Early Warning System
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MassLandlords Early Warning System
In a Nutshell
Green is new text, red is deleted text.
Early Warning System Overview
Massachusetts open meeting law requires notice of public hearing be posted at least 48 hours in advance, excluding weekends and holidays. Even with 48 hours’ notice, this is not much time, compared to insiders who know roughly when any given issue will be scheduled.
MassLandlords has automatic monitors running on key state and city websites. These sites are the locations where public notices will be announced for important issues, like the state-wide rent control bill, or your local town’s real estate tax rate hearing. We intend to add to and maintain these monitors as sites are added and changed.
The monitors we are using are unhelpful, in the sense that they cannot tell what is significant. Your review of each email as it arrives is critical to help us determine whether a change is significant or not.
Many of the monitors are pointed at muncipal pages, which announce school committee hearings, health and human services meetings, and much more on a single page. Feel free to use these monitors to follow and participate in issues beyond MassLandlords’ official scope.
How to be an effective monitor
Read your emails. You may be the only monitor for a given issue.
Watch out for truncated emails. Emails may be long, in which case the last line in the email may be “Message clipped” or similar. Always click this to view the entire email.
Forward to firstname.lastname@example.org any email that contains notice of a hearing, floor vote, or other action related to housing or transportation, or the bill being monitored.
Report needed monitor changes to email@example.com:
- Monitors may alert you to changes that are not related to public policy, for instance, the page may now show a link to submit a feedback survey. Forward that to us and suggest what we can exclude or change about the monitor to make it more specific to policy.
- Some communities create multiple pages for hearings, and each subpage is blank when it first appears. We will need to add monitors for those subpages, and/or switch that monitor to a more expensive, depth-crawling monitor for that community.
Feel free to use the message boards to publish notice of hearings. Our message boards are a great way to engage other local owners privately. You do not need MassLandlords’ permission to organize local attendance at hearings. Remember our guidelines for speaking in public.
Do not report non-housing or non-transportation issues. Much of what our communities do is very important and signficant, including schools, safety, health and social services, and much more, but we can’t weigh in on all of it. If it a bill or hearing is not related to housing or transportation (which determines where housing is needed or built) please do not report it to us.
Do not filter our emails to spam, or mark them as spam. If you don’t want to get emails anymore, update your subscription preferences on the Early Warning Page at MassLandlords.net. Give us one week to remove you. It’s a manual process.
Many cities post notice of a meeting first, with an agenda to be posted later. Get the link for where the agenda will appear, and have us add that to the Early Warning System by emailing the link to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On a windows machine, you can search long agendas for keywords like “housing” or “landlord” by pressing Control-F. On a mac, press Command+F.
If we’re not covering a city or a type of notice, tell us. Email email@example.com with the link you want us to watch.
We will send a notice every 10 days that lets you know the system is still working and shows new things we’ve added for tracking.
Webinar: Early Warning System
Early Warning System
Douglas Quattrochi – Doug
Jillian Campayno- Jillian
Naomi Richardson – Naomi
Doug: Alright we’ll get started here. Welcome to this webinar on the early warning system.
Just a technical note. Everyone starts on mute. If you need to submit a question orally rather than in typing, you can raise your hand to speak; otherwise the best way to ask question is to find the Q&A button in your Zoom control bar. You might have to swipe left, right, up, or down to get it to appear, but it’s there somewhere, and you can chat your questions. Everyone who attends will probably be able to see your question. Our panelists are able to see as well and we do not allow chat uh between attendees at this, but you can chat to our technical hosts here, Jillian and Naomi, who will introduce shortly if anything is in need of correction; otherwise use the Q&A feature.
Let’s just give you some fast facts about MassLandlords quickly. We are a 501(c)6 nonprofit trade association. We’ve got a bunch of folks who work with us at the team. This is not everybody. It’s just the sampling. Our mission is to create better rental housing by helping owners run profitable, compliant, quality businesses. We need to make money to provide housing year after year. We need to follow all the laws to be effective advocates to change them. We want to be proud to be associated with one another.
We’re democratically governed. We have an annual election for the board of directors every December. We have an ongoing policy priority survey. We’ve got lots of engagement across the state. I particularly want to point out that our policy work is funded by property rights supporters who pay in addition to the base minimum dues of about $100 a year extra, so that we can develop things like this early warning system.
