safety net in place,” said Stephen Carreiro, assistant clerk magistrate of the Southeast Housing Court, where evictions and mediation are held. “There will almost certainly be an adverse impact.” 

HELP FOR THOSE FACING EVICTION

The Coalition for Social Justice connects those facing eviction with financial assistance programs, legal services and free mediation. Their New Bedford office can be reached at: (508) 999-2777.

Landlords say they are frustrated with the ongoing moratorium, and the barriers to evict tenants due to non-payment of rent, which has always been standard practice. Among the most affected are small-scale landlords, housing advocates say, renting floors in their own home or owning a few homes in a neighborhood. At least one landlord has been forced to sell a property. And some say the drop in rental revenue has prevented them from paying for routine maintenance, which creates a problem for both renters and landlords.

John Pereira, a landlord who rents out more than 100 apartments in New Bedford, said he has filed fewer evictions than in previous years, and added that the rental relief programs have been helpful for some of his tenants. But others, who he believes should have qualified, were instead rejected from the relief programs. 

“It could have been a lot worse,” he said. “But these (rental relief programs) could have been rolled out a lot better.” 

A state moratorium virtually eliminated new eviction filings statewide through the summer of 2020. But in October, Gov. Charlie Baker allowed the state moratorium on evictions and foreclosures to expire. The federal moratorium, which only offers protections to renters who apply and qualify, remained in place. Later, the state deployed more than $900 million in federal funds toward rental relief and other housing stability programs. 

Sigute Meilus of the Coalition for Social Justice uses an app to track tenants facing eviction so she can connect them with help. She tapes information on the door of a tenant who is not at home. Photos by Will Sennott

Organizations distributing the funds say there are many obstacles for those in need, including language barriers and stringent, sometimes excessive, protections against fraud, which in some cases block those who should qualify. 

As of early June, almost $800 million in housing aid still remains undistributed to Massachusetts residents, according to a report by Boston public radio station WBUR.  

“There’s definitely a great deal of money available. The problem is reaching the people who need it.” said Michelle Mack, an eviction diversion supervisor of Father Bill’s & MainSpring, a Brockton based homelessness prevention nonprofit. It’s one of many organizations at the tail end of the pipeline distributing the rental relief funds on a local level. “Most don’t know about the programs available until they are already in (housing) court.” 

For some, the outreach was too late. At least two apartments approached by Sigute Meilus of the Coalition for Social Justice were already vacant.

That much was clear for Sigute Meilus, with the Coalition for Social Justice, who on a rainy June afternoon was knocking on the doors of renters facing eviction, offering to connect them directly with rental relief programs and legal services.

She pulled up a map on her phone, popping with icons of small gray houses. Each one indicated a renter who was facing eviction. In this small but densely populated neighborhood between Cove Street and Brock Avenue in New Bedford’s South End, more than 35 individual homes had been served notices of eviction within the last month. 

Behind each door was a brief glimpse into the desperation of many who have fallen through the cracks.

Each story is unique, but there are common themes — climbing rents; a surge in home sales, which sometimes leads to the new landlord purging current tenants; and the inability for many to recover from the loss of income wrought by the pandemic. Some did not know of the relief programs; others had been rejected multiple times before giving up.

Barbie Lazu, 53, is receiving disability benefits. She and her granddaughter rely on Section 8 rental assistance to afford housing. She said she has never missed a rental payment. But she asked her landlord to repair some water damage that was caused by an upstairs tenant, and she subsequently filed a complaint with the city’s Board of Health. The landlord was fined, and instead of repairs, Lazu was served with an eviction, she said. 

Lazu said she had never heard of the federal eviction moratorium.

“It makes me feel neglected and overlooked,” she said. “There should be a backup plan for this. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” 

For some, the outreach was too late. At least two apartments approached by Meilus were already vacant. One ground-floor apartment had each of its windows smashed. Another was occupied only by a carpenter, who said he was recently hired to renovate the apartment. 

“If they did live here, they don’t live here now,” he said. 

With the federal moratorium on evictions expiring at the end of the month, housing advocates speculate the eviction rate will reach new heights. An exact number is uncertain, they say. Those who previously qualified for eviction protection will no longer have that safety net. 

But housing advocates advised that the rental relief funds will still be available — and there is plenty to go around. They specifically pointed to programs that will still provide back payment for unpaid rent up to June. As has been the case, they say, the problem will be getting the aid to those in need.

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