Walsh wants more protections against low-income evictions

Mayor Martin Walsh testified before a Legislative committee last Tuesday (July 16) in favor of a bill filed on his behalf that would help low-income tenants facing eviction get court-appointed legal counsel. Simon Rios WBUR photo

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh returned to Beacon Hill last Tuesday to testify before one of his former committees on a bill that would direct the state to provide low-income tenants who are facing eviction with a court-appointed attorney for the eviction proceedings.

Walsh’s support for the bill (H 3456/S 913) filed by Rep. Chynah Tyler of Boston and Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Everett is part of his “housing security and economic mobility” package of more than a dozen bills he had filed or supported before the Legislature this session.

That package also includes legislation allowing the city to formalize programs that generate affordable housing or funding toward affordable housing from commercial or residential developments, and providing some tenant associations with the right of first refusal to purchase residential rental properties at fair market value.

“These bills rank among the highest priorities for the city of Boston this legislative session. They advance our commitment to being a city where everyone has access to a stable and secure home regardless of income, age, or family situation,” Walsh said in his testimony before the Committee on the Judiciary. “They reflect our belief that a successful city must be a caring community, where nobody is left behind or forced to leave.”

Walsh said there were more than 37,000 eviction filings resulting in 15,708 evictions in Massachusetts in 2016. Landlords were represented by counsel in 58 percent of cases while tenants were represented by an attorney in 8 percent of cases. The Tyler/DiDomenico bill would provide any low-income tenant facing eviction with a court-appointed attorney from the Committee for Public Counsel Services for representation.

“We have a big displacement crisis in the city of Boston and evictions are a large part of that,” Tyler, who represents parts of Roxbury, Longwood, and the Fenway, said. “My district has been hit the hardest by this problem and it will continue to get worse without some type of intervention. Expanding access to legal services in eviction proceedings is a necessary tool we need in order to prevent the negative effects of this crisis including homelessness.”

Walsh told the committee that the cost of providing counsel for eviction proceedings would be “at least partially offset” by savings in homelessness services. He said 15 percent of evicted families and 20 percent of evicted individuals in Massachusetts end up in shelters.

The mayor said that with up to 43 evictions occuring in the state every day there could be a savings of $12 million to $35 million on emergency housing and shelter costs annually.

But the change would not happen overnight. The mayor explained that the bill calls for a public task force to report back to the Legislature on “an implementation plan that takes into account recruitment, standards, data sharing, and cost.” The right to counsel would not kick in until two years after the task force’s report.

“Right to counsel is a significant step, and this legislation would not take it lightly,” he said.

Walsh on Tuesday also touted a bill (H 3373) filed by East Boston Rep. Adrian Madaro that would prohibit no-fault eviction of people over 75 years of age and limit rent increases for that population to 5 percent per year.

“Elderly tenants are some of the most vulnerable members of our communities when it comes to displacement and eviction,” Madaro said. “We should be caring for our seniors, not putting them out on the streets.”

Walsh said his office’s Age Strong Commission receives several calls each week from senior citizens who are facing eviction. Madaro’s bill would give elderly tenants “just cause” protections, which means the landlord must have a justified reason for evicting the tenant.

“This term simply means that landlords must provide a legitimate reason for eviction, such as failure to pay rent, damage to the property, or illegal activity. Landlords could still raise rents each year by as much as five percent. And the bill exempts properties with five or fewer units-because we know that some small property owners are renting at below-market rents to long-term elderly tenants,” Walsh said. “We want to protect those arrangements and we want to protect our most vulnerable seniors.”