The Public's Radio · Why evictions surged on Massachusetts’ South Coast despite the federal moratorium

At a house on New Bedford’s County Street, two blocks and two centuries removed from the millionaire’s row built for the city’s old whaling captains, the sewage poured into the basement each time the toilet flushed.

By reporting the leak to local health inspectors in January 2020, Whitney Duarte knew she was risking the loss of something increasingly rare in Massachusetts: an affordable apartment, large enough for herself, her boyfriend and two children, for $950 per month. The coronavirus pandemic arrived not long after the inspectors, triggering a series of cancellations from the elderly and disabled clients Duarte served as a personal care assistant. The 33-year-old said her monthly income dropped from $3,500 to $700.

Struggling to make ends meet with two kids learning from home, and quarantining in a first-floor apartment filled with the stink of raw sewage, Duarte began to withhold rent, hoping it would pressure the landlord to fix what the health department’s orders hadn’t. 

Instead, an eviction notice arrived in December. Duarte’s first court date was a Zoom session with her landlord’s attorney and a mediator. Without consulting a lawyer of her own, Duarte quickly signed an agreement requiring her to pay most of the rent she withheld and move out within two months. 

While millions of renters across the country face eviction from their homes in the midst of a pandemic that has decimated the economy, Massachusetts’ Southeast Housing Court, where Duarte’s case was heard, stands out as the state’s toughest court for tenants facing eviction.

Despite a federal moratorium on evictions that lasted 10 months in Massachusetts, the Southeast has granted landlords the ability to evict more households than any other jurisdiction in the state during the pandemic, even though it handled a smaller caseload than most sister courts. That has left renters in New Bedford and Fall River — two of the poorest and least vaccinated cities in Massachusetts — especially vulnerable to eviction. 

By comparison, in the Eastern Housing Court, which serves Boston and several of its surrounding communities, less than one in ten eviction cases filed during the pandemic has actually produced the piece of paper that grants a landlord permission to forcibly remove a tenant, known as an execution for possession. In the Southeast Housing Court, tenants like Duarte are roughly 3.5 times as likely to face an execution for possession, according to an analysis The Public’s Radio conducted using data published by the court’s administrators. 

Since April, Duarte has moved with her boyfriend and two children from New Bedford to Texas and back. She expects to move again soon.

Duarte said she had never heard of the federal moratorium on evictions, an unprecedented public health order put in place a year ago by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep renters from crowding in with relatives or overburdening homeless shelters during the deadliest infectious disease outbreak in a century.

Duarte claims the court’s staff never mentioned the moratorium during her eviction proceedings, though it appears she could have qualified if she had put in an application for state rental assistance around the same time. By filling out a two-page declaration form attesting she had lost income during the pandemic and was seeking rental assistance, Duarte’s family could have invoked a newfound right to stall the eviction until last Friday, the day after the Supreme Court struck down the federal protection.

“They don't give you the information you need,” Duarte said about the court’s staff, who facilitated her removal after a single court date. "They just have so many cases that they just want to try to get through them as fast as they can.”

“They make people feel like they just have to agree, and that's pretty much what I did, I just agreed,” Duarte said. 

Legal protections rarely invoked

The Southeast Housing Court — a regional jurisdiction with courthouses in New Bedford, Fall River, Taunton and Plymouth — offers a case study of why the extraordinary legal protections extended to tenants during the pandemic proved stubbornly ineffective in some places. 

Courts across the country, influenced by state laws and local customs, differed in how they applied this unprecedented federal public health intervention to everyday eviction cases. Some took a proactive role in educating tenants about how to make use of the federal moratorium on evictions.

In Rhode Island, an administrative order required all tenants facing eviction to answer a questionnaire about whether they qualified for the moratorium. Jennifer Wood, the executive director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice, a legal aid group that represents tenants, said some judges went as far as keeping the declaration form on their desks for tenants to complete in the courthouse.

“Judges, in their role, have a duty to litigants and to our clients and to the public to keep everyone informed of their rights under the prevailing law,” Wood said, “and the CDC moratorium is part of that framework right now.”

