As many area families struggle with the high cost of housing, Somerville has taken a new step to stem the tide of evictions.
Under a city ordinance that took effect Dec. 26, when landlords serve an eviction notice they must include information sheets prepared by the city that inform the tenants of their legal rights and available resources to help them avoid displacement.
The information includes the right to file an answer to an eviction complaint filed in court. The resource document lists organizations that assist with paying back rent, moving expenses, pre-court advocacy, and legal counsel.
“State statistics show that under 8 percent of tenants are represented in eviction cases, compared with 70 percent of landlords,” said Ellen Shachter, director of the city’s Office of Housing Stability. “This is really just a way of reaching tenants at a critical juncture so they can explore their options.”
Shachter said in her previous work as an attorney representing tenants in eviction cases, she saw countless instances in which “parents and children ended up homeless when with earlier intervention that wouldn’t have happened.”
The requirements of the Housing Stability Notification Act, which the City Council unanimously adopted in September, also apply to banks or others who have purchased foreclosed properties and seek to evict the former owner.
Somerville is the only municipality in Massachusetts to require the tenant notification, according to Shachter.
“This new act seeks to ensure any resident facing eviction has access to every tool and support available to them,” Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone said in a statement.
The city’s Inspectional Services office will enforce the ordinance based on tenant complaints. Landlords who violate the ordinance will receive a warning for their first violation and can then be fined $300 for each subsequent violation.
“Our goal is not to fine people but to make sure landlords understand their obligations,” Schacter said.
“I see it as a win-win for landlords and for tenants,” she said, because it enables her office and local nonprofits to better help tenants resolve the issues that led to their eviction notices, thus avoiding further court action.
In fiscal 2019 alone, about 289 eviction actions were filed in court against Somerville tenants, which Shachter noted does not take into account potential evictions avoided by tenant relocation or intervention from the city or agencies.
Soaring rents and an undersupply of affordable housing are the key factors behind the evictions, according to Shachter. Citing Metropolitan Area Planning Council data, she said the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Somerville last fall was $2,612.
The number of evictions filed in court actually fell from an estimated 400 in fiscal 2017. But Shachter said housing instability remains acute in Somerville, noting that since her office was established a year ago, it has received nearly 500 requests for assistance, most from families in urgent need of affordable housing or facing eviction.
David Gibbs, executive director of the Community Action Agency of Somerville, said the new ordinance builds on other ongoing efforts by the city to “stem the housing crisis caused by rapidly increasing rents and gentrification across the city.”
Gibbs said his anti-poverty agency regularly works with city residents facing eviction, many of them elderly, disabled, or with limited English skills.
“Anything that can increase the likelihood that they are going to know their rights and know where to get help is really just leveling the playing field,” he said. “And this is done efficiently. The landlord already knows the tenants and this is just a straightforward way to get the information into their hands.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.