Dorchester Reporter: Walsh goes to the Hill, asks leverage to boost affordable housing goal

Source: Dorchester Reporter

By Katie Trojano, Reporter Staff

December 24, 2019

A mayoral-led team that is focused on residential evictions in the city of Boston released new data on Friday as it laid out a new “action plan” to reduce the incidence of evictions over the next five years.

In a roundtable discussion with reporters at City Hall last week, the Eviction Prevention Task Force (EPTF) said its goal is to decrease evictions from subsidized housing by 33 percent during that five-year stretch. The group is targeting a 25 percent drop in private market evictions over that same time frame.

“The action plan lays out a road map for how we can increase access to programs and services that are working and reduce the number of evictions that are happening in Boston,” Mayor Martin Walsh said in a statement announcing the plan.

Sheila Dillon, Boston’s chief of housing and director of the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND), is the city’s point person on the task force. Data from eviction cases, she said, are the best tools available for combating the displacement of Bostonians.

“We don’t have any good data,” Dillon told the Reporter. “When the 2020 census comes out— and we’ll get the data probably in 2022— we’ll be able to see if there are income shifts or racial shifts by neighborhood. But we don’t have any data on who’s becoming displaced. The data set doesn’t exist. All we can count is actual eviction actions in court.”

The most recent analysis of Boston’s eviction landscape is drawn from data collected by the Office of Housing Stability (OHS) and HomeStart, Inc. using cases filed in the Eastern District Housing Court spanning the three years from 2015 to 2017. Approximately 5,000 cases per year were filed over that time. Overall, the number of eviction executions declined by 10.1 percent from 2005 to 2017, from 2,172 to 1,952.

More eviction cases in Boston are brought against tenants living in subsidized housing than those living in market-rate units, city officials say. Data from 2017 show that there were 1,314 eviction cases involving tenants in private properties— of which 656 were executed. In the same time frame, there were 3,596 in subsidized units, of which 1,113 were executed.

In 2017, 60 percent of Boston evictions filed in court were in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park, although these neighborhoods represent only 32 percent of Boston’s total housing stock.

The Eviction Prevention Task Force is a coalition of non-profit tenant advocacy organizations, housing service providers, legal aid organizations, the real estate community, and staff from both the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) and the DND.

The “Action Plan” lays out several goals for reducing evictions, including: increasing the production of affordable housing; increasing and making more widely known the resources available to pay rent arrearages; expanding capacity and access to legal representation via new legislation; and funding, improving, and disseminating information on best practices and tenant and landlord rights.

Improving data collection and analysis is also a key point outlined in the new plan. “Right now, it’s a pretty antiquated system of us bringing a team of interns into Housing Court and asking to pull every single case file that was issued in a calendar year,” said Matthew Prichard, president and executive director of HomeStart. “The team of six interns goes in for six week, for about 24 hours a week, and they go through literally every case file and see what the resolution was.”

Dillon added that information on age, race, English proficiency, family composition, and income is not recorded in the eviction case files. “Those would all be great data points, but they’re not in the court records,” she said.

Many cases are not resolved within a specific window of time and some remain unresolved in the system for longer than the calendar year in which they were filed. That means that data from 2015 represent eviction cases that began in 2015, but may have been resolved in 2017.

According to Dillon, data from 2018 will be analyzed over the course of the next few months and will likely be available during the first six months of 2020.

The “Action Plan” also summarized reasons for eviction actions. Non-payment of rents was the most commonly cited cause, making up more than 79 percent of reasons for eviction filings in 2017.  Another type of eviction is no-fault, which commonly occurs when new owners of buildings evict tenants, even those with no history of non-payment or other infraction. No-fault evictions accounted for 7 percent of cases in 2017.

Metro Housing|Boston, an organization that has worked with the city’s Office of Housing Stability and the EPTF, found that a total of 1,710 households citywide received Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) funds in FY 2019. Of those households, 599 were in Dorchester, receiving a total of $1.5 million, the most of any neighborhood.  RAFT is Metro Housing|Boston’s homelessness prevention program for families with very low incomes experiencing a housing crisis.

“The success the city of Boston has had preventing evictions — through programs, property owner outreach, and legislation— is tied directly to the focus and energy of the Eviction Prevention Task Force,” said Steve Farrell, director of Communications and Policy for MetroHousing Boston.
Farrell added that in 2019, 40 percent of RAFT funding was used for rental arrears, meaning that the program assisted in paying tenants’ overdue rents so that they did not face eviction. 

Domonique Williams, deputy director at the OHS, said that “Flex Funds” are administered through a variety of different non-profits, which includes funding legal representation and mediation.

“All of those vendors work with folks that are in specific areas of the city so that folks don’t have to come all the way downtown,” said Williams, “We’ve found that it’s a really good resource for people, not only those who are facing an arrearage, but if they’re leasing a new unit and they need to pay first, last, and security.”

As part of his administration’s strategy, Walsh recently filed a legislative package at the State House that includes anti-displacement bills. Proposals include measures that would allow tenants and non-profits the right of first refusal to purchase properties subject to foreclosure or short sale; the right to counsel for tenants in housing court; protections for senior tenants; and the creation of a state income tax credit for renting units at below market rates.

“We really need to pass Right to Counsel,” said Dillon. “It would provide legal representation to low-income folks in the city of Boston. It’s at the State House, and it needs to get out of committee, and it needs to get passed.”

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