NEW BEDFORD — Southeast Housing Court is set to launch a program today that provides free legal services to tenants and landlords engaged in the eviction process. After 17 months and more than 600 eviction executions since the pandemic began, it is the last housing court division in the state to adopt the Lawyer for the Day program.
The launch comes after The New Bedford Light reported that Bristol County has the highest number of eviction executions of any county in the state, with shockingly low rates of legal representation. Until today, Southeast Housing Court was the only division in the state without this special legal services program.
Bristol County leads state in evictions executed
“If we genuinely value access to justice, then access to counsel must be expanded for those who cannot afford an attorney,” wrote Susan Nagl, executive director of South Coastal Counties Legal Services, which will provide lawyers for the program. “Tenants cannot meaningfully engage with the court process unless they know their rights and are able to effectively advance them.”
The program places lawyers in housing court to provide free legal advice and assist unrepresented landlords and tenants. The decision comes as the federal moratorium on evictions expired at the end of August, leaving hundreds of tenants in Bristol County at increased risk of eviction without the limited and sometimes ineffective protections provided by the moratorium.
In the Southeast Division, 92 percent of tenants are not represented by a lawyer during the eviction process, according to data from the state Housing Court Department. Since October of last year, 646 evictions have been executed in Bristol County — the highest number of any housing court in the state, despite ranking sixth in total population among 14 counties.
Most housing court divisions place these lawyers in court each day. But in Southeast Housing Court, the program will only run one day a week, from 1-4 p.m., according to the housing court website.
“It’s too little, too late,” said Helena DaSilva Hughes, executive director of the Immigrants Assistance Center, which helps some of New Bedford’s most vulnerable population find housing and navigate the eviction process outside of court. The program is “something that should have been implemented right from the beginning.”
During the economic hardship of the pandemic, there was a statewide push to expand legal access to those facing eviction. The Lawyer for the Day Program, which has existed for more than a decade, was described by lawyers and housing advocates statewide as a leading effort to expand legal access to the most vulnerable.
But top officials of Southeast Housing Court have been resistant to the program. It was not adopted for 17 months of the pandemic due to the stance that it would unfairly favor legal access to tenants over landlords.
“Historically, there has been an abundance of help on the tenant side but not on the landlord side,” Housing Court Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan’s spokesperson wrote in a July email, responding to questions from The Light. “For the court to endorse the program, it has to be balanced, with representation for both sides.”
Only 67 percent of landlords are represented by an attorney in Southeast Housing Court. It is the lowest rate in the state, according to state Housing Court data, with an average of 83 percent of landlords represented in the other six housing court divisions.
Judge Donna Salvidio, first justice of Southeast Housing Court, and Clerk-Magistrate Mark Jeffries did not return requests to comment in both July and September.
Lawyers and housing advocates remain frustrated by the late launch of the program in Southeast Housing Court. Previously, Housing Court officials attributed the high rate of evictions to the fact that cities in Bristol County are "blue-collar" and struggling economically. But the impact of providing tenants with legal representation is evident in data on execution of evictions — the final phase of an eviction process in which a court order authorizes a landlord to formally remove tenants from their rental property within 48 hours.
In Suffolk County, which mostly represents Boston, 2,188 evictions have been filed since October of last year, but only 268 evictions have been executed. In Bristol County, which mostly represents New Bedford and Fall River, 1,485 evictions have been filed in the same time frame, while 646 evictions have been executed — a rate of almost two per day.
“The consensus is that the program works … in preventing evictions,” said Danielle Johnson, a staff attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services, one of the groups that provide legal services through the Lawyer for the Day Program in Boston and Metro-South housing court divisions. “It’s a matter of where you are in the commonwealth and if your chief justice agrees or doesn’t agree with the Lawyer for the Day program.”
Housing advocates and lawyers were critical of the Southeast Housing Court’s decision to launch the program so late and in a limited capacity, but said it’s better late than never.
“We have had so many evictions,” said DaSilva Hughes, of the IAC. “It’s unfortunate that it took this long to adopt the program when everyone else has done it already.”
Email Will Sennott at firstname.lastname@example.org
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