Let’s just mention one more thing about helping owners. We do operate a crash course regularly. It’s a virtual course at the present time. It will be back in person in the future, but it’s really impactful and I’ve talked to a lot of folks recently who are not totally sure about how they should be screening renters or dealing with non-payment situations. This course is really critical, so if you haven’t attended it before, if you want to attend it again you’re definitely welcome. Make sure to check out on our event listing when the next course is.
Let’s get started with today’s program. So just a note about how Zoom webinars work here. I am officially called the presenter I’m the executive director of MassLandlords. My name is Doug Quattrochi, and our technical host, the person who can see and interact with you and your questions is Jillian Campano. She’s our information manager.
I’m going to present for about 40 minutes here. We have lots of time for Q&A. We may not use it all and we’ll end at 1 o’clock, and this event is being recorded so you can refer to it in the future or point others to it.
So let’s get started. This is all about our so-called early warning system. In particular today, we want to review what the early warning system is. I’ll say up front is basically just an emailer and it will email us about public hearings. We’ll talk about why this matters in the context of the political process in Massachusetts and we’ll put a point to the importance of public hearings. We’ll show you in brass tacks real examples what the early warning system does and is capable of doing. We’ll talk about some success stories where it’s been really impactful, and we’ll talk about how where we haven’t had it we’ve actually been impacted negatively by the lack of an early warning system there.
We’ll end with some FAQ that we’ve prepared in advance, and also just a review about why you would want to volunteer to help with this and what other volunteer opportunities may be available.
So first let me start with the key message for today.
The early warning system is just an emailer and it just looks at specific webpages that we deem to be of importance to the policy process and tells us if anything new is appearing. If there are any changes by way of addition, it will show it in email in green and if there are any deletions from the public page, it will show us in red. So for instance here we have a sample bill page presented by Senator DiDomenico and on June 25, 2020, it showed an email that the house had concurred with an action. We’ll talk about what all this means, but in a nutshell that’s what it’s doing,. looking at webpages, emailing us what’s new.
Let’s talk about the levels of political process and power in Massachusetts so that we have a kind of grounding about why this early warning system is needed and how it fits in. So here’s a picture of a typical town hall, This happens to be Rowe in northwestern Massachusetts. I mean to me this just speaks Massachusetts. It’s a wood frame building. It’s a small parking lot. You know everybody in the townhall by name. That’s what so much of Massachusetts is about.
We do have a number, couple dozen of cities with larger city halls. This is a picture of Cambridge uh in eastern Massachusetts. There’s very different approaches to governance and policy and so on. You know Cambridge works really hard on housing policy, Rowe probably not so much. The point is in Massachusetts, we’ve got so many different political divisions to keep track of. Fourteen counties, which are not shown here, largely kind of anachronistic but still very important in terms of civil process and some other procedures not so much relevant in terms of law making but still there. We’ve got 39 cities. We’ve got 312 towns, and we’ve got a whole bunch of unincorporated neighborhoods and villages. People might identify or have some purview in specific areas and we have to be aware of all the different political divisions.
Of course on top of all of this, all the municipal governments that we have, we have the state house. That’s Beacon Hill in Boston, the seat of the legislature. A lot of state capitals have this gold dome to indicate that’s the seat of state authority. Basically all of these different layers are reflected in a political pyramid here. We, the people, are the foundation of everything that’s what it means to be in a democracy, so we give our authority to an entity called the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that operates as a state for the people within its boundaries. The towns and cities actually derive their authority not just from the people who live in them but also from the state, so the people first created the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Commonwealth then granted authority to towns and cities to operate in certain ways within their geographic boundaries. We call it a municipality. It could be a city or town it could be a village. There’s a whole variety of different options there.
A law can be made at any one of these levels, so just explain the three levels of lawmaking in alignment with this power pyramid, so-called.
If a bunch of people decide that we should have a new law, for instance as we did a couple years ago, we decided cannabis should be no longer criminal recreational weed should be allowed. Then a bunch of people can get together what’s called an initiative petition. and so they get a bunch of signatures and they present it to the legislature.
The legislature may enact it or may not, but if not, it goes on to the ballot and then we all vote on it at a general election. If it passes, it goes back to the legislature to be enacted into law, so that’s how people can make a law; that is by no means as common as having our elected reps and senators do it. Typically most of the laws in Massachusetts are developed at the state level. That’s what we really properly call a law or sometimes a statute, not a statue but a statute with a T at the end.
Towns and cities also have authority to pass local laws. We tend to call those ordinances and it’s doubly confusing because they also have bylaws, which determine how they’re supposed to operate. Regardless of the level, a law can start anywhere and it can be really important to know the difference about what process we’re starting.
