ACCESS TO STABLE HOUSING is critical for economic security. With the very high cost of living in Massachusetts, finding housing is a challenge for everyone, particularly for low income people and working families in the state. But imagine how much more difficult that would be if misleading information about an eviction was available to landlords, property management companies, and tenant-screening companies at just the click of a button.
That’s the situation that tens of thousands of people across Massachusetts are facing, and it’s exacerbating an already acute housing crisis. In 2013, the Massachusetts Trial Courts made eviction court case information publicly available online at MassCourts.org in an effort to automate the court’s case management system. At least 1 million eviction cases have been filed statewide since 1998 and eviction court records remain permanently available, regardless of the case’s outcome.
The problem is that these records, which include misleading, incorrect, and outdated information, are creating devastating barriers for many tenants seeking housing. A recent report by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, “Evicted For Life,” details the damage caused by eviction court records – particularly to women, people of color, and low-income renters as well as to children who are named on their parents’ eviction complaints.
It’s important to remember that the MassCourts.org database was designed as a better case management system for parties, their attorneys, and the court – not a tenant-screening service for landlords. Riddled with errors, including – most egregiously – the misclassification of some evictions as “cause” when in reality the individuals were evicted for “no cause,” MassCourts is an unreliable indicator of whether someone will be a good tenant. For instance, people are evicted because, through no fault of their own, the lease has ended, an owner wants to sell the property, or a new owner wants to renovate an apartment. That’s a “no cause” eviction and the people who experience it shouldn’t be further punished by making it impossible for them to find new homes.
Furthermore, this publicly available information is misleading because the final outcome is often difficult to find and impossible to interpret because it is written in legal shorthand. A tenant may have paid off a judgment in full, but that is rarely reflected in the online record. A case can be dismissed with no finding, but its mere presence in the database makes it looks like the tenant did something wrong. Mistaken identity can easily occur. Cases may appear in a search that are decades old. More importantly, MassCourts does not tell the complete story of a tenancy.
The consequences of information being used in this way are real and can be devastating. Tenants are repeatedly rejected by owners merely because cases have been filed against them, regardless of their outcome. They are unable to find housing in time and have lost housing vouchers as a result. Many have become homeless for long periods of time. None of this helps to create stable communities and it puts even more strain on a housing market and shelter system stretched to their limits.
Fortunately, there are solutions. There is no reason for the Commonwealth to treat all eviction cases equally. We can instead be guided by the reason and outcome of an eviction case when deciding to make such information public. The court should seal eviction cases where the landlord is not alleging any wrongdoing; a judgment or agreement is satisfied; or the tenant files to enforce her rights, such as trying to get repairs made. Furthermore, there should be a time limit on these records’ availability– they should be sealed after three years. Finally, we can and should make it illegal for a tenant screening company to report on, or a landlord to use, a sealed court record.
Right now, thanks to the leadership of Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop and Rep. Michael Moran of Brighton, two identical bills pending at the State House would clarify procedures for sealing eviction records and follow many of these recommendations. The bills are Senate 824 and House 3566.
It is of course understandable that landlords want to manage their risk when it comes to renting. But this situation exemplifies the kind of administrative barriers that keep working families and people living in poverty vulnerable, and stuck in a cycle of housing insecurity and economic instability. A few simple fixes can ensure that these individuals and families are protected from unfair inquiry. We should make sure those fixes happen and pass the legislation.
Annette Duke and Andrea Park are staff attorneys at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.