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OPINION

Baker should seal eviction records and give residents a second chance

Even if tenants win their cases or satisfy judgments, the records are public, permanent, and have a lasting impact on their ability to find housing and jobs.

Boston tenants, faith leaders, and small-property landlords rallied and marched in January, calling for a stronger, longer federal eviction ban as part of a National Day of Action to Prevent Evictions.
Boston tenants, faith leaders, and small-property landlords rallied and marched in January, calling for a stronger, longer federal eviction ban as part of a National Day of Action to Prevent Evictions.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

In order for people to recover from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, they will need resources and a clean slate to help address pre-pandemic inequities. When Governor Baker gutted sections of the Housing Opportunity and Mobility through Eviction Sealing Act, he denied countless Massachusetts residents a second chance. While sealing eviction records will not solve the state’s housing crisis, it would have provided a lifeline for residents as they try to put their lives back together.

We know that being a party in our judicial system can carry longstanding impacts on people’s lives, including stigma and unemployment. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” Matthew Desmond compared being evicted with being incarcerated. He wrote, “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

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The harm caused by eviction records long predates the COVID-19 pandemic. According to “Evicted for Life,” a 2019 report from the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, over 1 million eviction cases have been filed in Massachusetts courts since 1988. When records for these cases became available online in 2013, landlords began using them as an informal screening tool, something Attorney General Maura Healey warned about in a 2016 letter. Even if tenants win their cases or satisfy judgments, the records are public, permanent, and have a lasting impact on their ability to find housing and jobs. All of which goes to Desmond’s central thesis: that eviction isn’t simply the result of poverty; it causes poverty.

A January 2020 report from the ACLU found Black renters in Massachusetts are 2.4 times more likely to have an eviction case filed against them despite making up only 11 percent of the state’s renters. The report also found, “Black women are more likely to be denied housing due to prior eviction filings, even when they won.” A June 2020 report from MIT and City Life/Vida Urbana shows that 70 percent of eviction filings in Boston are in majority-minority communities, despite only half of the city’s rental housing being in those communities.

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The governor argued the scope of what he vetoed was too broad despite applying only to satisfied judgments and no-fault evictions. He said sealing eviction records containing alleged criminal activity is unfair and risky. This is false and hypocritical. First, allegations of criminal activity reported in an eviction record do not mean person committed any crime. Second, a record could be sealed only if a judgment is satisfied and after vetting by the courts. Third, Baker supported sealing actual criminal records, but finds sealing an eviction record is a step too far because it may include allegations of criminal activity? Baker is saying people should suffer lifelong stigma if they are evicted but not if they are convicted.

The governor also referenced the “significant administrative burden” of the proposal. The bill allows the courts to streamline the process by eliminating the need for a hearing. Baker is being dismissive of the everyday burdens tenants face trying to find an affordable place to live with the scarlet “E” that comes from an eviction record.

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Eviction record sealing is supported by a broad coalition that includes MLRI, Greater Boston Legal Services, the ACLU, the Greater Boston Labor Council, Boston Medical Center, Mass. Public Health Association, Mass. Smart Growth Alliance, and the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition. Town and city councils in Amherst, Boston, Chelsea, and Northampton passed resolutions in support.

Even MassLandlords, a landlord advocacy group that testified against the original bill, found the protections offered in the economic development bill to be “reasonable” and that the “the eviction sealing in [the] bill reflected significant owner input,” according to Doug Quattrochi, its executive director.

The veto could not have come at a worse time. The pandemic is killing dozens of Massachusetts residents daily. The working class is struggling the most. Nearly 36,000 Massachusetts residents filed for unemployment the week ending Jan. 8, an increase of more than 5,000 from the week before. Without paychecks to pay rent, many residents are turning to programs like Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT), which has been plagued with delays.

Since the state’s eviction moratorium ended, over 8,000 eviction cases have been filed in Massachusetts. Each will be a permanent public record. As the pandemic continues to devastate our communities and joblessness continues to climb, that number will only grow.

The governor is giving us excuses when we need leadership. I am grateful that Representative Mike Moran and Senator Joe Boncore have re-filed the HOMES Act and the leadership they’ve shown in building a coalition. Their colleagues should act swiftly and again send eviction sealing protections back to the governor for his signature. Let’s give Massachusetts residents the second chance they deserve when they need it most.

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Lydia Edwards is a Boston city councilor.