Now in addition to this different hierarchy of where laws can come from, we also have a bunch of different branches of government at the state level. So for instance the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is divided into three separate branches that we call legislative, executive, and judicial.
What we’re focusing on with the early warning system is only part of what can affect us in the rental business. So for instance the town of Rowe, the State of Massachusetts, those have legislative bodies of some kind and that’s what we’re focusing on today. The executive branch includes the governor’s office and all the agencies that administer the laws. For instance if the state house if our reps and senators declare that lead paint is dangerous, they can delegate authority to the executive branch to make the regulations that determine well how much lead in paint is dangerous, how much blood lead level is too much. The law comes from the legislative. It gets implemented with regulation in the executive. Likewise the judicial branch can be very influential and important in our rental businesses because it affects how we preserve and access our rights, so for instance the courts decide whether we have to have an attorney represent us, and the courts recently decided how rent escrow motions are supposed to be heard. All of these things are very important for rental business, but in terms of today we’re not talking about the executive or the judicial branch. The early warning system generally doesn’t have anything to add there.
Okay, so let’s talk about one more caveat before we move on. There are elected officials at each level, so let’s say a bunch of us want to pass a new law by initiative petition. We can’t just go to a street corner and declare a new law by shouting. We have to follow a certain process, and there are many gatekeepers for that, not the least of which is the secretary of the Commonwealth who decides whether our question is going to appear on a ballot at all.
At the state level, the gatekeepers are called representatives and senators on the legislature side, and at the town level I haven’t put all the terms here and of course we know we need to update them to be more gender inclusive, but aldermen, selectmen, councilors, and so on all of these people are very influential in terms of whether something actually gets enacted and to put a point to what today’s about, we’re not going to cover how to change the people who hold those offices. MassLandlords may be involved in this in the future, maybe involved in elections for officials but is not particularly what the early warning system is designed to do.
Let’s focus back on the process about how an idea becomes a law. The way we’re going to teach it here, we’re going to look at the state process. It’s very similar for a town or city, it’s not the same. It’s very similar for the federal government, not exactly the same. At the state level, there are kind of five stages. There’s the docket. There’s the committee. There’s the floor, I think we’ve heard of the floor of the house and senate, the executive, and then the actual law or statute.
Each stage has a number of actions that go with it to access it or to leave it so. For instance, if you have an idea that you want to pass into law, you have to have it drafted. There are rules about drafting. You have to have capital words here and this can’t be capital. You have to refer to certain sections. You can’t change certain other sections that aren’t mentioned. Drafting rules, when a bill is drafted and you send it to the legislature, it’s called filing it that gets it onto the docket. Once a bill is docketed. it will be assigned to a committee. Again talking about gatekeepers it can be very impactful which committee an idea gets assigned to. Some ideas might be assigned to a committee that won’t value the idea and you know at the moment of an assignment that that idea is not going to get passed into law because the committee is just not going to act on it. That happens.
In housing you’ve got a judiciary. You’ve got a housing committee and they have different priorities. If the committee is doing its job it will schedule a hearing on an idea. It will ideally schedule that one idea by itself, but as a practical matter, so many ideas get filed. These hearings tend to have lots of different ideas grouped into them. The point is that’s where we’re going to focus with the early warning system.
The hearing is the first step in the process and really the only step where direct democratic input can come to bear on what’s going to turn into law. The rest of it is mostly done with elected officials. After hearing, a committee can decide whether they want to report it out and we’re going to focus on hearings but I just want to explain the rest of it for the sake of context. If it gets reported out it can be scheduled for a debate on the floor of the house or senate. If the debate goes well and it gets passed, then that vote will result in the bill being sent to the executive. Sometimes what happens is the house and the senate pass different versions of the same idea, in which case that language has to be conferenced together before it goes to the executive.
The executive means the governor or someone who has to sign it into law, it depends. At a city level it could be the mayor. At the state level, it’s the governor. Depending on the timing of the process, the governor may or may not have to sign that bill before it becomes a law, so I won’t go into that timing here but basically we think of a law duly enacted it’s been voted on by both houses. The text is the same and the governor signs it. That’s the traditional process.
This whole process takes place in the context of what’s called a session. The legislature meets. They’re legally called the general court. It’s an arcane term, but they’re not actually a court of law. They’re the general court of representatives and senators. Their two-year sessions are designed to provide a definite start and end to the policy-making process, and they’re numbered. For instance, the 190th General Court started in 2017 and ended in 2018. We’re currently in the 191st General Court that started in 2019 and it was supposed to end this August, but they extended it due to the pandemic. They’re allowed to do that, so we’re still in the 191st session.
