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‘I’m at my wit’s end’: Welcome to the underbelly of the region’s housing crisis

Frances Louis of Roxbury (center) talked with members of City Life Vida Urbana after her case was rescheduled to a new date at the Eastern Housing Court.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

It is morning in Eastern Housing Court, and Frances Louis is seated on a bench in the gallery of a courtroom, waiting for her case to be called.

Outwardly, she appears calm, given the gravity of the case, but later she will admit to having “a headache that won’t quit.” Her landlord is trying to evict her from her Roxbury home of 12 years, where she lives with her parents, both in their 70s, and three adult children.

Her landlord, whose representatives did not respond to the Globe’s requests for comment, wants to more than double the current rent for the unit. A lifelong Bostonian, the 54-year-old does not want to move out of the city, and the apartment’s location is convenient for her family’s many medical needs.

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Perhaps most importantly to her, it is home. She said she met with the landlord years ago, when he bought the property with her family already living there, at a Chinese restaurant in Brookline, and told him, “I’m not moving anywhere.”

Now, that proclamation is being put to the test in a very tangible way.

The state’s COVID-19-related eviction and foreclosure moratorium is long over, having expired in October 2020. And, at the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse in Boston’s West End, the end game of the region’s housing crisis grinds on. This is where the numbers that define that crisis — inflation, rising rents and property values, the scarcity of affordable housing units — become painful reality.

The stakes may be high, but the setting is banal. Save for a single portrait of a judge, the white walls of the courtroom are bare. Tenants facing eviction stare straight ahead and clutch court documents that are rolled up in their fists, or kill time on their phones. One woman rustles through a newspaper.

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Louis has several supporters who are there to back her in her eviction battle. They are in neon shirts with a message emblazoned on them: “We shall not be moved.” A court officer asks them to turn the shirts inside out before the proceedings start.

After a few cases, Louis’s name is called. Using her walker, Louis approaches the attorney tables, flanked by several relatives and her attorneys.

The landlord wants to increase the rent for her three-bedroom on Cobden Street from $1,685 to $3,550, something Louis, who is on disability with congestive heart failure, cannot afford. She can’t find an apartment that’s suitable for everyone in the house, despite her ongoing search. Her mother is 76, blind in one eye, with other medical complications. Her father is 77 and has stage 4 prostate cancer that has spread to his colon and spine. He’s supposed to start radiation this month. Their current home, Louis said, is relatively close to everyone’s doctor’s offices. She worries about how she will care for her parents if she’s forced to move to an unfamiliar neighborhood.

One of her attorneys argues to the judge that she could qualify for a Section 8 voucher that would make the higher rent doable, but it’s unclear when she would receive a definitive answer from the Boston Housing Authority.

“We need affordable housing that they say is there, but it’s not,” Louis says later. She believes her landlords want to sell the unit. “They’ve wanted us out for years.”

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Here, in housing court, the tangle of people’s lives unspools everyday. Some tenants detail deeply personal travails that have brought them here to the brink of eviction. Divorces, sibling frictions, domestic violence allegations, ill health, lost jobs, accusations of mice infestations, moldy bathrooms, busted stairway railings — all are laid bare before judges.

Over eight hours at court, a handful of tenants will say that they are trying to move out, find a new place, but haven’t had any luck. Sometimes there are health problems at play or relatives to account for; others say their search is made harder by eviction proceedings on their record. Some have a simple explanation: They cannot afford rent in Boston, which a recent report found is the second most expensive rental market in the country, behind only New York City.

Louis’s family is required to perform 10 apartment searches per week and submit evidence of their search to the court to prove they are looking for somewhere else, she says.

“To look at what these people are charging in the city, it’s ridiculous,” she said after the hearing.

Irritated tenants and irritated landlords wrangle over things large and small. Whether a leaky kitchen sink was properly fixed, and whose fault it was that it broke in the first place. The amount of alleged owed back-rent varies. On this day, one Cambridge woman is alleged to owe her landlord $46,000.

In court, tensions are high. Working class people are trying to hang onto their homes, landlords are trying to get what they say they’re due.

