Courts gear up for eviction crush
More judges, more translators, and Zoom rooms
IN PREPARATION for an influx of eviction cases when the statewide moratorium ends this weekend, housing courts across Massachusetts are gearing up to make the process more accessible with translators, special days set aside for people who speak different languages, and in some courts, computer setups for people who can’t Zoom from home.
The eviction and foreclosure moratorium ends on Saturday, and a separate moratorium authorized by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will kick in then and run through the end of December. The federal moratorium doesn’t cover all renters, so court officials are expecting the caseload to pick up quickly, although no one is quite sure how big the turnout will be.
If a landlord files for tenant eviction, the first step is a meeting of both parties to explore mediation (most courts have mediators available) and the possibility of outside assistance with housing costs. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday proposed $100 million in funding for a program of assistance to renters, with the maximum amount of $10,000.
If mediation fails, a trial date is set for no sooner than 14 days after that occurs. The medium time for an eviction case to play out in 2019 was 20 days, with 94 percent of cases being resolved in three months.
For tenants without access to computers, the courts in Brockton, Chelsea, and Worcester are setting up special Zoom rooms where participants can use computers and phones to take part in court proceedings. The computer stations – only about two or three per court – will be socially distanced and participants will be required to wear masks.
For some advocates, the incremental changes being implemented by the courts aren’t enough to stem what they anticipate to be a “tidal wave” of evictions.
“Mediation and diversion to attorneys alone won’t stop mass displacement without additional legislative action,” said Joey Michalakes, an attorney for Greater Boston Legal Services who has worked to defend the moratorium against legal attacks by landlords.
Ultimately, he said, judges will be duty-bound to apply existing law to resolve the cases and landlords will be under no obligation to wait for a tenant to get rental assistance before proceeding with an eviction.
Jeffrey Turk, an attorney at Turk & Quijano, LLP who handles more than 1,000 eviction filings a year on behalf of landlords, said the court plan is “thoughtful” and will “assist landlords and tenants in achieving the desired outcome, which is to connect tenants with potential resources and allowing parties to come to resolutions of these matters.”
Turk said it is in the best interest of landlords and tenants to avoid evictions. One way to make that happen is to tap into the $100 million Baker has set aside for a program called Residential Assistance for Families in Transition. Baker also set aside $22 million for mediation and legal help as tenants and landlords navigate the eviction process.
Douglas Quattrochi of Mass Landlords said the affidavit will play an important role in the eviction process. “It means that people will only be evicted for abusing the pandemic to withhold rent unlawfully or otherwise violate lease clauses,” said Quattrochi. He said his organization has worked with the Trial Court to spot landlords trying to work around the federal moratorium.
For instance, someone might file for cause, claiming the lease is being violated, when nonpayment is the real issue, he said. “This affidavit will be key. We have also asked our members not to attempt to work around the CDC moratorium. We want the CDC moratorium correctly and broadly enforced,” he said, adding that he prefers the CDC moratorium because it doesn’t interfere with the normal dispute resolution process.
A recent report by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council projected the need for direct housing assistance at around $100 million a month, at least through January. The group says 80,000 renters and homeowners need assistance that will number in the hundreds of millions of dollars. About 45,000 renters alone need $42.3 million to cover the costs of housing and basic needs. Another 35,000 homeowners would need $44 million a month to meet their mortgage costs.
Baker administration estimate the $100 million the state is putting up could assist about 18,000 households. Landlords who own fewer than 20 rental units can apply for assistance directly with the approval of their tenants.
When the moratorium ends, cases will pick up but it’s unclear by how much. Prior to the pandemic, the courts averaged 3,305 eviction case filings a month, or nearly 40,000 a year.Some housing advocates say the numbers are likely to skyrocket. “Nobody really knows what the universe looks like,” Baker said at a Tuesday press conference. He indicated it may be possible to adjust the amount of renter assistance depending on need.
“If it turns out it’s more than we need, that’s great. If it turns out it’s less than we need, we’ll figure it out,” Baker said.