Legal project scaling up to help prevent evictions

Boston Statehouse

Yellow facial mask laying on top of the eviction note

BOSTON (SHNS) – A legal assistance program started by the Baker administration as a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures was set to end is looking to ramp up services and bring on a host of new attorneys as eviction cases for failure to pay rent are on the rise in the state.

The program, run by a group of regional legal aid organizations, provides assistance to both tenants and landlords facing pandemic-related eviction issues. Since the week beginning on Nov. 2 through the week starting on Dec. 14, over 4,000 new residential eviction cases for non-payment of rent have been filed in the Massachusetts Trial Court, according to court data.

The COVID Eviction Legal Help Program is recruiting pro-bono attorneys who will provide assistance to income-eligible tenants and landlords, Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation Executive Director Lynne Parker said at a virtual legislative briefing. The program has scaled up over the last month and is looking to bring on 48 new lawyers, 24 senior lawyers, 17 intake workers to take on increased call loads, and coordinate new paralegals.

For a person to be eligible for the project, they must fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, said Annette Duke, an attorney at Mass. Law Reform Institute. For example, for a family of four that would be approximately $32,750 a year.

“The eviction has to be related to COVID but that is very broadly defined and we’ve worked that out with DHCD,” Duke said during the briefing. “For example, if someone is afraid that they’re going to be facing homelessness, and be exposed to COVID, that is a COVID-related eviction.”

The project was formed as a part of the Baker administration’s “Eviction Diversion Initiative” to support tenants and landlords facing financial challenges as a result of the pandemic. Gov. Charlie Baker announced the initiative on Oct. 13 as a response to the expiration of a statewide eviction moratorium on Oct. 17.

The diversion initiative provided $100 million to expand the capacity of the Residential Assistance for Families in the Transition Program, $48.7 million for rehousing programs, and $12.3 million to provide tenants and landlords with access to legal services.

The Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development funds the COVID Eviction Legal Help Project with help from about $8.6 million from the federal CARES Act. The program officially started on Oct. 16 when DHCD reached out to Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation to help scale up a coordinated statewide legal services delivery system.

The Baker administration has come under some criticism for not extending a COVID-19 eviction and foreclosure moratorium. However, the Democrat-controlled Legislature opted against intervening, a sign that lawmakers were ready to see how investments in preventing evictions played out.

The COVID Eviction Legal Help Project plans to provide tenants with referrals, legal information, and representation “at all stages of the eviction,” Duke said.

“The earlier we can get involved, the better we can help try and solve this and prevent someone from becoming homeless,” Duke said. “The central goal of CELHP is to achieve housing stability, broadly defined, we want to preserve the tenancy, we want to preserve a housing subsidy because if someone loses their section eight, or public housing, they may never see it in their lifetime again.”

CELHP also represents income-eligible owner-occupants of two- and three-family homes. Volunteer Lawyers Project Executive Director Joanna Allison said many owner-occupied landlords do not have the wherewithal or finances to get a lawyer.

“We believe that being able to provide them with an attorney not only helps them to exercise their own rights, but also will make this process smoother and be much more likely to end in an agreement that results in the landlord getting RAFT funds … and in the tenant being able to maintain the tenancy,” Allison said during the briefing.

Rep. Kevin Honan, co-chair of the Committee on Housing, said his office has received an increased number of calls from constituents looking for housing-related information.

“There was a housing crisis before the pandemic crisis,” he said at the outset of the briefing. “We’ve got our hands full here and the COVID Eviction Legal Help Project is a wonderful resource for both tenants and for small property owners.”

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