At a house on New Bedford’s County Street, two blocks from the mansions built for the city’s whaling captains in more prosperous times, sewage poured into the basement each time the toilet flushed.
Whitney Duarte reported the leak to health inspectors in January, 2020, but she didn’t move out. She couldn’t risk losing something increasingly rare in Massachusetts: an affordable apartment, large enough for herself, her boyfriend and two children. Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived, triggering a wave of cancellations from the elderly and disabled clients Duarte serves as a personal care assistant. She said her monthly income plunged from $3,500 to just $700.
Struggling to make ends meet, and with two kids learning from home, Duarte was more concerned than ever about the stink of raw sewage in her first-floor apartment. She began to withhold the $950 monthly rent, hoping it would pressure the landlord to fix the problem.
City inspection records confirmed the leak in the basement and showed Duarte’s landlord was ordered to fix the problem. But when inspectors returned months later, the plumbing was still leaking sewage. An attorney for Duarte’s landlord did not respond to efforts to contact him.
Three months later, Duarte received an eviction notice.
More than 14,000 households in Massachusetts faced eviction cases in court during the pandemic. But the Southeast Housing Court — a regional jurisdiction with courthouses in Plymouth, Taunton, Fall River and New Bedford, where Duarte’s case was heard — stands out as the state’s toughest court for tenants during this extraordinary public health threat and the ensuing economic disruption.
In the Southeast court, renters like Duarte were twice as likely to face a forced removal from their homes as renters in other jurisdictions, according to an analysis of court data conducted by The Public's Radio. More than 400 tenants and families there faced eviction orders since the court reopened for ordinary eviction cases last October.
"This situation is not good, and these rates need to normalize," said state Rep. Tony Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat. "If other areas of the state have found a better path, so can the south coast.”
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.
If Duarte had filled out a two-page form attesting she lost income because of the pandemic and was seeking rental assistance, her family could have invoked a new right to stall the eviction.
"They don't give you the information you need. They make people feel like they just have to agree, and that's pretty much what I did, I just agreed."Whitney Duarte
But 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 disease outbreak in a century. It was in effect when Duarte was facing eviction, although the protections ended after a Supreme Court decision in late August.
“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 make people feel like they just have to agree, and that's pretty much what I did, I just agreed.”
A spokesperson for the housing court declined to comment, citing a policy of not discussing individual cases.
Legal Protections Rarely Invoked
The Southeast Housing Court offers a case study of why the exceptional legal protections extended to tenants during the pandemic proved stubbornly ineffective in many cities.
Courts across the country, influenced by state laws and local customs, differed in how they applied this unusual federal public health intervention to typical 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, 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.
The impact in Rhode Island, Wood said, was 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, use of the moratorium was the exception, not the norm.
Beginning in January, state law required landlords to share information about the federal moratorium in their initial eviction notices, but the measure failed to inform many tenants about their newfound rights.
“Not all landlords may be complying,” said Annette Duke, an attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. And even when information about the federal moratorium reached a tenant, Duke said there was no guarantee it would 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.”
“The information may be hard to understand because it's dense. 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.”Annette Duke, an attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Eleven tenants interviewed for this story said they concluded their eviction cases without ever learning the moratorium existed.
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 mentioned in just two of 82 eviction cases against unrepresented tenants, which made up the vast majority of tenants facing eviction.
One of those tenants, Jessica Sousa, claimed she faced resistance from the court’s clerks when she tried to invoke the federal moratorium.
“[The clerk] 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; she said she hadn’t realized there was a separate Zoom hearing scheduled in the morning before her mediation session. A neighbor immediately drove her to the courthouse, where she said she tried to file a motion to stop her eviction, but it has never appeared in the court record.
A spokesperson for the housing court declined to comment on Sousa’s case.
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.”
The other tool the government created to prevent evictions during the pandemic was an expanded rental assistance program, which tenants in southeastern Massachusetts were far more likely to use than the federal eviction 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 recouped at least $268 million during the pandemic from federally funded rental assistance programs in Massachusetts. But nearly three-quarters of the money allocated for the programs has yet to be spent because of lack of awareness or difficulty accessing the program, an issue playing out across the country.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” said John Keenan, a Massachusetts state senator who chairs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing. “The money's just not getting where it should go, and if it did, we wouldn't have the increased number of evictions in some areas.”
For tenants who struggled to access rental assistance — or whose landlords refused to accept it — the federal moratorium was meant to be a last line of defense, a trump card that could pause an eviction until the pandemic subsided. But many tenants slipped through the cracks of both protections, sending hundreds of renters in the Southeast looking for new homes even as the government took unprecedented measures to keep them in their apartments.
No Single Cause For High Rate Of Evictions
Court leadership offered few explanations for what is driving the Southeast court’s exceptional rate of authorizing evictions. It's also unclear how long this pattern has persisted there. The Massachusetts Trial Court rejected several data requests, preventing a broader study of how eviction cases were handled.
The two permanent judges for the Southeast Housing Court, 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 answered 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 authorization rate.
“Resources available in some counties may have had an impact,” Sullivan said in an emailed statement, which suggested voluntary programs — such as 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 — discouraged landlords in other parts of Massachusetts from pursuing many evictions.
But even the measures Sullivan pointed to did not stem the tide of eviction cases entering the Eastern Housing Court in Boston. During the period reviewed by The Public’s Radio, landlords actually filed more eviction cases in the Eastern Housing Court than in the Southeast court — but a much larger number of those filed in the Southeast reached the harshest possible conclusion for tenants.
To date, Fall River has seen more authorizations for eviction 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 authorization 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 rejected by the court.
“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 announced plans to open a free legal clinic for tenants and landlords starting on Sept. 14.
The state government earmarked $12 million for expanding legal access in housing courts, but there were still glaring inequities between landlords and tenants, and the Southeast was no exception. Nearly 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.
Little Awareness Of The Federal Moratorium
Crystal Newhall, a mother of five in New Bedford who fought her eviction case at the Southeast Housing Court this winter, said remote schooling shifted costs like daytime meals and child care onto her family at the same time that her husband was sidelined from his job as a 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.”
Her landlord sued for eviction. 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. Still, Newhall said, the landlord 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.
Newhall never invoked the federal moratorium on evictions. She said she did not understand that the federal rules wouldn’t automatically protect her, and that it was her responsibility to file a two-page declaration.
"It came down to a matter of feeding the kids or paying the rent."Crystal Newhall
After the Supreme Court struck down the federal moratorium in August, any protections for tenants will have to come from local and state governments. The city of Boston recently enacted its own moratorium on evictions, though it likely will be challenged in court. The Massachusetts House Committee on Housing has started to draft a bill that would temporarily pause no-fault evictions and streamline the process of applying for rental assistance, but it does not appear to be fast-tracked for passage.
For now, Duarte — the mother evicted after the sewage problem in New Bedford — has had to move from Massachusetts to Texas and back again. And without any housing relief in sight, she expects she'll have to move again soon.
If someone you know is facing eviction in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, here are some resources:
A version of this story was originally published by The Public’s Radio. WBUR and The Public’s Radio have a partnership in which the news organizations share stories and resources to collaborate on stories.