Here we consider five eviction myths and policy proposals centered around these misconceptions.
Myth 1: There are 40,000 Massachusetts Evictions a Year, or 110 a day.
Fact: There are about 3,000 evictions a year, or 8 forced removals a day.
Eviction is terrible, and if we could stop evictions, we would. But considering there are close to one million renter households in Massachusetts, forced removals are rare! A renter is 25% more likely to be the victim of a crime, 30% more likely to be lead poisoned, and twice as likely to have their building catch fire. As terrible and rare as all of these things are, evictions are rarer.
Where does this eviction data come from? The Eviction Lab looked at court records, publicly available at MassCourts.org, and counted every case in which the word “possession” appeared. “Possession” in Massachusetts Housing Court means a judge decided — or more often, both parties together agreed — that the renter would leave and the landlord would get the keys back. Eviction Lab published their data. The total number of eviction attempts is 40,000 per year. The total number of cases with the possession flag is 15,708 per year.
The Eviction Lab data include voluntary departures. “Eviction” makes us think of the scary, horrible scenario when the Sheriff comes during breakfast and, with a gun on their hip, oversees the packing and removal of a renter’s life’s possessions. Eviction Lab data do not count actual forced removals. They call themselves “Eviction Lab” only because they want people to pay attention.
To determine the true number of forced removals, we have to count the number of storage units receiving renter possessions. Based on our surveying in 2014, which could be repeated and improved, we estimate the actual number of evictions is closer to 8.
Consider the Right to Counsel proposal, which would spend $10 million annually on taxpayer funded attorneys for all renters in all eviction cases. What if we spent that money on housing instead of lawyers? Each evicted renter could get $3,000 worth of rental subsidy. If they needed $250/mo to make ends meet, this would be permanent housing assistance for each evicted resident in the Commonwealth.
Myth 2: Evictions are a Fast and Handy Tool for Landlords
Fact: Massachusetts eviction is expensive and should be expected to take 90 days from the moment a decision is made. Landlords go to great lengths to avoid it.
Imagine a developer who buys an older ten-unit building wants to gut renovate. Each of the ten units must be vacant.
If the developer gives an eviction notice to each household, one will get an attorney, statistically speaking. The attorney will delay the case between 90 days, the minimum procedural timeframe, and one year, a typical timeframe for a jury trial. During this time, the developer may get bad press. A group like City Life/Vida Urbana may picket management’s homes and call them bad things on Twitter. The case may cost $5,000 in legal fees alone. If the rest of the units also get attorneys, the costs will multiply per unit. This strategy may cost over $15,000 altogether and a year in court.
If, on the other hand, the developer opens a dialog with each household and offers a $1,500 relocation payment to each household, it’s likely that the households will move out voluntarily in less time and with less anger than in an eviction.
This is what we see in practice. So-called “cash for keys” agreements are not evictions. They are voluntary agreements. Renters who participate in “cash for keys” have substantial negotiating leverage, since the cost of evictions is so much higher. Payouts in Boston can be much higher than $1,500 per unit.
Consider the Just Cause Eviction proposal, which would require landlords to have so-called “good reason” to evict. Ask any landlord, they already have more than enough good reason by the time they get to court. Just Cause Eviction is just a disguised form of rent control. Which brings us to the next myth.
Myth 3: Landlords Like Raising the Rent
Fact: Landlords like money, and vacancy is a much bigger cost than below-market rents.
Imagine an apartment renting for $1,500/mo with a one-year lease due for renewal, where market rents are now much higher. If the landlord raises the rent 10%, they will get another $150/mo. Over the course of a year, that will be $1,800 extra, a worthwhile amount of money!
But if the renter decides not to pay the higher rent and leaves, then the landlord may not be able to fill the apartment again. If it takes a month to fix the place up, screen new renters, and establish a new tenancy, the landlord will lose $1,500 in vacancy expense. If it takes two months to re-rent the apartment, they will have $3,000 in vacancy expense. Each month vacant is another ten-month wait to break-even.
This is why it’s better for landlords to push gently on rent increases, and not to increase the rent if it’s possible a good renter will leave.
Consider rent control: It doesn’t help good renters who already have apartments. These renters already receive preferentially low rent raises. Rent control only discourages investment and upgrades that would justify big rent changes. We need investment and upgrades to create new housing, address climate change, add sprinklers, etc.
Myth 4: 90% of Landlords Gladly Hire Attorneys
Fact: Landlords are required by law to hire attorneys. Single member LLC owners and others would rather represent themselves and save money.
This statistic is often cited as a reason the playing field is not level in Massachusetts, because far fewer than 90% of renters hire attorneys. In fact, the Massachusetts playing field offers renter protections unsurpassed in any other part of the country.
We have two-week notice periods for nonpayment of rent. We have triple damages for the smallest violations of security deposit law. We wait twice as long as the nearest state before we can charge a late fee. We wait three times longer than the next nearest state before an evicted renter’s unclaimed belongings can be disposed of. The shortest possible eviction with a renter taking advantage of their legal remedy is 90 days. A renter can perform the “free rent trick” and move from landlord to landlord as a “professional tenant” accumulating over $100,000 in benefit, as one couple shows. Judges, court staff, and attorneys routinely prompt and assist renters to represent themselves to the fullest. The playing field may actually be stacked in favor of renters.
Consider a less well publicized proposal. If one sentence were added to MGL Chapter 221 Section 46, landlords would no longer be required to hire attorneys. This would free landlords to represent themselves. The natural frugalness of landlords could “level the playing field” for renters without attorneys. This would cost nothing.
Myth 5: Sealing Eviction Records would Help People of Color
Fact: The tougher we make access to public eviction records, the fewer applicants of color will be approved for housing because of disparate impact.
It’s true that renters of color are getting eviction records at disproportional rates, and that some of these records are grossly unfair. We need to fix it! But consider what happens if we hide information about pending evictions. What happens when a renter of color applies for a new apartment?
Because landlords can no longer know or discuss renter behavior, landlords will base their screening criteria more heavily on other factors. If a renter used to need a 2.5x income to rent ratio before, they might now need 3.5x. If they used to need a 650 credit score before, they might now need 700. If they used to need one or fewer CORI convictions in the last five years, they might now need to have a clean record.
How can people of color have equivalently high income if we didn’t all get the same educational opportunity? How can people of color have equivalently good credit if some of us were redlined out of credit building opportunities? How can people of color have equally clean CORI’s if some of us get convicted unfairly frequently for the same minor offenses?
Eviction sealing will make it disproportionately difficult for renters of color to get new housing until we address more fundamental issues of race.
Consider how little zoning gets discussed. Single family zoning may have racist origins. Racial disparities go deeper than that. To the extent that inheritable assets were accumulated under slavery, or destroyed or taken due to racism, there remains a systemic black-white wealth gap. Whether a renter’s name appears in a public eviction record is a matter of no consequence by comparison, especially when you consider that careful landlords inquire as to the nature of a record before making their decision.
Massachusetts Eviction Myths Conclusion
If we are to solve the Housing Crisis, it will be imperative that we set aside eviction myths and look at the full context in which Massachusetts evictions happen. Evictions are painful, but they are not the problem themselves. The problem is a lack of alternative, affordable housing, a systemic wealth gap, and a regulatory framework that reduces freedom of construction, subdivision, and housing choice. Any needed reform can be done in better targeted, less expensive ways than currently being proposed.
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