Citing concern over the “disproportionately high” rate of eviction executions issued by the Southeast Housing Court, state legislators in Bristol County met with the state’s top housing court official on Monday — seeking answers and more legal resources as the federal eviction moratorium expires.
The meeting followed a letter, signed by six state representatives and one state senator, addressed to the chief justice of the state Housing Court, Timothy Sullivan. The meeting was described as “fairly productive,” but legislators said Chief Justice Sullivan made no firm commitment to remedy the high rate of evictions in Bristol County.
“The Southeast Housing Court needs to better connect people with the resources available to them rather than moving to evict,” legislators wrote, in part. “The fact that this does not appear to be the case in our cities needs to be addressed immediately.”
In July, the New Bedford Light reported that Bristol County has the highest number of eviction executions of any county in the state, despite ranking sixth in total population among 14 counties.
The Light also reported that Southeast Housing Court was the only division in the state without a special legal services program for free legal representation, though 92 percent of tenants and 67 percent of landlords are unrepresented by a lawyer during the eviction process. In September, Southeast Housing Court adopted a scaled-down version of the program — the last court in the state to do so, 17-months after the pandemic took hold.
While most housing court divisions place free lawyers in court each day, the program recently adopted in Southeast Housing Court — the Lawyer for the Day program — only runs one day a week, from 1-4 p.m.
In the letter, legislators called on the housing court to expand the program and address the shortcomings in legal representation. “If other housing courts have found a better way to address these challenges, the Southeast Housing Court can as well,” legislators wrote.
The letter was assertive, but Bristol County legislators said Chief Justice Sullivan did not provide a clear explanation for the high rate of eviction executions, nor a commitment to expand the lawyer for the day program in Southeast Housing Court.
“I didn’t hear any concrete response that would change anything,” said Rep. Alan Silvia, of Fall River. “I don’t feel the questions were really answered … but I feel like they are going to give more attention to it.”
Reps said the state housing court would gather data on the issue. Expanding the thin free legal services program was discussed, but no action was taken.
“I wouldn’t use the word promise, but it was discussed,” said Rep. Antonio Cabral, of New Bedford, following the meeting. “The court has to be fair to all parties … one meeting doesn’t solve all the issues.”
Since the pandemic began, Southeast Housing Court has executed 678 evictions, according to data from the state trial court. Those evictions were executed despite a federal moratorium on evictions, which expired at the end of August.
The letter, which was signed in September, comes just weeks after the federal moratorium on evictions expired, leaving hundreds of tenants in Bristol County at increased risk of eviction without the limited and sometimes ineffective protections provided by the moratorium.
It is the first action taken by the Legislature in Bristol County to address the high rate of evictions in the region, at least since the onset of the pandemic.
RELATED STORY: Wave of evictions expected in New Bedford
Legislators referenced the expanded federal and state resources aimed at preventing evictions during the pandemic — resources they said have not effectively reached tenants and landlords in Southeast Housing Court.
“Housing insecurity has been a concern in our area for many years and the pandemic, with its related job losses, has only exacerbated the problem,” legislators wrote. “But federal and state resources have expanded tremendously. The financial resources to assist certainly exist.”
Eviction executions in Bristol County have spiked since the moratorium expired. In September, 67 evictions were executed, while the number remained under 50 for the previous three months. Executions are the final phase of the eviction process, in which a housing court judge authorizes a landlord to formally remove tenants from their rental property within 48 hours notice.
Through the pandemic, Southeast Housing Court has issued the most evictions of any division in the state. Though Chief Justice Sullivan did not provide an explanation, legal experts have said the issue is simple — a glaring lack of legal representation for those in the Southeast division.
Top housing court officials have been resistant to adopting the Lawyer for the Day 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,” Chief Justice 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.”
Judge Donna Salvidio, first justice of Southeast Housing Court, and Clerk-Magistrate Mark Jeffries did not return requests to comment in July, September and October.
The letter was signed by: Rep. Antonio Cabral (13th Bristol District), Rep. William Straus (10th Bristol District), Rep. Christopher Hendricks (11th Bristol District), Rep. Paul Schmid (8th Bristol District), Rep. Carole Fiola (6th Bristol District), Rep. Alan Silvia (7th Bristol District), and Sen. Mark Montigny (Second Bristol & Plymouth).
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