Massachusetts lawmakers push to help the evicted

Paula Coar raises the microphone at a City Life Vida Urbana rally. PHOTO: Lauran Miller
Paula Coar, Roxbury Organizer for City Life Vida Urbana (CLVU), raises the microphone at a rally to support housing justice. PHOTO: Lauren Miller
Paula Coar raises the microphone at a City Life Vida Urbana rally. PHOTO: Lauran Miller
Paula Coar, Roxbury Organizer for City Life Vida Urbana (CLVU), stokes the crowd at a rally to support housing justice. PHOTO: Lauren Miller

By Skyler Stark-Ragsdale

Massachusetts lawmakers are pushing for legislative change to help those who have been evicted.

State Sen. Lydia Edwards said she hopes the HOMES Act, An Act promoting Housing Opportunity and Mobility through Eviction Sealing, will progress to Gov. Healey’s desk by Jan. 2025. The act would increase protection for tenants and promote racial justice in housing. But landlords are lining up against the bill.

The HOMES Act would allow tenants to petition the court to seal their eviction history. Tenants who experienced no-fault evictions, or evictions filed against them for no fault of their own, could petition to seal their record immediately after the trial, while those evicted because they missed payments could petition to seal their eviction record four years after their eviction. Tenants evicted for any other reason could petition to seal their eviction record seven years after their eviction.

“I feel confident that it has a pathway. That’s all I can say. I can never promise anybody anything,” said Edwards, on the bill’s potential pathway to the governor’s desk.

Edwards said people should be able to move past their eviction records, as they can with criminal records in Massachusetts.

“The question is: How much do I need to know about a person, and for how long, to judge whether they’re going to be a good tenant — their whole life based on what they did in their 20s?” said Edwards. “Many landlords don’t even look beyond the record.”

The bill progressed to Gov. Charles Baker’s desk in 2021, who vetoed it, writing to the state legislature that sealed records could keep a prospective tenant’s eviction-related criminal activity from landlords, putting other tenants at needless risk.

The bill addresses major social inequities in Massachusetts, Edwards added. “It’s a racial justice and gender justice issue,” she said. “Most of the people who are getting evictions are women. And the majority of those women are Black.”

According to an evictions report conducted by City Life Vida Urbana (CLVU), a nonprofit organization fighting for housing justice, eviction filings occurred a disproportionate amount in communities of color in Boston between 2010 and 2019. Though neighborhoods of color house 52% of all tenants, they endure 70% of eviction filings, while predominantly white neighborhoods, which house 48% of all tenants, experience only 30% of all evictions. Eviction filings occur six times more often in Roxbury than in South Boston, the report found.

Paula Coar, Roxbury Organizer for CLVU, said she has seen a discriminatory pattern to evictions in Boston that targeted mostly Black and Brown people. Paula was evicted from her home in Cambridge during the 2008 recession.

“That’s all we see — Black and Brown people getting evicted. That’s it,” said Coar. “And then you see the real estate people there with their lawyers, negotiating six months, three months, ‘you got to be out,’ four months. It’s a crisis.”

Edwards said if the whole bill can’t pass, there are aspects of the bill, which she updated this session, that she will still try to get approved. She said she filed an amendment to the bill this session that would allow those receiving rent assistance who are evicted to seal their record once they pay their missing rent to the landlord.

“If you satisfy your judgment at any time, you can seal your record,” said Edwards about her amendment to the bill.

The new version of the bill mandates that an eviction filing remain open to the public while it is processed by the court. As soon as it is won by a tenant it may be sealed. But Douglas Quattrochi, executive direct of advocacy group, said in a recent public hearing about the act that this provision leaves evicted tenants exposed to discrimination by landlords while they are at their most vulnerable — as they search for a new apartment during the eviction process.

“We’ve come up with a solution that’s unworkable, that’s going to leave people exposed and doesn’t actually address the cause of the problem,” said Quattrochi. “We’re not even in the right ballpark here with eviction sealing.”

He said sealing eviction records will harm landlords’ ability to screen out tenants who might violate laws or housing policies.

“It’s going to expose current renters to second-hand smoke and noise and other nuisance brought in by new renters that we should have been able to screen for, but we couldn’t see their record,” Quattrochi said.

He added that the bill would impede organizations like and Eviction Lab, an organization that tracks eviction across the United States, from doing research because they would lose access to eviction records.

But Gladys Vega, executive director of La Colaborativa, a Chelsea-based organization that helps Latinx community members find housing, said in the hearing that eviction records are sometimes reported inaccurately. “When I look at the eviction records, I have 13 evictions under my name,” said Vega. “And I have never been evicted.”

Whether correct or not, keeping eviction records public makes it difficult to help people find housing, she said. In Chelsea, she said eviction records have tripled during the pandemic.

“If there’s a person or family that has an issue with an eviction, they should not be blamed for their whole life journey,” she said. “It could be that they had this nasty housing situation like we all had during the pandemic, and now they’re putting their life back in order.”

Quattrochi said, though, sealing eviction records would address only a small subset of a larger problem.

“The whole proposal of eviction sealing comes from the idea that, ‘well, we can’t fix the safety net. And we can’t prevent people ending up in court,’” he said.

The better solution would be for the legislature to add a new way to bring a discrimination suit against landlords by creating a protected class status tenants could file for, Quattrochi said. As it stands, the Massachusetts law prohibits landlords and realtors from discriminating against the protected classes, through discriminatory eviction filings or otherwise. Race and source of income are two of the classes.

“Discrimination is the biggest hammer the state has against bad landlord behavior,” said Quattrochi. “Adding a new way to bring a discrimination suit against landlords is a much simpler cost-effective way to go and it’s not our members that are going to be impacted.”

The state must approach housing justice from multiple angles, said Whitney Demetrius of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, a Massachusetts non-profit advocating for affordable housing and community development.

“We got here by a confluence of factors, so the solution must be multi-pronged,” said Demetrius.

There is already a bill, An Act to End Housing Discrimination in the Commonwealth, in the state legislature that would increase punishments for real estate professionals found discriminating, which recently received public hearing. The legislation would establish a board to review discrimination by real estate professionals on at least a quarterly basis.

The state legislature also publicly reviewed a bill to provide free legal counsel to tenants in eviction court.

Vega said the current lack of legal counsel in eviction court is particularly difficult for immigrants. “In the city of Chelsea, eviction happens in the courtroom by a landlord asking you to sign [the eviction], and you being afraid that if you don’t do that, they’re going to call immigration,” she said.

If Chelsea community members don’t have legal representation, they have no chance of winning an eviction battle, said Vega, who frequently accompanies them to court with La Colaborativa. “For me, the access to council is the right for me to have a home, the right for me to have a shelter for my family and my neighbor, and it’s just fair housing access,” she said.

About Skyler Stark-Ragsdale 4 Articles
Interested in reporting on housing, Skyler Stark-Ragsdale earned a graduate degree in journalism from Emerson College in August 2023. In 2020, Skyler worked for Pueblo Pulp Magazine, a news and culture magazine based in Colorado, where he reported on the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic.