Statewide expansion of Housing Court a victory for the commonwealth

Issue September/October 2017 By Mike Vigneux

The Massachusetts Housing Court will be expanded to serve the entire commonwealth, according to a provision contained in the FY18 state budget signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker in July. The statewide expansion of the Housing Court fulfills a long-standing position of the Massachusetts Bar Association, which has constantly advocated for expansion and increased funding for several years.

The provision will now initiate a statewide expansion of the court to serve approximately two million citizens in Barnstable, Middlesex, Norfolk, Suffolk, Dukes and Nantucket counties, who previously had no access to Housing Court. That population amounts to 84 communities or 31 percent of the state, which lacked Housing Court coverage. In jurisdictions without a Housing Court, disputes were previously taken to District Court, where they were mixed in with all other civil cases.

"It makes sense from an access-to-justice standpoint given our expertise in this area to make the services of the Housing Court available to those 84 communities and approximately two million citizens who up until this point and time did not have access," said Housing Court Chief Justice Timothy F. Sullivan.

The court previously operated five separate divisions across the state. A sixth division, the Metro South Division, has been added as of July 1; it will be eventually centered in Brockton. While the court does not have a physical presence in that jurisdiction yet, four out of the five original divisions are currently taking filings generated in the new division. Five new judges will also be added to facilitate statewide coverage - two in the Metro South Division, one in the Northeast Division and two as circuit judges.

The Housing Court is a specialty court that provides a legal venue for both landlords and tenants to handle housing disputes and other housing related matters. Providing judges with expertise in complicated local, state and federal housing laws, the court has been described as efficient and user-friendly, and helps reduce homelessness and increase public safety. In each of the last two fiscal years, the Housing Court handled more than 40,000 case filings with 118 total employees.

"As the statewide bar association, we are proud to have played a key role in the effort to make Housing Court an accessible reality for all residents of the commonwealth," said Martin W. Healy, MBA chief legal counsel and chief operating officer. "We will continue to work very closely with both the bench and bar to ensure a smooth transition of Housing Court expansion across the state."

The FY18 state budget provides an allocation of $750,000 for the initial phase of the expansion.

"We are enormously grateful to the Legislature, both the House and the Senate and the administration, for the great confidence that they've shown in our ability to absorb these 84 communities and two million citizens," said Sullivan. "We also understand we have a heavy responsibility to live up to the confidence that's been shown in us."

MBA Immediate Past President Jeffrey N. Catalano, who made expansion of the Housing Court one of his top legislative priorities, added: "This expansion of the Housing Courts to the rest of the commonwealth represents a monumental achievement by dedicated advocates, judges, legislators and the governor. We will now have more judges and courts to ensure a fair process for tenants and landlords and to protect many citizens' fundamental need for shelter."

Earlier this year, Catalano had the opportunity to attend Housing Court in both Boston and Springfield and described his experience in the March/April issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Journal His overall takeaway: everyone benefits from Housing Court.

"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," wrote Catalano in his President's View column.

The Housing Court is working with all other court departments to secure space in existing courthouses to fulfill the statewide expansion effort. No capital expenditures are expected to be made to build additional space.

To address how and when expansion will happen, the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute will host a series of community meetings with Chief Justice Sullivan. The meetings will take place in Chelsea (September 11, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.), Malden (September 18, 8:30-11 a.m.), Framingham (September 20, 5:30-7:30 p.m.), Barnstable (September 21, 9-11 a.m.), and Brockton (September 25, 5:30-7:30 p.m.).