In Massachusetts housing courts, more than 60% of landlords have legal representation. That's not the case for tenants; less than 10% go to court with an attorney.
The nonprofit Greater Boston Legal Services says it's now trying to “level the playing field” with the release of a web tool to help give legal guidance to people facing eviction.
"It helps them with the very basics,” said Quinten Steenhuis, an attorney at GBLS and creator of the online tool, "which is filling out paperwork that they can use to lay out their case and to explain to the judge, and to the other side, why they should not be evicted.”
There is a 25% default rate in eviction cases, according to Steenhuis. The free tool, MADE: Massachusetts Defense for Eviction, can change that, he said, by reminding people of court dates and assisting them with legal forms.
MADE asks a series of questions about a person's eviction case. From start to finish, the process takes anywhere from 25 to 90 minutes. It begins with a video that explains how landlords must take tenants to court to remove them. Then, questions are asked, including ones about court dates and whether the user wants a jury trial.
After doing eviction defense work for the last decade, Steenhuis said he developed the tool because many people weren’t able to attend GBLS legal clinics. And even if they did attend, he said the process was often time-consuming and inefficient.
“When they're doing this on their own [with the tool], they're just seeing the things that are relevant to their case,” he said. "So it's saving us a lot of time and expanding access to a good defense in court.”
The tool’s release comes as lawmakers on Beacon Hill consider the so-called "right to counsel" bill, which would guarantee legal representation for most tenants facing eviction.
Despite the disparity in legal representation between landlords and tenants, Skip Schloming, of the Small Property Owners Association, said landlords in lower income neighborhoods often don’t have attorneys either.
“We have landlords who are not getting rent, and in order to fight a tenant with an attorney they probably need to pay an attorney, too, if they can't afford it,” he said. "If they can’t, where is the level playing field?"
Schloming added that legal assistance also should be available for landlords. He has long advocated for the creation of an escrow law that would require tenants to pay into escrow during a dispute with a landlord. Because that’s not on the books, he said tenants often abuse the state law that allows for rent withholding in order not to pay rent at all.
More legal representation, Schloming said, will make it even more difficult to evict problem tenants.
The vast majority “of all evictions are for non-payment,” he said. "That's a very simple question: 'Did you pay your rent or did you not?' Do you need a lawyer to go into court for that? What will the lawyer do? The lawyer will stretch out as long as possible.”
The GBLS tool is not the same as legal representation, but it’s a stop-gap measure aimed at empowering those facing eviction and ultimately increasing housing stability for low-income renters.
The tool is online now in English and Spanish, and with an assist from the city of Boston, it is in testing now for use in Vietnamese, Chinese, Portuguese and Haitian Creole.
Though it’s designed for people in Massachusetts, Steenhuis said it’s open source and can be adapted for use in other states.