29 Jul Metro Housing|Boston’s Statement of Support For Right to Counsel
July 29, 2020
A home is the foundation that allows our residents to build a stable life, knowing that they have a roof over their head and somewhere to sleep. Working, going to school, even staying healthy, all requires that a person have a safe, affordable, stable home.
More than 40,000 families faced eviction in Massachusetts in 2019, the most recent year for which data from the Trial Court is available, with 5,728 cases filed in the Eastern Housing Court. These evictions impacted not only the tenant and the property owner, but also the communities in which people lived.
According to a recent study published by City Life/Vida Urbana, eviction filings in market-rate rental housing are disproportionately occurring in Boston’s communities of color, a trend related to neighborhood poverty and income levels. For example, many residents of Mattapan, Dorchester, Roxbury, and Hyde Park, where eviction filing rates were highest, are already living closer to poverty, with lower median incomes than the city as a whole and dramatically less accumulated wealth. (Boston Globe, 6/28/20)
Despite the importance of one’s home, when it is at risk of being lost, tenants have little in the way of support. It is estimated that more than 78 percent of landlords have legal representation in eviction cases, yet only eight percent of tenants are represented. This places tenants at an extreme disadvantage and can put judges in an awkward and difficult position where they must spend increased time ascertaining the facts.
The City of Boston’s Office of Housing Stability study from December 2019, showed three-quarters of the eviction cases filed were for non-payment of rent. The median amount of back rent owed was less than $2,000 for those in subsidized housing and $4,000 in private market housing. Last year Metro Housing provided cash assistance to 1,800 families and prevented them from being evicted. However, we cannot reach everyone.
Right to Counsel bills pending before the legislature would help level the field by providing legal representation to lower-income tenants facing eviction. They would benefit all parties and the courts by ensuring a more effective and efficient process.
Mediation is an important complimentary process that can be utilized to resolve differences and help property owners and tenants reach agreement. Summary Process mediations are typically most effective when both parties are represented by legal counsel. A trained mediator is not a substitute for legal representation. The attorney and the mediator each have a unique and important role to play. Limiting tenants with the most barriers and the least income, often Black or Brown residents in areas with high concentrations of poverty, to mediation without legal representation would yet again, as in so many other areas of their lives, deny these members of our community meaningful access to justice.
The positive impacts of counsel are well known. The issue has been studied for several years, and cities across the country have launched right to counsel projects: New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and San Antonio to name a few. The evidence of significant drops in eviction cases is mounting.
Metro Housing knows that not every tenant will be able to stay in their home. But, with legal support many will be able to do so, thereby preventing them from being put out onto the street and the inherent monetary and social costs that come with it.
This is an idea whose time has come. It is supported by more than 160 organizations across the state and has been endorsed by the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, property owners, service providers, and many others. Metro Housing|Boston is pleased to be a part of this effort, and we ask the Senate and the entire Legislature to protect our most vulnerable residents and instill a level of fairness by passing this legislation without delay.
About Metro Housing|Boston
Serving more than 25,000 households annually, Metro Housing|Boston is dedicated to mobilizing wide-ranging resources to provide innovative and personalized services that lead families to housing stability, economic security and an improved quality of life. With more than 30 years’ experience piloting and implementing housing programs, it has solidified their position as an industry-leading expert on navigating the affordable housing field. Metro Housing|Boston is committed to making sure that every person in Greater Boston will always have a place to call home. For more information, please visit www.metrohousingboston.org.