THE ECONOMIC IMPACT of the coronavirus has hurt a lot of people, but few have been hit harder than low-income renters and communities of color. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimates that 61,000 households statewide don’t have enough money to pay their rent since the end of the extra unemployment benefit. In Boston, we project more than 15,000 households will have a hard time making rent.
Both the state and federal eviction moratoriums are important tools to keep families secure in the short term, but tenants who lost income will still owe rent. Once the moratoriums end, we expect a surge in eviction proceedings that will be devastating to families, neighborhoods, and our ability to contain COVID-19.
We must take action.
The pace of economic recovery and the prospect of more federal relief are uncertain. But there’s one concrete step that we could take here in the Commonwealth that would make a real difference: provide tenants with legal counsel in eviction proceedings.
Susan Finegan, co-chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Coalition, and Lynn Parker, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, says a civil legal crisis is coming. To read more, click here.
The moral case is clear: it’s equal access to justice. We guarantee defendants in criminal cases free legal representation if they can’t afford a lawyer. It’s a fundamental right, because someone’s future is at stake. Shouldn’t people facing evictions in civil proceedings be afforded the same right?
Think about the trauma of being put out of your home by a court order. Families often become homeless after an eviction, severing their access to schools, health care, and food. Even if they get back on their feet, the legal, financial, and employment repercussions can follow them for the rest of their lives. Eviction was once seen as an outcome of poverty, but research now shows that evictions also cause poverty, trapping families in cycles of housing instability and financial chaos. They are an insidious aspect of systemic racism, harming Black and Latino people, especially women and children, at much higher rates.
And yet, the most vulnerable families routinely face these complex legal proceedings without representation. In Massachusetts, landlords have counsel in 78 percent of eviction cases, while tenants are represented in just 9 percent. That means more than 9 out of 10 tenants facing eviction do not have a lawyer for one of the most serious and damaging legal situations they will ever face. That’s not right.
We’ve worked hard in Boston to reduce our eviction rate to one of the lowest among American cities. We created an Office of Housing Stability to help tenants learn their rights and stay in their homes. This year alone, we’ve placed hundreds of people in permanent, affordable housing, including a special program for families of Boston Public School students. We were one of the first cities to establish our own rental relief fund, and we’ve extended the eviction moratorium at Boston Housing Authority properties until December 31, to protect our lowest income residents.
We’ve also spent two years working with our partners in the Legislature, including Sen. Sal DiDomenico and Rep. Chynah Tyler, on a statewide right to counsel law.
Now, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis presents a new level of danger. The economic fallout is threatening to spike housing instability, which could worsen the outbreak as more people seek shelter or crowd into apartments. Black and Latino families have already been hit the hardest by COVID-19, and they will be the most affected by evictions. The situation demands an urgent and targeted response.
That’s why concerned communities, including 22 mayors, have come together with legislators around a new plan. The Massachusetts Right to Counsel Coalition is asking the state to dedicate $6 million from federal CARES Act funds to establish a right-to-counsel pilot program for low-income tenants and homeowners in eviction proceedings.
This is not about stacking the deck against landlords, it’s about leveling the playing field. Evidence from other cities shows that providing tenants with representation not only keeps more people in their homes, it gets better results for both tenants and landlords. Counsel can help negotiate mutually beneficial outcomes, such as a realistic payment plan or time to find alternative housing.
It would also save the state money. A report by the Boston Bar Association found that providing legal representation in eviction proceedings pays for itself more than twice over, in savings on the shelter, health care, and foster care costs associated with homelessness.
We are facing multiple crises: a health crisis in COVID-19, the resulting economic crisis, and a crisis of systemic racism that’s existed for far too long. Giving low-income renters a fair chance in eviction proceedings helps on all three fronts.
By piloting a right to counsel at this pivotal moment, we can start to make good on our goal of building a new normal that’s better than before. This is an opportunity to provide Massachusetts families with help they desperately need, and I urge our state lawmakers to make it happen.
Martin J. Walsh is mayor of Boston.