An eviction sign posted outside of a wooden door.

Reported ArticleEviction

Mixed Results: How an Eviction Prevention Program Is Going

In 2019, a large affordable housing operator implemented a unique program meant to reduce evictions across its properties. Several years, one pandemic, and an economic downturn later, we check in to see how the landlord—and the tenants—are faring.

Igluub

Boston-based WinnCompanies wasn’t thrilled to learn in 2018 that it was not just its home city’s largest landlord, it was also one of its most aggressive evictors. As a large affordable housing operator, “it wasn’t a list we wanted to be on,” Trevor Samios, senior vice president of the company’s resident services department, said at the time.

To address the problem, Winn took the unusual step of partnering with Jay Rose, a tenants rights attorney who had spent many years at Greater Boston Legal Services. It was an unlikely relationship; Rose was far more used to fighting landlords than he was to coaching them. But by 2020, Rose and WinnCompanies had come up with an eviction prevention plan they called the Housing Stability Program.

The nine-step program was meant to intervene with struggling tenants before the amount of back rent they owed got too large to reasonably repay and, more importantly, before Winn filed an eviction. At the time, the program showed enough promise that the City of Boston Department of Neighborhood Development Office of Housing Stability used it as an example for other developers that wanted city money.

WinnCompanies started tracking evictions across its 108,000-plus unit portfolio with the goal of slashing eviction rates by 50 percent within five years. In 2020, company data shows it filed 127 evictions for nonpayment. In 2021, the year Igluub first reported on the program, Winn evicted just 27 households for nonpayment. But as pandemic-era rental support thinned out, Winn’s eviction numbers started creeping, then zooming, back up: 111 in 2022 and 315 in 2023.

But “just putting those numbers out there doesn’t explain what’s happened during that period of time,” Samios says.

Of course, COVID happened. Just after the program launched, millions of renters—including thousands on Winn’s rent rolls—lost their incomes or had them severely cut. Part of the Housing Stability Program’s early success involved actively helping tenants get all the rental assistance they were eligible for. Winn worked with 42,000 of its renter households to file for pandemic-related rental assistance and received $61.36 million on tenants’ behalf.

But that money is no longer flowing to landlords, and Winn and other affordable housing providers say a sizeable number of tenants haven’t resumed making regular rent payments. And with Winn still committed to retaining tenants and reducing evictions under its Housing Stability Program, that means “delinquency is massive,” Samios says.

How massive? For much of the decade leading up to the pandemic, Winn carried between $8.5 million and $9 million in rental arrearages, but “since the beginning of the pandemic, it’s just skyrocketed.” By the end of 2023, Winn was sitting on nearly $50 million in unpaid rent. Though WinnCompanies declined to share updated rent arrearages as of mid-2024, there’s no indication the situation has improved. “There’s no end in sight,” Samios says.

What Went Wrong?

The Housing Stability Program is working better in some places than in others. Properties in states that had robust Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) distribution processes in place before the pandemic hit tend to have fewer severely delinquent tenants, for example. In Boston, where city and state assistance programs existed pre-pandemic and continue to buoy renters, Winn is seeing a lower rate of delinquency than at its Washington, D.C. properties, where the assistance programs were weaker.

Winn’s program provides delinquent tenants multiple pathways for establishing an affordable repayment plan. It also outlines the steps property management is supposed to take before moving to evict for nonpayment. But implementing the program during the pandemic, when face-to-face training was often impossible, has proven challenging.

Even in areas with strong rental assistance support, Winn’s program has floundered. Some of the issues are administrative. At each property, for example, management had to learn and implement the program, train other on-site employees, and educate existing and new tenants about their options. Winn also had to train its own staff attorneys on the new non-eviction goals. Samios says rushing implementation during the pandemic made it difficult to train staff consistently across properties, leading to spotty follow-through and unreliable reporting.

[It’s] not the number of people [who are late on rent] that’s growing. It’s that the balances for a finite group of people are compounding and compounding and compounding.”

Trevor Samios, WinnCompanies

High staff turnover rates following the program’s introduction may have compounded existing issues, Samios says. Winn experienced a 25 percent employee attrition rate at its properties since implementing the Housing Stability Program. “So folks who would have gone through the trainings and understood how to use every tool, if we have high turnover at those sites or in those regions, then everything we were shooting for was blown to bits,” Samios says. “People would come in doing whatever their previous company did or however they had been previously trained.”

