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NPR News

Some Boston Landlords Flout Eviction Bans, Pressure Tenants To Leave

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A group tracking evictions estimates that as many as 120,000 people have been forced from their homes during the pandemic despite federal and state bans aimed at protecting tenants. An investigation by member station WBUR has found some landlords threatening renters, badgering them to pay or move out and even calling law enforcement. Beth Healy reports.

BETH HEALY, BYLINE: Last spring, Marvin Moreno lost his job at a fish plant because of the pandemic. He scrambled to pay the rent on his East Boston apartment with help from the state. But tensions rose with his landlord as money grew tight. Despite a Massachusetts ban on evictions, the owner asked him to move out.

MARVIN MORENO: (Speaking Spanish).

HEALY: You're only giving me eight days to leave. I'm not going to find a place in eight days, Moreno recalls telling the landlord. He asked for some time to find a new apartment, but the answer was no. Moreno moved out on October 1, he says, because of the stress. Thousands of people around the country are facing illegal threats from their landlords, according to Princeton University's Eviction Lab. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey says her office has received more than 200 complaints about landlords violating the moratorium.

MAURA HEALEY: Here's what we hear. We hear about landlords threatening to change the locks on people, reporting tenants to ICE, threatening to evict people following a positive COVID test.

HEALY: She says immigrants are especially vulnerable. WBUR spoke with tenants around Boston and checked out their stories with texts and records, as well as with lawyers or housing advocates. One family stopped paying rent in July because the landlord wasn't taking care of the house. A burst pipe ruined their furniture, and cockroaches infested the apartment. But the landlord served them a notice to leave in August, even though that was illegal under the state ban. He also threatened to call immigration if they didn't pay, they say. The landlord denies this, but on October 5, ICE agents showed up.

ISSAC SIMON HODES: So as far as we know, ICE arrested this man outside of his home. They've got him locked in a truck right now, unmarked, with no plate on the front.

HEALY: Isaac Simon Hodes was one of dozens of local activists who came that day to demand ICE release Robelio Gonzalez. The family's 13-year-old daughter watched from the steps.

HODES: She's here with us. She's in tears. She's extremely distraught.

HEALY: They eventually did let Gonzalez go so the girl would not be left alone. Doug Quattrochi represents small property owners at a group called MassLandlords. He says these are tough times for small property owners, too.

DOUG QUATTROCHI: People can't operate rental housing without rent coming in. Housing isn't free.

HEALY: But he also did not defend the actions of Gonzalez's landlord.

QUATTROCHI: That situation sounds like a complete and total mess, and it sounds like the landlord was not entirely doing their job. It's a tough situation for sure, but no one should be breaking the law or shirking on their obligations as a housing provider.

HEALY: A woman named Mercedes has been fighting cancer and lost her job because of the pandemic. We're using her first name only because she fears retaliation by her landlord, who's been pressuring her to leave because she can't pay the rent.

MERCEDES: (Speaking Spanish).

HEALY: Mercedes says she's gotten a slew of texts from the landlord, demanding money and making her feel like her every move is being scrutinized. Her biggest problem now isn't her stage 4 cancer, she says, it's having a place to live. The state's eviction ban ended October 17. Now she's like so many other renters trying to stay above water during the pandemic and wondering where they will go when the federal eviction ban expires at the end of this year. For NPR News, I'm Beth Healy in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.