Though it is an unintended consequence of the state court system trying to promote social distancing and health, there will also be an added protection for tenants affected by the COVID-19 response who are in fear of being evicted from their homes for not being able to pay rent.
April 1 has been circled on the calendar of many homes for the past three weeks since the bottom fell out of the world economy, and with such job and income loss – it left a lot of folks wondering how they would pay rent at the first of the month, that being the first rental payment due since the outbreak.
Housing Court Chief Justice Tim Sullivan and Deputy Court Administrator Benjamin Adeyinka said this week they have issued a Housing Court standing order through April 21 that will allow only emergency cases to come before them, and those do not include the typical summary process evictions.
“The answer as to whether we are taking those cases is no – we are not taking the garden variety eviction cases until after April 21,” said Chief Justice Sullivan. “The only actions we’re hearing are emergency conditions and they do not include the garden variety eviction cases. Only emergency cases are being heard, and so eviction cases are being suspended presently.”
That order really doesn’t have a lot to do with protecting people from being evicted. In fact, the standing order spells out that the order is to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
“Consistent with the Trial Court’s goal in slowing the spread of the virus, and considering the recommendations by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and from state health officials, the Housing Court’s aim during this time is twofold: first, where practicable, to reduce the number of people who come to each courthouse where Housing Court business is conducted; and second to promote ‘social distancing,’ thereby minimizing the risk of exposure to court staff and litigants.”
That has, however, stopped evictions at a time when people also need help staying in their homes.
Across all the Housing Courts – which have expanded in the last year across the state – case filings have gone down dramatically because of the order and the inability to appear in court unless an absolute emergency. Filings statewide in Housing Court were down 63 percent two weeks ago, and were down 68 percent last week.
“We think the message has been received loud and clear by the general public,” said Chief Justice Sullivan. “The emergencies we’re doing with telephonic hearings…Still, we want to make sure they fully understand that despite the access to the building, we’re still accessible. They can call us.”
Right now, the typical Eastern Division Housing Court session in Chelsea – which serves Chelsea and Revere once a week – will be suspended for a period of time. Operations for the Eastern Division have been fully moved to the Edward Brooke Courthouse, which has been closed recently.
For those in Everett, typically they had sessions in Woburn for Housing Court, those are also suspended. The headquarters for those operations now are in Salem or Lawrence, but again only for emergencies.
Adeyinka said they cannot take a position on evictions or protections at the court, but they are encouraging communication between all parties.
“We do encourage individuals in this time to exercise common sense and communicate – landlords with tenants and tenants with landlords,” he said. “We’ve found anecdotally that large landlords have taken measures…We’ve found some of the larger landlords have made that contact. We can’t support or offer any advice though.”
Chief Justice Sullivan said a key item is the state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) standing order that reinforced the order from Housing Court. That order calls on all local housing authorities to allow forbearance of rent on subsidized tenancy. He said that is an important precedent and helpful to those tenants.
“If someone feels they have their back against the wall, whether a landlord or a tenant, they should contact the court’s hotline,” he said.
It is also important to note that any default judgements entered between March 1 and April 21 will be vacated.
Sullivan and Adeyinka said they have Housing Specialists still working diligently who can offer advice on how to access rental programs like the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT). They also said Housing Specialists are bi-lingual in Spanish, and interpreters can be patched in on an advanced conference call line that can handle up to 20 people at once.
“We don’t want language to be a barrier,” Adeyinka said. “We do have the ability to conference in an interpreter.”
Chief Justice Sullivan added the attorney for a day program is also available virtually for those who need it, and they are working with several organizations to have that available by telephone or online.
“We are here to help even though the building is physically closed,” he said.
Sullivan added the situation and the times are like nothing he has seen, and that has justified the measures that have been taken in Housing Court.
“I agree with is a unique time we’re in,” he said. “I’ve never experienced anything like it in my 60 years. I can’t remember anything being more disruptive than this pandemic.”