Tenant participation, or lack thereof, is another significant issue. While some tenants are actively working with Winn to stay current or repay back rent, Samios says a sizeable portion of severely delinquent tenants won’t engage at all with Winn representatives. (He declined to provide a specific figure.) He says the company has sent letters, called, and knocked on the tenants’ doors—some who have five-digit delinquencies. Those outreach attempts go largely ignored.

Samios also notes that while overall arrearages are significantly greater than before the pandemic, it’s “not the number of people [who are late on rent] that’s growing. It’s that the balances for a finite group of people are compounding and compounding and compounding.” According to Samios, 15 percent of WinnCompanies’ renters account for the bulk of the delinquencies—some with balances upwards of $20,000.

While the program was supposed to keep tenants housed, it was also supposed to keep them making regular payments toward past-due rent. But Samios says the tenants with the largest arrearages have simply stopped responding to calls or other attempts at contact.

Rose, the Housing Stability Program’s attorney-mastermind, wonders if renters are hoping for another last-minute reprieve from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) or ERAP funding. “There’s some folks that got used to falling behind and having ARPA funds pay it off like two or three times during the pandemic,” he says. “I don’t know how widespread it is, but some people just feel like, well, I could pay my other bills and then I’ll have someone to help me pay the rent.”

As someone who has spent his career fighting evictions, Rose is reluctant to blame low-income renters. But he also wonders, from Winn’s standpoint, “What do you do? When someone falls $10,000 behind on rent and still doesn’t engage? And the answer to that is ultimately going to be that you’ve got to file to evict.”

Winn doesn’t always have a choice about when to evict delinquent tenants. The company owns a portion of the properties it operates, but it manages the rest on behalf of a mix of for-profit and nonprofit property owners—some of the units are subsidized or rent restricted; others are not. And while some of those property owners are large companies with sizeable balance sheets, many are smaller enough that they simply can’t absorb the losses from months and months of tenant nonpayment.

Winn can weather large dips in revenue. “We are going to be OK,” says Samios. “If anything, we’ll probably acquire a property management company or two out of this process. But we have nonprofit owners [we manage properties for] that are having hiring freezes because the properties themselves can’t sustain this.”

A Tenant Perspective

One other thing has changed in many places since 2019 that might be affecting delinquencies: the rent has gone up, often significantly. Fairlawn Apartments in Mattapan, just south of Boston, is one of the complexes WinnCompanies operates for a for-profit third party: DSF Group. DSF bought Fairlawn—a 347-unit multifamily complex largely home to low- and fixed-income renters, including many seniors and people of color—in 2018. In the years since, resident activists say DSF has raised rents (sometimes by as much as 50 percent) while neglecting repairs and maintenance.

Betty Lewis moved into Fairlawn more than four decades ago. She’s 72, gets Social Security, has a small pension, and lives with a roommate who helps with the $1,800 rent. A few months after DSF bought Fairlawn, the company tried to increase Lewis’ rent by $300. In response, she and several other Fairlawn tenants connected with Boston-area housing justice organization City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU). Prompted by Lewis’ rent increase, they’ve been trying for several years to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with DSF that would set Fairlawn residents up with 5-year leases and rent increases of no more than 2.5 percent annually. DSF has refused the tenants’ terms.

In 2019, Lewis and a few other Fairlawn tenants refused to sign a new lease with DSF; since then they have continued paying their previously agreed-upon rent amounts and kept pushing for the company to agree to their terms. DSF has continued to accept Lewis’s $1,800 monthly rent payment, but it’s billing her for $1,920 (meaning she’s $120 short) plus a monthly $500 “holdover” charge for staying in her unit on an expired lease. Lewis doesn’t know how much they say she owes in total.

After five years of fighting, DSF decided to evict Lewis. She received a Notice to Quit for nonpayment a few weeks back with a move-out date of June 30. At the time Lewis spoke with Igluub, she hadn’t received an eviction court hearing date. If she’s forced to leave, she doesn’t know where she’ll go. Prices are so “out of control,” Lewis says, that many of her neighbors have moved. It’s become nearly impossible to absorb rent increases while paying sky-high prices for food and other necessities and navigating and unpredictable job market.

