MassLandlords has read the details of over 8,664 recent and pre-pandemic court filings. The findings put the lie to most renter advocacy proposals except for rental subsidy. Our team have been reading court cases since 2015, when we published our first-ever Eviction Study for Massachusetts Part I. At that time, the work consisted of a one-time reading of 8,000 cases sampled from a few housing court divisions over a nine-month period one year prior. Now, thanks to expanded member support and some in-house technology, we have weekly, almost real-time insight into what is happening.
Our goals are two-fold. First, to understand evictions being filed now during the pandemic. And second, to understand how this compares to the pre-pandemic “housing crisis baseline.” We have read and analyzed 3,984 cases filed between Oct. 19 (when the state eviction moratorium lifted) and Dec. 18, 2020. We have read all 4,678 housing court cases filed between April 1 and May 31, 2019. And we will present this data in an interactive public webinar on Friday Jan. 22 at 12 p.m.
What We Found
Nonpayment is the Primary Cause: The primary cause of evictions is economic. 71.9 percent of cases filed after the state moratorium lifted have been for nonpayment, statistically the same as pre-pandemic (73 percent).
Single–Income is Risky: Two-thirds of all renter households taken to court during the pandemic have been single adult households, statistically the same as pre-pandemic. Although children are not identified in the public record, we know anecdotally what other studies imply: that there are a lot of single parents struggling out there.
Gateway Cities, not Boston, are the COVID Disaster: In the spring of 2019, Dorchester was far and away an ignominious leader in eviction filings. Now Dorchester is no more a cause for concern on a per capita basis than any other neighborhood in Boston. Fall River, New Bedford, Worcester, Lawrence, Lowell and Springfield jump out as hot spots on the basis of evictions per hundred thousand residents. The trend persists across entire counties: Middlesex (Cambridge-Somerville) and Suffolk (Boston) are last on the list of 14 counties in terms of number of cases filed (except for Dukes [Martha’s Vineyard] and Nantucket). Bristol, Worcester, and Berkshire are the top three.
Landlords Don’t Want to Hire Attorneys: When given the choice, landlords have hired an attorney less than half the time (39.5 percent during the pandemic, 44.6 percent before). The courts require corporate landlords to have representation. This means if the owner of a property is an LLC (very common), the landlord in an eviction case must be represented by counsel even if the LLC is just one person owning one property. More than half of all landlords to appear in court during study periods have been corporate and have had no choice but to lawyer up. When given the choice, most don’t.
Evictions Here Aren’t Like in Other States: Only approximately 5 percent of all evictions filings result in a forced move-out, and if forcibly removed, renter possessions must be moved and stored by a bonded and insured moving company. The other 95 percent of filings result in a renter and a landlord either coming to terms or peacefully parting ways (i.e., the renter has some place better to go and moves themselves). Note that in Massachusetts, the horror of a curbside eviction is a legal impossibility: We don’t allow it. Fewer than four forced move-outs occur per day on average.
Renters Need to Show Up and Follow–Through: 94.6 percent of all forced move-outs are either because a renter failed to show up at court or because they reneged on a mediated agreement.
A vocal minority in Massachusetts have used the pandemic as an excuse to push for unprecedented restrictions on the use and disposition of real property: just cause eviction rent control, one-sided right to counsel, tenant right of first refusal and even jail time for landlords, sheriffs, constables, and lenders (remember 191-HD4935?).
But none of these proposals will make a dent in evictions because, as we have seen, the cause of eviction is economics. This is why knowledgeable renter advocates focus on emergency rental subsidy, zoning reform to create more rental housing long-term and economic opportunity to make the housing we have fit into household budgets.
Our data ought to have enormous policy implications.
Back in 2019, for example, the Boston Globe misleadingly parroted EvictionLab.org data. Their study, not as thorough as ours, said there were “43 evictions per day” in Massachusetts. They were overcounting forced move-outs. Would that we had our data then! The solutions to help renters avoid evictions are within our ability to deliver today. We only need to guarantee the rent and make sure renters show up to court if called.
Doug Quattrochi is executive director of MassLandlords Inc.