Opinion: Support Right to Counsel for renters

May 29, 2022

To the editor:

Recently the NAACP New Bedford Branch hosted a conversation with Annette Duke, Staff Attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and the Massachusetts Right to Counsel Coalition on the benefits of Right to Counsel for tenants at risk of eviction.

Besides the NAACP, United Interfaith Action, the Coalition for Social Justice, HOME Group New Bedford, and others are all trying to address a coming intensification of New Bedford's housing crisis bearing down on renters. It would be nice if elected officials in Bristol County would as well.

Bristol County has seen an explosive number of evictions related to the pandemic, chronic housing supply shortages, inequities in lending, generational poverty, and other harms. In 2020-2021 Bristol County alone accounted for over 35% of all evictions in the Commonwealth.

Worse, as many know, in Bristol County 92% of all renters have no legal counsel in eviction proceedings, and the Southeast Housing Court makes counsel available only one day a week, from 1-4 pm — a time slot impossible for any working person. And even worse than that, in New Bedford only 5% of all renters are represented by counsel, while in Fall River only 3.2% have access to legal resources. By contrast, 90% of all landlords never go into an eviction hearing without a lawyer.

No wonder there's an epidemic of evictions in Bristol County. And it's only going to get worse.

The Boston Bar Association estimates that Right to Counsel would save the Commonwealth over $63 million annually: "For every dollar spent by the state for civil legal aid in eviction and foreclosure matters, the state would save $2.69 in costs associated with emergency shelters, health care, and other services as a result of evictions."

Washington state, Maryland and Connecticut all provide Eviction Right to Counsel. Fifteen major U.S. Cities do the same. The Massachusetts Right to Counsel Coalition wants low income people in Massachusetts to have similar access to resources and assistance that can prevent evictions and stabilize housing. Two right to counsel bills have been filed in the 2021-22 Session based on the RTC Coalition's recommendations:

  • S. 874 - An Act promoting housing stability and homelessness prevention in Massachusetts filed by Senator Sal DiDomenico
  • H. 1436 - An Act promoting housing stability and homelessness prevention in Massachusetts filed by Rep. Dave Rogers and Rep. Michael Day

The legislation has wide support from Democrats in both the State House and Senate. Unfortunately, in Bristol County where evictions have hit hardest, only a handful of state legislators seem concerned. Nor is New Bedford mayor Jon Mitchell among the 21 Massachusetts mayors who support the legislation.

The coming regional rail will expand transportation options for those commuting to Boston. But it will also explode median housing prices and exacerbate gentrification of New Bedford neighborhoods, forcing many renters out of their homes.

Given the already dire situation for renters — one that a recent ACLU report highlights, and the housing chaos that rail expansion will unleash — it's difficult to understand the lack of urgency shown by New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell and, with the exception of Tony Cabral, few local Bristol County legislators.

Please email them asking them to support S.874 and H.1436 — An Act promoting housing stability and homelessness prevention in Massachusetts.

David Ehrens,