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Massachusetts must level the playing field to halt evictions

When 93 percent of tenants go into court without lawyers, a broken system demands a fix.

Ronel Remy, a City Life Organizer, stands on the front steps of the State House holding a "no evictions" sign in hand on July 30. As federal COVID-19 eviction and foreclosure moratoriums expire, renters need assistance with legal advice.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Even in the “before time” — before COVID-19 cost lives and livelihoods — those living at poverty’s edge, those struggling and sometimes failing to pay the rent, faced an uneven battle to keep the roof over their heads — to fight eviction.

The pandemic has exacerbated that problem. Thousands who had lost their jobs were faced with losing their homes as well — a process delayed by both federal and state eviction moratoriums for a time and even by the virtual shutdown of the state’s courts for all but emergency matters.

But today, as life begins to return to normal, courts have reopened, and long-delayed bills — including rent bills — are coming due. Moratoriums were always a temporary solution, and the federal moratorium expired Saturday. Helping renters access both the programs that can help them pay those overdue rent bills and the legal advice needed to level the playing field if they do end up in court are the real answers to an admittedly longstanding problem.

Sure there is a veritable alphabet soup of advocacy groups pitching in to help tenants access programs that can help them pay the rent. But something is just not working when fewer than half of applications (48 percent) get approved, according to data supplied by the state Department of Housing and Community Development to State House News Service.


About 80 percent of those 18,000 applications (there is one application for several different assistance programs) submitted between the end of May and mid-July were incomplete when originally submitted, the department found.

So there is a strong case to be made for more assistance — by advocates, housing specialists, and legal aid lawyers at the front end of the process.

But a growing problem is what happens at the back end — when that eviction notice comes with a court date — especially for those who don’t have and can’t afford a lawyer to fight their cases.


Two years ago, then-Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston went to Beacon Hill to plead the case for mandating court-appointed attorneys for low-income tenants facing eviction. He told the Judiciary Committee that the cost of the program would be partially offset by keeping tenants out of emergency housing and shelters. Some 15 percent to 20 percent of those evicted end up in some kind of emergency housing, Walsh testified.

That bill would have taken a go-slow approach — with a task force and then a two-year implementation period. Today, there is no time to wait.

Data collected by the Massachusetts court system show that of the more than 20,000 new eviction cases filed between January 2020 and this week, some 93 percent of all defendants were not represented by lawyers, compared to 15.4 percent of landlords.

Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s announcement Monday reminding tenants facing eviction of the city’s partnership with Greater Boston Legal Services is helpful, but not a long-term solution.

A bill filed by state Representatives Erika Uyterhoeven and Liz Malia aims for a permanent fix to the obvious power imbalance in housing disputes. It would require the state to make free or low-cost legal counsel available to anyone faced with eviction.

“It’s critical to provide this service to everyone,” Uyterhoeven said in an interview, “to ensure legal representation on both sides.”


And while she acknowledged that lawyers now working in the field are already facing “burnout,” she added, “longer-term, if we commit hard resources (to the housing field), it will attract talent in that area.”

The bill, which gets a hearing Tuesday before the Judiciary Committee, would set up a seven-member Civil Justice Committee within but “not under the control of” the state Office of Housing and Economic Development to administer the program. The members would be appointed by the governor from the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, and the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

It would, of course, last long after this dreadful pandemic has stopped playing havoc with people’s lives and the state’s economy.

The sad fact is that the housing crisis isn’t abating any time soon and, as long as it exists, evictions will remain a part of the legal landscape. So too will the need to keep families in real housing and out of emergency shelters. Helping accomplish that is at the heart of what it means to be a community.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.