I was recently invited to attend Housing Court in Boston by
Chief Justice Tim Sullivan and in Springfield by Judge Dina Fein. I
wanted to learn firsthand how Housing Court works and its
importance to the populations it serves. My main takeaway: Everyone
benefits from these courts.
In general, these courts, their judges and their staff serve
vital roles in providing tenants with a fair and efficient process,
while also enabling landlords to maintain viable rental income.
Through code enforcements and receiverships, they also revitalize
properties and thereby increase tax revenues to municipalities.
In Boston, the morning started with the clerk calling out the
cases to a large mass of nervous looking tenants, most of whom were
unrepresented. So much is at stake for these people if they are
evicted. Boston in the middle of winter does not provide many
affordable housing opportunities. The landlords also have a lot to
lose since the rent pays their mortgages and taxes.
Imagine the courtroom as a MASH unit where folks are rapidly
triaged to either mediation or the judge. Most people choose
mediation, but leave looking anxious and confused. Fortunately,
outside the courtroom, there are friendly volunteer attorneys and
law students from the Boston Bar Association's Lawyer for the Day
program ready to help both parties with any questions.
In Boston, I sat in on mediation with a housing specialist. She
assisted an unrepresented tenant and landlord. The tenant, a
Jamaican woman, was being confronted with the heartbreaking reality
that a better life for herself and her son in America has
dissipated. Through tears, she said she lost her job and was
ashamed of not being able to pay her rent for a few months to
someone whom she considered a "good landlord." However, she found
another job and now had money to pay the back and future rent to
keep the tenancy.
To my surprise and initial dismay, the landlord rejected that
proposal. Yet, the landlord's situation was also sympathetic. An
immigrant himself, he needs timely rent to pay the mortgage and his
taxes that have increased each year. He did not raise her rent for
five years and realized that for him to pursue his own American
dream, he must do so. (I suspected that he knew she would not be
able to pay increased rent.) He was willing to let her keep the
money for back rent for security for another apartment, but wanted
her out in two weeks.
So, she and her son were confronted with a Hobson's choice of
either trying to find another decent apartment for the same price
in a very short time, or going back to Jamaica and conceding that
10 years in the U.S. amounted to a failed venture.
Here I studied the skillfulness of the housing specialist. She
listened carefully and calmly. She got them to get beyond
unreasonable positions in an effectively short amount of time. She
was compassionate and, in the face of a tenant who felt fatalistic,
sagely interjected some encouraging words. Both sides achieved an
efficient solution where the landlord left with the cash for back
rent due, while giving her more time to find another place.
I next went to Western Housing Court in Springfield and observed
Judge Fein handle a code enforcement case where the city was
frustrated with the landlord's failure to make various improvements
on his rental property. She also adjudicated over a gut-wrenching
case where one sister needed to evict another sister with
psychiatric problems. In both cases, she worked out an amicable
arrangement, patiently listening to each side before rendering a
firm decision that worked to the benefit of everyone. In chambers,
she also proudly showed me a map of the numerous properties
throughout the area that have been rehabilitated through
receiverships, creating major tax revenue for these cities.
In conclusion, my experience confirmed that the Housing Court
should be expanded to the entire state. Currently, 31 percent of
the population, many living in parts of Suffolk, Middlesex and
Norfolk counties, do not have access to them. There is an abundance
of indisputable facts that confirm that the Housing Court has
proven to be very successful and profitable. Although there is a
widespread perception that these courts serve primarily tenants, I
was also pleased to learn that many landlords support these courts
because they are fair and efficient, and offer them volunteer
assistance in completing eviction forms.
Perhaps most importantly, the Housing Court is one realistic
measure of addressing the affordable housing crisis in
Massachusetts. The extreme lack of affordable housing means
preserving tenancies is critical. Sadly, we have many needs in this
commonwealth. However, ensuring decent shelter for everyone, many
of whom help us lawyers get through our busy days in invisible
ways, must be at the top.