Right to counsel needed on housing issues

Veterans particularly would benefit from representation

WHEN A DISABLED VETERAN with diabetes fell behind on his rent in 2020, his landlord illegally denied him heat during the winter, forcing him to reside in inhumane and unlivable conditions.  Without knowing his rights, this veteran had to move out of his home and into a transitional shelter, giving the landlord control of the property without a formal eviction process.

If this veteran knew his rights and knew that he could have a lawyer in his corner if he faced eviction, he might have stayed in his home and successfully advocated for restoration of his heat.  This is just one example – among thousands in Massachusetts – of why we need right to counsel in the Commonwealth.

Right to counsel – with regard to housing – would legally ensure that residents of the Commonwealth have a right to legal representation in housing court.  Low-income tenants and owner-occupants who cannot afford an attorney would be provided one at no cost.

This type of program is critical to keeping veterans in our community safe.  They already face myriad challenges: Many struggle with PTSD, substance use disorder, and other behavioral health concerns.  Some have difficulty finding and keeping a job, or live in isolation and lack the close familial connections needed to stay healthy.  Access to safe, affordable housing is compounded by these issues.

While the current housing crisis impacts a wide range of individuals and families, it disproportionately affects veterans.  Nearly 13 percdent of homeless adults are veterans, despite the fact that veterans only account for 7 percent of the adult population.  Nobody, especially those who served our nation so bravely, deserves to live on the streets or to shift from shelter to shelter, wondering where they will next find a warm bed in which to sleep.

My agency, Volunteers of America of Massachusetts, operates the Massachusetts Bay Veterans Center in Somerville, a 24-bed transitional facility with intensive case management to help veterans gain access to housing.  And through our Supportive Services for Veteran Families, we work to help veterans and their families stay safely housed.

Evictions – particularly unfair and sometimes illegal evictions – can erase, in what feels like an instant, our sometimes months-long efforts to house veterans and their families.  When veterans we serve are faced with an eviction or unsafe housing, we do everything we can to help them pay rental arrears or find alternatives.  There are cases, however, where a solution is beyond our resources and capabilities.  In these instances, legal counsel is the best help these veterans can have.

Low-income tenants, which include a great many veterans in the Commonwealth, deserve to have an attorney by their side when faced with evictions or unsafe housing.  In Massachusetts, nine out of 10 tenants represent themselves in housing court.  We do not have to accept this.  There are two pieces of state legislation (H.1436 and S.874) that would establish a statewide right to counsel program that would promote housing stability.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Charlie’s Baker’s eviction diversion initiative increased access to legal representation, providing assistance in over 3,000 cases to over 7,000 people as of June 2021, six months within starting up.  The impact of this representation, which provided legal aid much like a right to counsel program, was housing stability, with 90 percent of closed cases resulting in positive outcomes, including preserved tenancy.

But there are added benefits born out of instituting right to counsel that further illustrate the positive impacts such a program can have on individuals, families, communities, and the taxpayer.

A report from the Boston Bar Association found that full legal representation, when provided to eligible, low-income beneficiaries, could result in a $63 million cost savings for the Commonwealth.  This includes savings in emergency shelter costs, health care costs, and foster care costs, and compares favorably to the $26 million cost estimate for instituting a program in Massachusetts.  That works out to $2.40 in cost savings for every dollar spent by the state to fund right to counsel programs.

But right to counsel not only saves money, it saves people’s housing and is an investment that a growing number of community leaders and organizations – from human services agencies, to medical providers and even to real estate and property managers – are supporting.

Once veterans have roofs over their heads, it becomes far easier to provide the additional care and interventions that empower them to lead fulfilling lives.  If right to counsel is implemented in Massachusetts, and more of our low-income neighbors can fight evictions and gain access to safe housing, the possibilities for improved social, health, and economic outcomes are seemingly limitless.

Charles E. Gagnon is president and CEO of Volunteers of America of Massachusetts, a nonprofit human services provider that creates opportunities for individuals through residential and outpatient behavioral health treatment, re-entry for justice-involved individuals, veteran services, and senior living.