This process looked at in the context of the 191st session is long and is not what we would design if we actually wanted to make good public policy. For example, all the bills with the exception of some emergency bills related to the pandemic that could possibly pass into law had to be filed by January 2019, so if anybody’s had a good idea since unless it’s filed as an emergency law, we’re not considering it. That’s not really great, and then the way housing works typically, you have to wait a whole year from the moment a bill is filed to the moment there’s actually a public hearing on it. It could be much faster, it could be much slower. For anything that people actually want to pass, usually nothing happens until the last minute. Like a whole bunch of kids who didn’t do their book report until the night before it’s due, the legislature scrambles to pass certain things that are deemed of primary importance.
Note, for instance that the governor at time of this webinar is being asked to sign a bill on police reform in Massachusetts. The legislature has had a whole two years to work on this it’s only reaching the governor’s desk now in December, and if you look back over prior sessions, they’ve had much more, really much more time to make some kind of effort in terms of police reform, but here we are the night before it’s due actually doing something.
As I mentioned before this is not what we would design for a normal process. This hearing which is of the utmost importance in terms of democratic participation should result in a whole lot of feedback that the bill drafters didn’t think about, a whole lot of good ideas, and then we should be able to go back and change our bill text and make sure that everybody who had an opinion on it has been listened to. If their idea is valid, has been incorporated, and then we shouldn’t have to wait a long time before we can repropose that bill, but as a practical matter we will so these hearings in a two-year session can stop a bill if they don’t go well and then you have to wait until the next two-year session before that same idea can be evaluated again.
Of course this process is very uncertain and if you end up with any controversy at a hearing, the bill could end up squashed, not going anywhere, so the way a lot of important legislation gets made is with the so-called backroom just to put a point to this before I go on to that, 90 percent of all the ideas filed are actually going to fail. They’re not going to go anywhere and not get passed into law and the 10 percent that do pass often pass with controversy because the final compromise isn’t iterative. After the hearing they can change the text, but they don’t necessarily have another hearing aid. To avoid this whole process, we have the so-called backroom process. Bills that are going to succeed usually have a whole lot of special attention paid to them before they ever get filed and the whole process runs smoothly because it’s by design. In terms of what we’re talking about today with the early warning system, this is not something that we’re going to address.
Let me give you a little synthesis summary so far about all the political landscape that we’ve talked about.
The early warning system is not going to help us win legal battles in court, reduce executive branch regulations so lower the lead paint limit or anything like that. It doesn’t help us elect new elected officials it doesn’t help us reform the process by which bills are made, and it certainly doesn’t help us be influential and have a personal connection with the folks who are in charge of the process, the so-called gatekeepers. The early warning system that we’re talking about now does help us to show support for bills we want and to show opposition for bills we don’t, so that’s what we’re focusing on with this.
Let me talk a little bit more about process to walk you into why the early warning system is needed. Any kind of controversy that hasn’t had backroom shepherding is going to be very bad for a bill and there’s a lot of controversy in housing, so that’s why housing doesn’t get acted upon. Decade after decade, we don’t have substantive housing reform in Massachusetts.
We’ve got a picture on the left of a landlord protest from this summer, not something MassLandlords had anything to do with as a matter of fact. Well we discouraged folks from participating for a couple good reasons I don’t need to go into here, but they’re saying well let’s cancel property taxes. Okay, I don’t know how we’re supposed to fund municipal budgets infrastructure, utilities if we don’t have property taxes, so you know there’s a limitation to public advocacy in the street, but renters try it, too, and more frequently than landlords.
Here’s a picture from 2016. There are much more frequent instances of renter public protests but we’re just pulling up this 2016 one because it’s a die-in and I think it speaks to the emotional and physical importance of housing. If someone loses their housing and doesn’t have a place to live it can drastically alter their life, shorten it, diminish it so housing is a really serious business, and because so much is at stake, the legislature just generally doesn’t touch it, anything that’s controversial don’t want to wade into. Hearings, the way that whole broken process over two years is set up that one moment of hearing is particularly unhelpful.
Most folks who have a bill that they want to pass into law actively don’t need or want public participation. A bill gets filed because there’s a constituency and or an elected official, a gatekeeper who likes the idea, and they drafted something mostly on their own or armchair philosophizing this is the way the world should be and they put it together and they file it.
