Last week, Sen. Sal DiDomenico testified before the Joint Committee on Housing in support of legislation he has championed in the Massachusetts Senate for several sessions: An Act promoting housing stability and homelessness prevention in Massachusetts, also known as the Right to Counsel Bill.
DiDomenico’s Right to Counsel bill, S.874, would make legal representation in eviction proceedings a right under Massachusetts state law. Currently, roughly 14% of renters in the Commonwealth are behind on their rent payments, and hundreds more eviction cases are being filed each week. Unfortunately, eviction proceedings disproportionately impact tenants with the lowest-income, especially immigrant families and the elderly, simply because they are unable to afford legal representation. This bill would provide legal representation for low-income tenants and owner-occupants landlords of two and three family homes in eviction proceedings.
In 2020, at the start of the pandemic, Senator DiDomenico filed similar emergency legislation to launch a Right To Council Pilot program to provide legal representation for tenants facing COVID-related evictions. Governor Baker incorporated key elements of DiDomenico’s Bill into the state’s Eviction Diversion Plan, now called the COVID Eviction Legal Help Project (CELHP). This emergency pilot program has had an overwhelming positive outcome.
Since its implementation in January 2021, CHELP has assisted approximately 7,000 individuals (including 2,300 children) and positively resolved 90% of cases. Of those 90% of cases, 70% resulted in the preservation of the tenancy, and 20% of cases were negotiated to afford the tenant(s) more time to find replacement housing. In just nine months, CELHP has proven the undeniable need and extraordinary benefit of granting a comprehensive right to counsel program in the Commonwealth. Unfortunately, the existing CELHP program is only temporary.
During his testimony, Senator DiDomenico highlighted the benefits of his permanent right to counsel bill. “Even where tenant cases are ultimately unsuccessful, the presence of council can assist when negotiating things like payment, extensions of time to vacate, finding alternative housing, or different lease terms that satisfy both landlords and tenants.” Citing a 2020 Boston Bar Association report, DiDomenico pointed out that “the monetary benefits of representing eligible beneficiaries in eviction and foreclosure proceedings, far outweighs the costs of providing those services.” The report estimated legal costs at about $9.49 million and the potential savings at over $25 million. This legislation is imperative to keeping the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable of tenants and families-renters from becoming unhoused, homeless, and displaced.
This legislation will prove to be vital for low-income renters in Massachusetts as the pandemics effect on housing continues to take its toll. “This bill is timely and more important than ever.” DiDomenico stated, “This bill levels the playing field.” Backed by a coalition of over 200 organizations the bill has garnered unilateral support among tenant, homeowner, and landlord advocacy groups alike.
The bill is currently pending before the Joint Committee on Housing where it awaits a favorable report.