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“Just stay with me.” Judge Joseph Kelleher III, seated in a courtroom on the fifth floor of the courthouse, repeats this like a mantra trying to get the pro se parties — that is, people who are not lawyers who are representing themselves — to focus on the issue at hand. Time and again, he and the other judges must rein tenants and landlords from returning to grievances that are not pertinent to whatever motion, court filing, or deadline that is before the court.

Criminal court proceedings where the defendant faces possible prison time guarantees the right to a defense lawyer, but there is no such safety net for housing court. This means that many tenants who can’t afford a lawyer are battling potential eviction by taking it upon themselves to duel with polished attorneys representing landlords. The tenants often struggle to navigate the complexities of housing law and courtroom procedure. Louis is one of the lucky ones. She has legal representation: Zoe Cronin from Greater Boston Legal Services.

Many tenants are not so fortunate.

As of the end of October, there were 15,556 residential eviction cases brought this year in Massachusetts for non-payment of rent. Those cases include 21,629 defendants, the vast, vast majority of whom are defending themselves without a hired attorney. (Nearly 97 percent are pro se.) By contrast, only about 12 percent of landlords who bring forward eviction cases do so without a lawyer to represent them, according to statistics from the Massachusetts Trial Court.

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Volunteer lawyers help both pro se tenants and landlords craft motions or offer representation during a mediation session, and, in some cases they offer full representation. The “lawyer for a day” program sets up shop outside a bank of courtrooms on the fifth floor. Many tenants, said Rochelle Jones, the housing and appeals staff attorney for the Volunteer Lawyers Project, struggle to articulate and defend themselves, to explain to the court what is happening in their living situation.

“The legal system is complicated, it’s complex,” she said.

For Pattie Whiting, a senior clinical instructor at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, those pro se numbers show that the “system is fundamentally unfair.” It isn’t so much broken as it is working exactly the way it’s designed, said Whiting. Housing court does not receive enough funding, and there aren’t enough judges or housing specialists, she said.

Even the lawyer for the day program, while beneficial to tenants, shows that “the legal service community had to step forward and volunteer their time and otherwise find resources to even things out, to make things a little fairer.”

“The court system and the state — nobody seems interested in doing that,” she said.

Meanwhile, the eviction proceedings plod on.

Dwayne Murray moved in with his 89-year-old grandmother, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, to care for her, but she is facing eviction and is supposed to move out of her home. Murray maintains that his grandmother was swindled out of the house on Mascot Street in Dorchester, where she has lived for 50 years and owned for decades, but no longer does. He has a walking boot on and appears fed up with the entire ordeal.

“I don’t owe these people money. . . . I shouldn’t be here,” said Murray of the landlords in the case.

The judge points out that Murray agreed to move his grandmother out at the end of last year. “I’m trying,” Murray responds. After the hearing, Murray says that many apartments he’s looking at are simply too expensive.

“I’m at my wit’s end,” he said after the hearing.

Jaharrie Wright, meanwhile, receives a rent subsidy and pays $266 a month to live on Norfolk Street in Mattapan. She is here fighting her eviction, saying her landlord, who lives upstairs from her, wants her out because her three children, ages 6, 9, and, 11, are too loud.

According to court filings in the case, Wright asserts the landlord did not terminate her tenancy properly, and retaliated against her for reporting the apartment’s poor conditions.

Wright has health problems; she had a stroke, has heart issues and seizures, and has trouble walking. “I don’t want to move,” she said after the hearing, for which the landlord failed to show up.

In another courtroom, Jianghe Niu, a landlord, is frustrated. She is representing herself and keeps hammering home that the tenants in question failed to pay rent for three years. The attorney for the tenants points out that Niu has failed to answer written questions from the tenant about the conditions of the apartment and when she was made aware of problems with the unit. Niu is adamant that tenants made complaints to city inspectors only after they were asked to leave.

“Three years, so much trouble,” she said.

But the judge agrees with the tenants that she has not properly addressed some outstanding inquiries.

Meanwhile, Louis’s hearing is continued to another day. The judge’s docket is full and there is no time to hear all the witness testimony regarding the matter. The uncertainty continues. She’s tried to cope by increasing her dosage of anti-depressant medication.

“It’s depressing,” she said of her housing situation.

She added, “If we can stay here, that’d be nice.”


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him @Danny__McDonald.