The actual political work of making a bill that’s going to be universally admired and accepted is very, very difficult and cannot be done in an armchair. You have to have really tough conversations with a whole lot of people who you might not even seem to have any common ground with to start. Landlords have tended not to ask renter advocates for input in the policy bills that we have filed, and renter advocates have tended not to ask landlords for input in the policy bills they have filed because that’s really hard and uncomfortable and is uncertain to do anything.
If you’ve got a bill that you like an idea that you want really actually nothing good comes from public comment. Even if you have done the hard work of trying to build consensus you can post your bill and at a public hearing you’re still going to get some personality troll who doesn’t like you or doesn’t like some other unrelated thing and they’re going to bring that up at the hearing and potentially that’s going to be enough to scuttle the bill, and if someone has a good idea that hadn’t been incorporated into the bill at the filing, it could still be incorporated maybe if it’s small but if it strikes at the heart of the bill and reveals that the bill itself is misguided or misaimed or is going to have some huge unintended consequence, then there’s not another opportunity to refile that whole thing and have another hearing and get more input on the new version. It’s just done for the session.
Even if you’ve got a really good compromise that reflects input from all sides, you’re very likely to find that your own base of supporters, the constituents you’re trying to help in the first place, some of them at the far end of the spectrum, are going to resist your bill because it doesn’t go far enough, so now you’re trying to do the right thing and guess something that will work and you’re being attacked by your own side.
So in general public hearings the way the process is set up currently are not particularly helpful and they particularly do not email folks about their hearings, so it’s the case that if someone has a brilliant idea in housing, they don’t go broadcast to all the housing advocacy organizations on both sides of the aisle so to speak, and say, “Oh, I’ve got this great hearing. I want your input.” No, no, no. They keep it very quiet because if there’s no opposition if it’s an empty city council chamber like that there in Boston, then something could pass and the representative, the city councilor could get something done and look helpful simply because nobody realized what was going on. I realize that’s a somewhat cynical view but that happens.
Fortunately for us, we live in a democracy where the law requires elected officials and gatekeepers to post at least something about their initiative. We have an Open Meeting Law, Chapter 38 Sections 18-25. It says, “Except in an emergency, a public body shall post notice of every meeting at least 48 hours prior to such meeting excluding Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays.” So let’s say you want to have a meeting on Monday, Sunday and Saturday don’t count. You’ve got to have at least 48 hours’ worth of Friday and Thursday of notice before you can have a hearing about that bill. Unfortunately for us even though we have this law there are literally a hundred violations pending investigation by the AG at any given time. Lots of people do not follow the law because they want to do their own thing with government and they don’t want any messy hearings interrupting their process.
I’ll just mention here before we get into the details of the early warning system. If we find a violation we can report it, and I’ll give you an example in a minute of how notice was posted backdated. It doesn’t count. The fact that you said you knew on the 23rd but you didn’t post it until the 26th, it doesn’t count. We’ll talk about that in a minute.
So what can we look at in terms of finding whether there is a posting? It used to be we all read the same newspapers. Now print costs being what they are and the fact that there are so many different media outlets, we don’t post in the media. We just post on our own municipal or state sites. So the early warning system is going to read these particular pages where the postings happen and if there’s anything posted it’ll email us. It can be a state bill page. It could be a city hearing page. It could be a non-profit blog because sometimes the nonprofits are tied into the process better than anyone else and they want to advertise to their members and or brag and or promote a new initiative or post an initiative. Of course, reps and senators themselves know the process and often tweet or blog about it in advance of the official posting on the state or city site. This early warning system is an all-purpose tool. It can be pointed at any webpage. Unfortunately, it’s just a dumb machine, so it doesn’t know the significance of what’s being said. It relies on a person to read the email it sends and say this doesn’t matter or this does matter.
Let’s go through an example. Here is the rent cancellation bill from this summer. It’s Session 191 House Docket 5166-House 4878, Rent Cancellation 191-HD5166-H4878. There’s a docket number. There’s a house number. Again if I could make the rules I would eliminate these because it’s confusing to people but you could have all those numbers to identify it. It lives at this webpage, https://malegislature.gov/bills/191 for the session, these are the docket number only HD 5166, malegislature.gov/bills/191/HD5166.
