Office of Housing Stability stakes out anti-displacement post

The only designated department of its kind in the country, Boston’s new Office of Housing Stability is carving out its role as a force for fighting displacement under new Deputy Director Lydia Edwards.

Edwards, an East Boston resident with a background in advocacy law, has headed the small office for over a month. They are still staffing up, Edwards said in an interview with the Reporter, and working to define the office’s mission.

“We really have felt that we’re the anti-displacement office,” Edwards said, “ and we didn’t want people to confuse that with being anti-gentrification, or anti-development, or anti-landlord or anything else.”

The distinction is relevant because of the myriad ways displacement can occur, whether due to fire or other natural disaster, building condemnation, and evictions, along with the impacts of gentrification.

For an office of a half-dozen people, the flow of cases ranges from 200 to 300 on a monthly basis.

Three staffers are designated housing coordinators, two deal with policy concerns or handle eviction proceedings, and Edwards hopes to bring in an intern to be a presence in following up with cases and monitoring cases that go to housing court.

Mayor Martin Walsh proposed the Office of Housing Stability (OHS) in his 2016 State of the City address, tasking it with “develop[ing] resources for tenants, incentives for landlords who do the right thing, and partnerships with developers to keep more of our housing stock affordable.” About $1.6 million is budgeted for the office.

Bostons housing chief, Sheila Dillon, said in April that the funding would include the new deputy director position, along with tech support and the creation of a fluid case management system.

Edwards said a handful of initiatives are already being eyed to streamline the work that had until recently been scattered across a number of city departments. Metrolist, a database of all affordable housing units in the city, is now managed by OHS.

The office is evaluating existing protocols for displacement across various circumstances. For people who have been displaced due to a fire, Edwards said, “There’s a real clear set of resources, a natural rhythm, and the question is: is it as efficient as possible?”

A department-specific app is planned to make sure tenants can easily determine their rights if displaced. In cases of fire, tenants are often unaware that they have access to a landlord’s insurance policy, a $750 payment, a refund of the last month’s rent or security deposit, or other entitlements. “So that’s thousands of dollars already on the table that most people walk away from having no idea that they have those rights,” Edwards said.

Edwards comes to the role from Greater Boston Legal Services, where she observed a “rights knowledge gap” for those who receive an eviction notice.

“What I’ve learned is about 80 percent of evictions never go to court,” Edwards said. “They’re still leaving, because they get a piece of paper, and without any question… people take that as “I’ve gotta go,” and they’re gone before they even think to negotiate. They’re gone before they even know about their rights.”

By making sure OHS gets all Notices to Quit, they can get involved early enough to ensure that residents are not being forced out of their homes ignorant of their right to stay put until ordered by a court.

Edwards said night clinics are in the pipeline for tenants working normal 9-to-5 jobs who could only get assistance after hours. The office is also working on mapping out displacement clouds in the city to help them identify areas on the verge of potential upheaval.

OHS can also offer training for landlords, bringing them to the table in housing discussions to try to negotiate the best terms for them and their tenants. “We all want the same thing, which is tenants that can pay rent,” Edwards said.

OHS sees residents across all demographics, but the most common signifier is income, Edwards said. “Folks who are too high income for vouchers or for public housing, right, so they can’t get that help, but [they] cannot afford a $200 increase in [their] rent and [they] can’t afford it.”

She often sees female heads of household with kids and traditional family units where one head of household has lost an income, along with seniors and some immigrants.

“I would say someone’s faced a shock in life,” Edwards said. “Job loss, death, divorce… and they come saying, “It’s just not where I intended to be. We were making it, and now I can’t afford it and the rents continue to go up.””

Though still in its infancy, OHS is already trying to solidify relationships with housing resources, landlords, tenant advocacy groups, and City of Boston residents themselves. Drawing on programs from other states and refining their ability to detect displacement bellwethers should mean residents would be well served to resist displacement long before a house bursts into flame or they find eviction notices on their doors.

“An informed tenant,” Edwards said, “a truly informed and empowered tenant, can negotiate the best way in which they’re going to live in or leave that building.”