The impact in Rhode Island, Wood said, is that “the vast majority of low-income tenants who are facing an eviction for nonpayment have put the CDC declaration in place.”

But across the state line, in Massachusetts’ Southeast Housing Court, the moratorium was hardly used at all

Beginning in January, state law required landlords to share information about the federal moratorium in their initial eviction notices, but the measure seemed to have little impact. Eleven tenants interviewed for this story said they concluded their eviction cases without ever learning the moratorium existed.

“Not all landlords may be complying,” said Annette Duke, an attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. And even when a complete eviction notice does reach a tenant, Duke said there’s no guarantee it will help.

“The information may be hard to understand because it's dense,” Duke said. “It is in legalese, there's a lot of it and, if you're facing eviction, you're really frightened about what's going to happen and it's very difficult to process this information.”

Uncertainty about housing law, and especially the new protections against evictions rolled out during the pandemic, is the norm among tenants without a lawyer, who represent the vast majority of tenants facing eviction. The Public’s Radio conducted a review of every eviction case filed in Fall River and New Bedford last February. The review found the federal moratorium was entered into the court record in just two of the 82 eviction cases against unrepresented tenants. 

One of those tenants, Jessica Sousa, claimed she faced resistance from the court’s clerks for trying to declare it. She faxed in a moratorium declaration alongside copies of her applications for rental assistance and complaints she’d made to local health inspectors about conditions in the apartment. 

“She was like, ‘Usually lawyers are the ones who do this stuff. If you hired a lawyer, you would know that,’” Sousa said. “Well, obviously I can't afford a lawyer.”

When her court date arrived, Sousa appeared several hours late for her Zoom hearing; she said she hadn’t realized there was a separate Zoom hearing scheduled the morning before her 2 p.m. mediation session. Sousa said a neighbor immediately drove her to the courthouse to file a motion to stop the execution from issuing to her landlord, as it does automatically in cases where tenants fail to appear. She claims the motion was never processed.

Sousa said the next piece of mail she received about her eviction was a notice that a constable would arrive in 48 hours to remove what she owned from the apartment.

“So I filed the CDC moratorium and nothing happened, actually,” said Sousa, who is now homeless. “I got evicted anyway.”

A spokesperson for the housing court declined to comment, citing a policy of not discussing individual cases.

The other tool the government created to prevent evictions during the pandemic was an expanded rental assistance program, which tenants in the Southeast have been far more likely to use than the federal moratorium. The court will often dismiss an eviction if the government is willing to pay the landlord what they’re owed in full. So far, landlords and mortgage lenders have recouped at least $224 million during the pandemic from Massachusetts’ federally funded rental assistance programs.

But for the tenants who fail to access rental assistance — or whose landlords refuse to accept it — the federal moratorium was meant to be a last line of defense, a trump card that could pause a losing case dead in its tracks until the pandemic subsided. Many tenants have managed to slip through the cracks of both protections, sending hundreds of households in southeastern Massachusetts looking for a new home at a time when the government took extraordinary measures to keep them in place. 

No single cause for high rate of evictions

The court’s leadership offered few explanations for what is driving the Southeast’s exceptional eviction rate. It’s also unclear for how long this pattern has distinguished the Southeast. The Massachusetts Trial Court rejected several data requests, preventing a broader study of how eviction cases have been handled.

The two judges who sit in the Southeast Housing Court on a permanent basis, Donna Salvidio and Joseph Michaud, were appointed three years ago by Gov. Charlie Baker. Both previously worked as real estate attorneys and frequently represented landlords in eviction cases. Neither would answer questions sent to the court through a spokesperson.

Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan, an administrator for all six Massachusetts housing courts, also declined an interview about the Southeast’s eviction rate.

“Resources available in some counties may have had an impact,” Sullivan said in an emailed statement, which suggested voluntary programs in other parts of the state discouraged landlords from pursuing as many evictions.