There’s a section of bill history and it goes through and it says, “Okay you know what on July 13th, it was referred to the committee on house rules.” Remember we talked about how it gets assigned to committee so that happened. Then on July 23rd, a hearing was scheduled for July 28th from 9:00 to 12:00 in written testimony only, so what that means is the reps and senators are going to have a Zoom and they’re going to look at stuff that’s been submitted in writing. Normally they’d be in a room and they’d listen to people who talk in person, but that’s the notice of hearing. That’s the critical event there, so that’s what the early warning system can flag. The moment that gets added to the website, the moment someone types in on the bill page that this is happening, the early warning system can see that and alert us to it.
It is possible for us to do this review manually, so we could ask a volunteer to just refresh this page. This is a very important page. It’s your job to keep looking at it. Look at it every day, every morning, every meal whatever, but realistically that’s just too much work. That’s why we developed a computer system to check this for us, so it will check the page on a regular schedule and let us know as soon as it checks if it sees anything different.
Now the computer system is going to produce an output that looks like this, so there’ll be an email. For instance if you’re subscribed to the statewide bills category, there’ll be an email sent to statewidebills@MassLandlords.net. That address is restricted. It can only be sent to from our early warning system. It will show us in green things that have happened.
For instance, this date on this email is Sunday, July 26th at 1:00 in the morning. Alright, I hope your phone doesn’t ping when you get an email because the computer is working all the time. It found Sunday, 1:00 in the morning that there’s a change to the website and it found that this hearing was scheduled. Now this is odd because this Sunday, July 26th time is three days after they decided that there was going to be a hearing. It says they decided on July 23rd that there was going to be a hearing scheduled. So what does this mean? It means that our elected officials knew on Thursday that there was going to be a hearing and for whatever reason maybe technical delay, they didn’t post the notice until Saturday or Sunday at midnight or something like that. That gave us essentially one day’s notice because we found out Sunday. Sunday is not a business day, Monday the staff come in to work at MassLandlords. We have one day to get people organized for that hearing. Is that enough? Yes, we’ll talk about it in a second. But let me just summarize first how the system works with some observations.
This early warning system we’ve developed is not as good as having a friend in the legislature and we know we need to work up to that. Folks who work in renter advocacy do have close connections. They text for the reps and senators and so on. They know stuff before we will through their early warning system because of these technical delays so-called. Are they Open Meeting Law violations? Yes, they are. Can we report them and get them investigated? Yes, but will the state change if they have an actual bona fide technical limitation? Maybe not. So we’re always going to be playing catch up even though we have a so-called early warning system.
Also note that the emails it sends are technically demanding, so it takes an excerpt of the webpage without the full formatting of the webpage, and we need to approach that excerpt with a clear head and no distractions. For instance, we’ve got to be able to focus in on that highlighting a red versus green. We’ve got to click the links that are highlighted sometimes. We’ll show you some examples of links in a minute. Sometimes it’s not clear from the red-green text what’s relevant. Then we need to understand does this matter to housing or can I ignore this for now?
Remember, as I said cynically earlier, the people who are filing bills generally don’t want input at the hearings because hearings don’t generally help a bill advance and therefore all these notices are not clear or concise or specific to what’s happening. Hearing is scheduled. Was there a link to how to submit testimony? No, there was not. Would I put one there if I were designing a better system? Yes I would, but they didn’t so it’s very difficult for us to manage this.
Even with all of these difficulties, we know that this early warning system is working and is worth sustaining with volunteer effort. For instance, in July 2019, we were notified just two days in advance basically about July hearing. It was going to be on eviction sealing, right to counsel, and rent escrow, and we were able to get dozens of volunteers to write in, call in, and attend in person for that one at the time was an in-person hearing.
We showed strong opposition to eviction sealing, which is the closure of public records and secret courts. We showed strong opposition to right to counsel, which is in many of the forums filed in this session one-sided, renters only not for indigent landlords either. We show strong support for rent escrow. Although there still isn’t a rent escrow law passed, it is noteworthy that at the most well-spoken and well-organized hearing we’ve ever had for rent escrow, that preceded a major decision in late 2019 by the courts that requires courts now to consider rent escrow motions.
A December 2019 case called Davis v Comerford totally undercuts the need for rent escrow bill by establishing through court process that rent escrow motions cannot be ignored and must be evaluated according to a set of criteria. In many ways, the court kind of headed off a law they might not have wanted. Partly I’m confident in response to our continued advocacy and our increasing organization. What I’m saying is even though we didn’t get an actual law passed, the result of our policy advocacy through the hearing, it changed the landscape a little, so that’s very much worth doing.
What kind of things can you as a member, a volunteer look at? The selection is at https://MassLandlords.net/ews. You can follow state agencies, so I did. I crossed out the executive branch earlier and said we don’t follow regulations, but actually there is an EWS page for that so some regulations have to go through a notice and comment period and so that is being followed. You can follow statewide bills like rent cancellation. You can look at municipal schedules -Boston, Cambridge, Framingham, Holyoke, Lawrence. We’ve got pages up and running on all of these.
You can look at non-profits more generally. I mentioned that a lot of nonprofits are very knowledgeable about budget and bills and so on. You can follow them. We have mostly other cities. We also have a category snuck in here, reps and senators who identify as progressive. Just because those folks tend to be working in housing and tend to know about some of these bills before we do you could check off any one of them. If you’re really gung-ho, you could check off all of them. I don’t particularly recommend that because you will get a lot of emails, but the point is it’s your choice, and if you don’t see your town or city listed or if there’s a particular page you think we should be following that we’re not, it’s as easy as emailing the team to add a new button for it and then we’ll give you that preference and you can start following that page. The system is very expandable.
Let’s walk through this whole process again with a with a real example. We got an email from EWS Boston. They all have this subject early warning system, and then the category of early warning and we see the green text is stuff that’s been newly added to a Boston page. Now I haven’t shown any red text here, but I’ll point out. Sometimes it’s useful to look at the red text just to see if you missed something. Sometimes these things get added and then removed so quickly that you can miss it when it turns green, but you see it when it’s red.
In this example, here we’ve got a Metro Boston Homeland Security meeting. We’ve got a city council committee on ways and means hearing on dockets 1085-1086. We’ve got a Boston Civic Design Commission virtual meeting, among others in the email. What this early warning system is telling us is that there’s some hearing scheduled, in particular one on ways and means. So as a volunteer we need to get familiar with this policy process, which is why I taught some civics at the beginning. Ways and means is it means money, so it could be called the city council committee meeting on money or budget. That could be impactful. That could be enacting a new rental subsidy or enacting a new real estate tax or something.
If you uh look at this email here, there’s some links in it, so that’s step two. You’ve got to investigate the links. If you want to see the original page, the actual page that’s on the city website, you can click the link up here at upper left called website. It will take you there; if on the other hand you want to jump right to whatever the city council committee on ways and means link is pointing to, you can click that there. You don’t have to go to the original city website. You can get it right from your email.
In this example, let’s say that the city council committee on waste and means is pointing to a specific page you can click that link and you’ll go to the city page and you’ll see what it says. Dockets 1085-1086 is a hearing regarding the appropriation of funds for a new Josiah Quincy Upper School building. That sounds wonderful. If that’s interesting to you as a Boston resident or Boston owner, that’s great, and you can use this information to get involved on things that aren’t strictly MassLandlords missions so you can go and say, “Hey! I support the school,” or, “No, I don’t support that school in particular because you know the funding you’re pulling from the wrong place or whatever.” Whatever it is, it’s up to you.
There’s no need to contact MassLandlords for that kind of thing. We don’t generally get involved in education. You want to search for things that are related to housing, a tenant, renter anything related to that. It might say owner. It might say stabilization. That’s a keyword. You can use on Windows control F or on Mac you can do command F and that will open up a little thing where you can find in page. You can search for these words pretty quickly. You get a sense for what’s important.
Let me give an example of something that is important. In late September, early October they posted notice of the Housing Stability Notification Act. This was a big deal and a big miss for us, so I’ll talk about that in a second, but basically if you had seen this come through with early warning, you might have been the only Boston member to notice. We want everyone who sees something to forward the green and red email to EWS, early warning system at masslandlers.net. If 20 members for that same email that’s totally fine because we want to know about it and if it’s something important to get a signal of 20 emails in our staff inboxes it’s a-okay.
We’re definitely worse off for not having had good participation in certain communities. For instance, the Boston Housing Stability Notification Act has a fine of $300 per day in it and that’s going to go from the moment someone issues a notice to the moment it’s discovered in court possibly months later. Someone is going to get a $30,000 fine and be bankrupted by this. We really wished we could have been there at the hearing to say, “Don’t pass this this way. If you want to have a penalty for people who don’t give the appropriate notice there might be another way to do it but you’re going to inadvertently bankrupt someone who didn’t get the memo.”
Similarly, Cambridge has an unlawful eviction moratorium just sitting out there, discouraging legal state actors from participating in in the normal process courts and sheriffs and so on, so that’s not good.
Then Somerville, you’ve got this five-year notice requirement on condos. It’s tied up in litigation, but it would have been better to get it before it got to the litigation point and say at a hearing you know like five years it might as well be 50. I mean if you don’t want to have condos just say so and give people another way to use their building.
