When it comes to evictions, Bristol County stands out from the rest of Massachusetts for two reasons: It has the highest number of eviction executions, and it is the only county without a special legal services program to assist tenants and landlords during the pandemic.
Housing advocates say the double distinction is stoking a mounting “crisis” that threatens to accelerate when the federal moratorium on evictions expires this week.
In Southeast Housing Court, 92 percent of tenants are not represented by a lawyer in trial, according to data from the state Housing Court Department. It is also the only housing court in the state that has not adopted the “Lawyer for the Day” program, which places lawyers in housing courts each day to provide free, basic legal advice and representation.
The federal moratorium on evictions was set to end in June but was extended through July 31. As that deadline nears, housing advocates and lawyers fear the rate of evictions, compounded by the critical lack of legal access, will soar in August and beyond.
“An eviction is one of the worst things that can happen to a family,” said Helena DaSilva Hughes, executive director of the Immigrants Assistance Center, which helps some of New Bedford’s most vulnerable population navigate the eviction process outside of court and find sustainable housing. “It goes far beyond losing your home.”
“What we’re seeing is an eviction crisis,” she added. “We see it every day.”
Southeast Housing Court is “trying to move heaven and earth to get a balanced Lawyer for the Day program off the ground,” wrote Housing Court Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan, through a spokesperson, on behalf of top officials in Southeast Housing Court — who declined to comment.
Bristol County leads state in evictions executed
Meanwhile, in Bristol County, 557 executions of eviction have been issued to renters since October 2020, when the state moratorium expired, according to the Massachusetts Trial Court database.
At a rate of about two per day, it is the highest number of evictions executed in any county throughout the state, despite the fact that Bristol County, with roughly 565,000 residents, ranks sixth in total population among Massachusetts’ 14 counties.
Executions are a court order that authorizes an eviction. It is the final phase of an eviction process that can’t be resolved in mediation between landlord and tenant. An execution, provided to a landlord by a Massachusetts Housing Court judge, formally allows a landlord to order a tenant to vacate the rental property within 48 hours. It also allows the landlord to solicit the Sheriff’s Department or constable to enforce the order.
In New Bedford, 204 executions have been issued since October, according to Mass. Trial Court data. In Fall River, 232 executions have been issued, the highest number of any city in the state. In contrast, Lowell, a city with a similar population in a different housing court division, has issued 118 executions. Springfield, a much larger city in a different division, has issued 175 executions.
Lack of legal aid fuels crisis
Housing advocates and lawyers pin Bristol County’s high rate on a lack of access to free legal services, interpreters and information regarding tenants’ rights. Some say many who face eviction choose not to appear in court, and an execution of eviction follows in their absence. Some say tenants — especially the poor and those without citizenship — simply look for another apartment instead of standing trial in court.
South Coastal Counties Legal Services Inc. is the only group that provides free legal aid to those facing trial in Southeast Housing Court. The organization has 12 lawyers, boosted up from seven before the pandemic, working on housing issues in the region — though their efforts are not entirely directed at eviction cases.
From June of 2020 to June of 2021, SCCLS lawyers took on more than 5,300 cases — about 40 percent of which were housing-related, according to Executive Director Susan Nagl.
“The volume is more than we can handle,” Nagl said of those seeking legal aid during an eviction proceeding. “I can’t tell you how many people have been turned away.”
Bristol County’s rate of tenants unrepresented by lawyers — 92 percent — is similar to other regions in the state. Housing advocates statewide have declared it an urgent issue. There is no right to counsel in Massachusetts, meaning neither tenants nor landlords are entitled to free legal representation in court.
But in Southeast Housing Court division — which serves Fall River, New Bedford and the surrounding towns — the issue of legal representation became more acute during the pandemic.
No ‘Lawyer for the Day’ program
During the economic slowdown and joblessness caused by COVID-19, there was a statewide push to expand legal access to those facing eviction. One of the major efforts was the expansion of the “Lawyer for the Day” program, which stations a lawyer in housing court each day to provide free, basic legal advice and representation to those otherwise unrepresented.
Yet amid the crisis, Southeast Housing Court is the only housing court in Massachusetts that has not adopted the program, according to the state website on Housing Court Resources.
The 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 during the pandemic.
Officials of the Southeast Housing Court did not adopt the program due to a 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,” wrote Housing Court Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan, through a spokesperson, in an emailed response 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 Jefferies did not return repeated requests to comment.
The lack of legal representation does not fall just on tenants.
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. Advocates attribute this to the many small-scale landlords in the area, some of whom live in the apartment building that they also rent.
“There are a lot of shortcomings in the system,” said Alyson Gibbs, with Father Bill’s and Mainspring, a Taunton-based nonprofit that works to assist both landlord and renters through the mediation process and works to inform tenants of their rights. She acts as the regional coordinator of the Tenancy Protection Program. “We all do what we can to improvise — fill in the gaps.”
Real crisis often begins after evictions
Housing advocates say the high rate of executions of eviction is the final expression of a separate, but related, housing issue outside of housing court.
In New Bedford, rents have skyrocketed during the past year. It is a trend that has been mounting for more than a decade, but was spurred on by the pandemic and a recent surge in the local housing market.
“We have a runaway rental market,” said Diana Painter, director of the Coalition for Social Justice, which has been working to connect those in need with housing resources. “Landlords know the rate they can offer is much higher. So they will find reasons to get rid of folks.”
When an eviction is executed, the implication can last long after families or individuals lose their home. Records of an eviction follow tenants, making it more likely that a landlord will turn the tenant away in their search for a new apartment. For those on Section 8 or other rent subsidy programs, an eviction can mean losing access to rental assistance.
The fear, housing advocates say, is that the eviction crisis will evolve into a homelessness crisis.
“We are going to see the homeless situation get really out of hand,” said DaSilva Hughes, of the IAC. “It scares me that this is happening.”
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