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City officials seek to curb evictions

City offers struggling tenants assistance

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO

City officials are planning to expand resources for a range of programs to reduce evictions in Boston, including financial assistance for families behind on rent or mortgage payments and increased production of affordable housing for low-income families.

Housing Chief Sheila Dillon on Dec. 20 released the city’s Action Plan to Reduce Evictions. The plan calls for a multi-pronged approach aimed at cutting evictions by 33 percent in public housing units and 25 percent in private housing.

In the years 2015 through 2017 — the most recent years for which city officials have data — approximately 5,000 evictions per year were filed, and 1,952 evictions were executed in 2017.

Speaking to reporters, Dillon said communicating with tenants and landlords early in the process is key to preventing evictions.

“We really need to get to tenants earlier,” she said.” We need to get to them when they’re falling behind in the rent. We really are going to look at how we can be more effective upstream.”

Domonique Williams, who heads to city’s Office of Housing Stability, echoed Dillon in emphasizing that the key to preventing evictions is to get tenants and landlords information about assistance early on.

“We found that trying to repair the relationship between landlords and tenants prior to eviction helps to prevent evictions from being filed in the first place,” she said.

The state-funded Rental Assistance for Families in Transition program is one of the main interventions city officials are currently relying on to help tenants. Administered by the Metro Housing Boston, the program provides up to $4,000 for families to pay off arrearages or find another apartment.

The new action plan calls for expanding the program and conducting outreach to landlords and tenants to let them know the funds are available.

The city last year provided $460,566 in Office of Housing Stability funds to 292 families to prevent evictions. The funds, capped at $2,000 per family, help with arrearages.

Another intervention is to work with housing court officials, legal services attorneys, tenants and property owners to draft arrearage agreements that allow tenants to become current on their owed rent over time.

Dillon said eviction prevention services cost less than the $5,500 to $8,000 it typically costs a landlord to move forward with an eviction.

The city’s goal of creating more affordable housing to prevent evictions dovetails with Mayor Martin Walsh’s goal of creating 69,000 units of new housing by 2030, 20 percent of which are to be affordable.

While 20 percent of the units built or in the construction pipeline are designated affordable, many of those units are still aimed at people earning more than 60 percent of the Greater Boston area median income — $49,800 for an individual. But the median income in many Boston neighborhoods is far below that figure, putting even subsidized housing out of reach for many low-income families.

While Dillon’s report did not cite specific numbers, it calls for new affordable construction to target households with low and extremely-low incomes and a cost-burden preference that would provide low-income households with demonstrated cost burdens priority for new affordable housing opportunities.

Elusive data

City employees were able to track evictions by poring through cases filed in Boston Housing Court. The data they collected does not reflect the full number of evictions, as some landlords file in other courts.

While evictions can be tracked to some degree, wider displacement data is harder to come by.

As Dillon noted, the number of evictions recorded doesn’t reflect the number of Boston renters displaced by hefty rent increases. Tenants are more likely to leave voluntarily when their rents are hiked.

“We don’t have any good data on displacement,” Dillon said. “When the 2020 Census comes out, we’ll have the data probably by 2022. We’ll be able to see income shifts or racial shifts by neighborhood, but we don’t have any data sets on who’s being displaced. The data doesn’t exist.”