“Executions do not equal evictions,” Sullivan said. “Very few executions issued by the court lead to displacement. Federal and state regulations coupled with court issued standing orders have helped to create safeguards around requests for execution.” 

But the analysis of eviction proceedings by The Public’s Radio shows that very few tenants facing eviction successfully take advantage of these safeguards, especially in the court’s Southeast district.

Even the measures Sullivan pointed to — local eviction moratoria in several cities, newly formed offices of housing stability and a pledge from large landlords around Greater Boston to avoid evictions during the pandemic — have not stemmed the tide of eviction cases entering the courts there. More than 2,100 cases have been filed in the Eastern Housing Court since October.

Landlords actually filed fewer eviction cases in the Southeast Housing Court during that time — but a much larger number reached the harshest possible conclusion for tenants. Fall River now accounts for more executions for possession than Boston, a city six times its size. The same is true of New Bedford.

Some tenant advocates pointed to an exceptional lack of affordable legal representation in the region as a key factor behind the Southeast’s high eviction rate during the pandemic. Of the six housing courts in Massachusetts, the Southeast was the only one without a free legal clinic for tenants to access in Zoom waiting rooms. Attempts by local nonprofits to set one up in the spring were unsuccessful.

“Unless both landlords and tenants are afforded the opportunity to access legal help through this program,” Sullivan said, “a division cannot endorse such a model.”

After receiving questions from The Public’s Radio and other news outlets, the Southeast Housing Court has since announced it plans to open a free legal clinic for tenants and landlords starting September 14.

The state government earmarked $12 million for expanding legal access in housing courts, but there are still glaring inequities between landlords and tenants, and the Southeast is no exception. Close to 70% of landlords who appeared in court in Fall River and New Bedford during the pandemic did so with the aid of a lawyer, according to data from the court’s public dashboard. Just 5% of tenants did the same.  

A shortcut for landlords

A piece of internal guidance quietly conveyed to the Southeast Housing Court’s staff this summer offers another window into the court’s unique practices.

As recently as July, the Southeast allowed eviction executions to issue automatically in cases where tenants signed agreements to move out. That provided landlords a shortcut in the eviction process: they would not have to file additional paperwork claiming that the agreement was violated. 

A spokesperson for the administrative office overseeing Massachusetts’ courts said the Southeast changed the procedure this summer, bringing it in line with other housing courts, but declined to provide any reasons why. The change followed scrutiny from several media outlets about the Southeast Housing Court’s exceptional rate of issuing executions. 

Though the distinction may seem arcane, it is one of several factors contributing to an atmosphere where many tenants say the court’s staff churn through eviction cases without informing them of the new protections they were granted during the pandemic.

Little awareness of the federal moratorium

Crystal Newhall is a mother of five in New Bedford who fought her eviction case at the Southeast Housing Court this winter. She said remote schooling shifted the costs of daytime meals and childcare onto her family at the same time her husband was sidelined from his job as nursing assistant because of a shoulder injury. 

“It came down to a matter of feeding the kids or paying the rent,” Newhall said. “It wound up being a little rent here and a little there.”

Newhall said no one mentioned the state’s rental assistance program to her in court. But after she learned about it through a community organization, Newhall said her landlord agreed to stay the eviction. As part of the arrangement, Newhall said the landlord also switched her to a monthly lease that offers less housing stability.

“You’re told you have choices and then you are strong-armed into certain ones,” Newhall said of the experience mediating her case in court. 

Asked about the federal moratorium, which she did not invoke, Newhall said, “I heard of it but it didn’t stop the eviction process.” She never saw the necessary paperwork. 

“I feel like I’ve been set up so the landlord can get his money, and then he gives us the boot,” Newhall said. 

Newhall’s family is like many others. With little guidance, their eviction cases proceeded as if the moratorium never existed.

With the Supreme Court’s ruling last Thursday, the federal moratorium is officially dead. The responsibility now lies with local and state governments to create new protections. 

In Massachusetts, the state legislature just began a summer recess that is expected to last until after Labor Day. 

If someone you know is facing eviction in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, here are some resources: