Eviction Sealing Hearing Held May 9 at State House
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MassLandlords’ Executive Director Doug Quattrochi testified at the May 9 hearing against eviction sealing. Surprisingly, small and mid-sized landlords seemed at odds with the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, who sat alongside Senator Edwards in supporting the HOMES Act, a proposal that eviction records be sealed. Eviction sealing would make it harder to identify applicants who are coming off an eviction with their prior landlord.
Renter advocates say eviction sealing is necessary because not all landlords read and understand the court records, and therefore unfairly dismiss some applicants for rental housing.
A coalition of all the usual renter advocates appeared to support the HOMES Act, including CHAPA, Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, the Alliance of HUD Tenants, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Somerville Office of Housing Stability. Unusually, others whose roles seem less clearly pertinent also testified, including the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, Attorney General Andrea Campbell and Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden. A total of 107 were registered to testify at the hearing, but most spoke on another topic.
Despite apparent support, this hearing indicated that the HOMES Act may be foundering. Senator Edwards attempted to address comments made in MassLandlords’ written testimony, but was cut short.
She started, “This system [MassCourts.org] was not set up to allow people to screen out and discriminate against individuals. One of the ideas proposed is that we should somehow make people with eviction records a protected class. That literally means defining that person as an evicted tenant for the rest of their life and providing them protections.”
At this point, Representative Michael Day, chair of the hearing, said, “Senator, I hate to interrupt, but we’re going to have to ask you to wrap up.”
Representative Day had previously pointed out that time was up and had let the senator run over substantially.
MassLandlords has counter-proposed keeping court records open indefinitely and requiring landlords to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis. Whereas some prior evictions are no concern for some landlords, that same eviction for another landlord in another situation may be a disqualifier. Each landlord should see the record and decide whether that eviction is relevant. Some eviction filings will be irrelevant for all landlords, such as landlords and renters who accessed rental assistance and left court together again. The same case-by-case treatment has applied to records of arrests and convictions for many years now, and seems to be addressing concerns on all sides.
Senator Edwards did not explain how the MassLandlords’ proposal to expand discrimination protections would be worse than the CROWN Act, the most recent expansion of discrimination protections, which she supported without reservation last year. The CROWN Act makes it unlawful for landlords to comment on or consider hair styles normally associated with race. Senator Edwards wears locs. MassLandlords supported and produced a short training on the CROWN Act.
Senator Edwards also said, “We have talked with the courts” in the context of listing others in support. This seems to indicate a disconnect in the forecasts between MassLandlords’ estimate of the number of eviction sealing petitions and court staffing.
Our written testimony estimates that as many as 300,000 petitions could be filed for prior cases if the bill were to pass, and that 30,000 petitions per year could be filed thereafter. We also noted that the website SealMyEviction.com has already been registered to someone (it was not us!). This could make eviction sealing petitions as frequent as emotional support animal certificates purchased online, except SealMyEviction.com would directly generate work for the courts at taxpayer expense. It seems unlikely that the courts could sustain the level of eviction sealing activity we forecast, especially since landlords may contest eviction sealing. We predict lots of landlords will still remember and feel strongly enough about their case to oppose it being sealed.
Although it’s hard to predict what will happen, the MassLandlords testimony may have dampened enthusiasm for this bill. We arranged written testimony from half a dozen members, including Winton Corp in western Massachusetts, South Shore Apartments and individual landlords from across the state, including Erin Zamarro, Abi Weeks and Chris Scott. We are very grateful to these members who took the time to write the legislature.
The HOMES Act makes it likely that smokers evicted under a no-cause eviction procedure will be incorrectly screened into no-smoking housing.
It seems possible that the Greater Boston Real Estate Board’s role in supporting eviction sealing has been to water it down to much less than it was. They may want to aid in passing a useless bill rather than to oppose and lose against a strong bill.
In December, GBREB went on record with GBH as supporting eviction sealing. MassLandlords reached out to Trish Baumer at GBREB on Dec. 15, 2022, to request a phone call to discuss it. But Baumer demurred and said they wanted to wait and see what Senator Edwards filed.
Whereas four years ago, the eviction sealing proposal was to take effect for every case automatically upon filing, the latest HOMES Act would require a petition no sooner than (in the case of for-cause evictions) seven years after the last appeal ends.
Several commenters at the hearing based their testimony on prior bill versions, not realizing the latest version left their case unsealed and open to inspection.
For example, Gladys Vega, Executive Director of La Colaborativa, told the legislature at the hearing that she had been filed against 13 times since 1989, which would be an average eviction rate of once every two years (if she were an adult in 1989 and eligible to be named starting then). She supported the HOMES Act, not recognizing that the latest text would probably leave her name visible like that of most repeat defendants. (Her testimony was unclear in another sense, as well: we searched MassCourts.org and could not find Gladys Vega listed in Eastern Housing Court or Chelsea District court, the two jurisdictions that would apply based on her stated city of residence. This goes to show that MassCourts.org is far from the instant blocklist renter advocates make it out to be.)
In general, staff were surprised not to see much renter turnout, especially organized by groups like City Life/Vida Urbana, who were entirely absent.
MassLandlords left the hearing at 6:15 p.m. when it was still ongoing, but by which time testimony on the HOMES Act was declared complete by the chairs and the hearing had moved on to other topics.
Opposing eviction sealing is a top priority for members participating in our ongoing policy priorities survey. The HOMES Act full text is broken down into pieces and discussed, and our written testimony is filed and visible on our site. If you want to oppose eviction sealing, contact your representative and senator and ask them to write an email to the Chairs of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary that S.956 and H.1690 ought not pass.
Ask your representative and senator to oppose S.956 H.1690 the HOMES Act.