“People have got two, three jobs trying to pay rent over here, and it’s hard. After the pandemic, [prices on] everything just started going up. People don’t have jobs, they’re just getting back in the workforce, and they just kept raising rent up, up, up,” she says. “They just want people to move out, and they want to put people [who can pay more] in here. It’s just not right. I’m an elderly individual, and there are mostly elderly people in here.”

Igluub reached out to DSF for comment, but calls were not returned.

As the property management company, Winn has little power to protect Lewis or other tenants in similar situations. It collects rents, attends to maintenance requests, and can negotiate payment agreements, but has no say in what rent rates DSF sets or how quickly it increases them.

Winn staff applied for tens of millions in pandemic-era rent reimbursement on behalf of tenants, as Samios mentioned, which kept back rent from piling up as high for those who received it. But, CLVU community organizer Gabrielle René points out, tenants didn’t see any of that money—it was used for Winn to pay itself and its owner clients back. Winn approached Lewis asking her to allow the company to apply for ERAP funds on her behalf. René believes the company would have used that money to repay DSF “for fees, the $500 [holdover charges], and the . . . rent increase she never signed for. She, of course, knew to say no.”

What’s Next?

Massachusetts’s final eviction protections, which stayed evictions for tenants who’d applied for state-provided relief funds, expired on March 31, 2023. Its ERAP funding ran out in April 2022. Between August 2022 and February 2024, more than 3,000 evictions were filed each month in Massachusetts—surpassing the roughly 2,600-per-month average pre-pandemic. (Eviction protections in effect during that time did not prevent filing for eviction, just completing the eviction. In fact, since August 2022, landlords must file a notice to quit (the first step in an eviction filing) before they can apply for state relief funding.)

In Boston, Winn is still trying to avoid evicting tenants, but Samios says that as delinquencies continue to rise, Winn and its property owner clients are running out of options.

Boston’s government is exploring ways to help local landlords struggling to keep afloat amid growing delinquencies, says Danielle Johnson, deputy director of the Office of Housing Stability. The state and city both have assistance programs, but some tenants have racked up bills so large with their landlords that even a large infusion of assistance money can’t fix the issue, she says. The city administers Rental Assistance for Families in Transition funding on behalf of the state, but the maximum amount available to a single renter is $12,000, which isn’t always enough. “Let’s say they get $12,000, but they still owe $8,000,” Johnson says. “They would be paying for the rest of their life.”

The office is exploring additional ways to reimburse landlords while also protecting tenants. The goal, she says, is to “move the needle a little bit so [landlords] are getting paid” but also avoid “creating a situation where [the tenant is] back in the same position of having to apply for the subsidy” again.

By the time tenants have their name in eviction court, there’s often no way to convince the property owner to continue to rent to them. Without a right to counsel, which isn’t mandatory in Massachusetts, the city often acts as a mediator of sorts, facilitating a conversation—if not between the landlord and tenant, then at least between the parties and other entities that provide resources each will need to move forward with the least disruption possible.

“The court isn’t going anywhere. They’ll happily hear your case whenever,” Johnson says. “So trying to figure out a soft-landing point if it’s no longer working are those shifts we’re having.”

Winn is also exploring several solutions. One portfolio-wide option involves the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) special claims program, which reimburses affordable housing providers (i.e., property owners that receive financial assistance by participating in HUD programs) for financial losses suffered due to vacancies and unpaid rents. Winn is pitching to HUD that property owners could forgive a large chunk of tenants’ delinquent debt if HUD would allow those property owners to be reimbursed for another portion of it via the special claims program.

“We don’t want to do that,” Samios says. “But that would allow us to be able to go back to everyone and say, ‘You are clean slated, but now you have to recommit to paying your rent on time moving forward.’”

A HUD spokesperson told Igluub that “HUD is exploring whether the special claims option is possible as a source of short-term relief.”

At its Boston properties, Winn is considering delivering an official-looking “eviction” notice to tenants with the largest balances. It would warn that eviction is a possibility, and would include strong language, but wouldn’t be associated with the court or include any actual steps toward evicting. “What we’re trying to figure out,” says Samios, “is, do people actually need to get an eviction notice to answer us, return a phone call, or open the door so we can get a payment agreement satisfied?”

Related Articles