On April 7 at the national Fair Housing and Civil Rights Conference, I presented MassLandlords’ research into Massachusetts eviction data. We’ve been reading the court docket – not just a sampling of cases, but every single case – since April 2019. This has given us insight into the 71,000 eviction filings that have taken place, 30,000 of which happened during the pandemic. This work is the result of five MassLandlords team members.
Our methodology is a mix of simple and complicated. What’s simple is how we honor the scraping ban at MassCourts.org. Three team members work the better part of their weeks systematically pulling up dockets and right-click-saving the web page locally. The complicated part is what happens next. We use a custom-developed Perl 5 computer program to analyze the local copies of the docket. Based on the output, we adjust the program to distinguish the week’s businesses from people and village names from incorporated municipalities.
Eviction Filings Don’t Often Lead to Evictions
The likeliest outcome of getting eviction filed against you is not an eviction.
We’ve drawn six conclusions from our research.
First, nonpayment of rent has been the cause of over 60 percent of all filings, even through the pandemic. Note that rent increases are not legally enforceable in Massachusetts unless a renter agrees to them. So, this has nothing to do with rent increases. Nor would rent control prevent these filings. These were households overburdened by the housing crisis or sent over the edge by the pandemic.
Second, more than 70 percent of all cases were a lone adult or single head of household with children. The housing crisis looms large in this statistic. We have a lot of housing built for previous generations with large, financially connected families and intergenerational cohabitation. Now we all need or want our own space on a single income, space that is is very expensive. It suggests further research is needed on rooming houses. We may be far behind where we need to be in providing smaller, more affordable housing units.
Third, the availability of pandemic rental assistance reduced both filings and forced move-outs by half. An eviction filing is not the same as the actual forced move-out. A filing only brings a renter to court. If the courts determine it to be just, an eviction filing need not result in a forced move-out. The widespread availability of rental assistance without having to go to court reduced filings. And for those nonpayment situations that did result in a filing, renters were able to get rental assistance thanks to court procedural delays while applications for assistance were pending. This is surely a triumph of rental assistance in the macro view.
Fourth, fewer than 35 percent of filings resulted in a forced move-out overall. This is an astonishing statistic. It means that the likeliest outcome of getting eviction filed against you is not an eviction. The Housing Courts are more of an arbiter of rental assistance than of anything else. This makes the courts somewhat of a “safe space” for renters who are trying to do the right thing. We believe no judge can want to send people onto the street who could be saved by rental assistance. This is backed up by the statistics.
Could Forced Move-Outs Be Preventable?
Fifth, we’ve learned that as many of 85 percent of forced move-outs took place without a record of it. To understand this, you need to know that the piece of paper that grants a sheriff or constable the power to remove someone from their home is called an “execution.” If an execution is granted for possession only, then it must be returned to the court if used. But typically, the same piece of paper also grants the power to take money for back rent owed. In this case, it need not be returned. And in either case, once an execution is granted, some renters (anecdotally, we hear about half) relocate voluntarily to new housing. The result is a complete vacuum of data about who finds housing with friends or family versus who ends up on the street or in a shelter.
Sixth, 70 percent to 90 percent of known forced move-outs result from a renter either not showing up to court or not following through on a mediated agreement. This is astonishing, as it suggests that almost all forced move-outs are preventable. It opens up new anti-displacement frontiers.
Imagine if renters were told by the court that they could not be evicted if they showed up and applied for rental assistance? Everyone would show up.
Then imagine if the courts themselves held the purse strings for rental assistance. If a judge’s decision is good enough to forcibly remove someone from their home, why isn’t it good enough to pay to keep them there? Why wait for a bureaucracy to decide the same thing all over again?
Finally, if rental assistance is not available because a renter is ineligible (i.e., now has adequate income), imagine if there were “payment plan specialists” who helped renters agree only to payment plans that were long-term sustainable. Best practice is no more than one day’s wages worth of back rent per month. Few know this, but all could.
MassLandlords’ legal mission is to create better rental housing. What could be better than eviction-free housing?
Doug Quattrochi is executive director of MassLandlords Inc.