The Walsh administration is rolling out a plan to reduce evictions in Boston by at least 25 percent over the next five years, with a focus on finding and helping at-risk renters long before they lose their homes.
The plan comes as part of a new report the city released on Friday that studied eviction cases in the city’s housing court. It showed that two-thirds of evictions in Boston are of people who lived in subsidized housing, and that of those, half owed just $1,700 or less.
A team of researchers pored through three years’ worth of cases — a group that represents only a fraction of the overall displacement numbers because many evictions never get to court. They were seeking to better understand a problem that many say is pushing working-class residents out of fast-changing neighborhoods, from East Boston to Egleston Square.
They found that despite steadily rising rents in Boston, the number of evictions that go to court has stayed relatively stable. In each of the last three years, about 5,000 eviction cases have been filed in housing court, with roughly 2,000 resulting in a court-ordered eviction.
That gives Boston an eviction rate that is relatively low among large cities, according to data tracked by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab project. Just 1.3 of every 100 tenants were evicted in 2016, compared with 3.5 in Philadelphia and 5.1 in Atlanta.
Sheila Dillon, the city’s chief of housing, said that’s encouraging, but that the steady rate of eviction filings means Boston could be doing better.
“We’re not seeing the problem get worse,” said Dillon. “But what we’re doing is not moving the needle in the way that we’d like.”
Officials want to beef up programs the city and local housing nonprofits already have in place — including legal aid, affordable housing development, and outreach to both at-risk tenants and landlords so they know about anti-eviction resources. They also would like to boost funding for programs that help tenants cover back rent while they try to come to an agreement with their landlord over money owed.
While the study also found that half of residents evicted from market-rate apartments were behind by at least $4,000 — significantly more than what those living in subsidized units owed — Dillon said that even that higher amount is manageable, especially compared with the costs of eviction for both renters and landlords.
“We’re always blown away by how little back rent people owe,” she said. “We can keep people in their homes for very short sums of money.”
The city has made growing use of a state program that offers low-income families up to $4,000 a year in rental assistance to stave off homelessness, with 1,269 households in Boston tapping into it this year, up from 690 five years ago. A city program that offers up to $2,000 was used by nearly 300 families more, and Dillon said Walsh plans to seek additional funding for that in next year’s budget.
Dillon said the Walsh administration will keep pushing for state legislation that would strengthen tenant protections, including a measure that would require “just cause” to evict renters who are 75 or older, and a bill providing low-income tenants a court-appointed attorney in eviction cases.
“We really need to pass right to counsel,” Dillon said. “That would change a lot of things.”
But the plan stops short of proposing major new funding, or more aggressive tenant-protection measures such as reinstating rent control, which has been outlawed in Massachusetts since a 1994 ballot measure.
The modest approach left tenant advocates unimpressed. Lisa Owens, executive director of renters’ advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana, said such small-bore solutions won’t do much to stave off evictions.
“These are small, incremental interventions,” she said. “None of these are bad. But the scale doesn’t actually meet the level of the problem.”
Last month, City Life issued a report based on similar housing court data that showed the same broad trends, but highlighted enormous disparities in evictions by neighborhood.
Over three years, it found, one in 10 private-market apartments in Roxbury had an eviction filing. In Beacon Hill, that number was one in 100.
“Evictions are increasing in Boston’s poorest neighborhoods,” Owens said. “Without regulation we are not going to address this problem.”
But that type of regulation appears to be a long way off. Bills that would allow cities and towns to enact rent control are stalled in the Legislature, and Governor Charlie Baker has signaled he’s opposed to such measures. Advocates are more optimistic about the “right to counsel” bill, though, that too remains in committee.
Meanwhile, the advocates say, the region’s housing crisis grinds on, with lower-income renters being pushed out of neighborhoods all over the Boston area, whether they’re legally evicted or simply leave in the face of steep rent hikes. Anything the Walsh administration can do to combat that is a step in the right direction, said Mac McCreight, who leads the housing unit at the nonprofit Greater Boston Legal Services.
“Everything, working together, will help,” he said. “There’s just this huge wave of evictions. You have to figure out what you can take on.”