Anyways, the point is these bills might have been amended or entirely stopped if we had been there to participate, and the Somerville one is in litigation particularly over open meeting law because they did not give appropriate notice, it’s alleged. That’s all relevant and we really need to have participation at all these different levels to make sure we’ve covered all our bases.
Let’s go through some free prepared frequently asked questions we think might be on your mind.
What if these emails are too broad like Boston has so many meetings all the time. They’ve got a giant municipal machine? I really don’t need to see all that. Do I?
The answer is no. We can shorten them, so for instance if you notice that storage and garage hearings are relevant to us, and so are city council meetings sometimes and also anytime the word housing appears, we can set up sub-filters under the Boston label to look at those things specifically and you can leave the broad Boston category and focus just on those issues so you’ll be the storage and garages person and that’s totally fine. Just note that by default, every time we add a new city or town, we’re going to look at their public posting page and we’re going to get everything.
Lots of sneaky stuff is done to avoid opposition. For instance, we have a budget that we need to pass every year in Massachusetts. The budget should be about money but there’s a lot of non-money landlord-tenant policy being proposed through budget amendments. They want to have tenant opportunity to purchase and they want to have eviction sealing and all this stuff that’s not related to budget. They’re doing that because they’re hoping no one’s going to notice.
It’s really important to cast a broad net and have some volunteer brainpower to look at it and say you know what this you wouldn’t expect to be important but this is actually very important to us. Now if you start this process, there’s no commitment so if you need to take a break after a while just uncheck the boxes you don’t want. We’re not like those catalog companies that say –
[Oh! We print these oh excuse me. Talking for too long here.]
We’re not like these catalog companies that print catalogs a year in advance, and we say, “Oh, yes! You’re going to get this mailing forever.” Just give us a little bit of time to sync that and we’ll be a-okay, get you off that list.
Okay now of course if you get too many emails, you can filter all of your emails into a subfolder and then set yourself a reminder to go and review those when you have time and mental energy. For instance might be Thursday evening, it might be Saturday afternoon. Get yourself a cup of tea or I should have a cup of warm water here instead of cold for my voice but basically find a time where it’s appropriate for you to go in and look at that stuff so you’re not getting it like when you’re trying to do real estate stuff you’re not getting these emails about hearings. The result would be you just ignore the emails about hearings because that’s not that’s not your business.
I really recommend you set up a filter if you’re going to do this and set up a time to go in and go and look at these things. In general, it’s really helpful to have this volunteer input. We do have lots of volunteers already and I just want to encourage you as well to get your city and town follow to our list and then set up a schedule to check these emails regularly and notify us of anything that might be important so for instance early warning system at MassLandlords.net that will go out to our staff and we’ll be able to address that.
If you like the idea of volunteering for MassLandlords but you don’t think this is quite it, there is a whole list of opportunities available at the member homepage and at MassLandlords.net/volunteers, so you can look at this and say, “Okay, yes we’re looking for at this moment a networking time moderator,” so lots of things that you can do.
Let me just end on a positive note of affirmation. It’s actually really exciting to discover something that’s being proposed. Odds are good if you see it from our early warning system you’re going to be the first in the whole state to notice it. It gives us a real sense of control over policy.
It can make you feel instead of like a disrespected profession that they’re trying to pass laws against it can make you feel more an agent able to advocate for what you need to provide housing the way you do. There’s very little you can do with email that’s so impactful honestly, so this is a really a good thing to try and it’s very comfortable where if you participate in early warning system you don’t have to be the one who’s out there holding the sign. We’ll probably never ask people to hold signs anyways, but there’s no need to get involved. You just be totally behind the scenes, just send these emails over to us as you see them. It’s really impactful.
Then we’re going to do all the heavy lifting of coordinating presence at hearings, written testimony. Our legislative affairs council can write in for testimony and so on, so it’s a really great contained way that can really be feel good to discover something useful.
In conclusion, the early warning system is just a thing that looks at a webpage and tells us if something’s different. It’s one piece of a very complicated political process. It’s definitely working. We have used this to attend hearings and deliver needed opposition and also make some inroads in some areas and we can see that where we haven’t had it or we haven’t had good review of all the stuff flying out there in terms of public notices. We can see that we’re impacted negatively by it.
We really need folks to read and understand what the system is producing and to help us fine-tune it so that it produces the right level of signal without too much noise, so I encourage you to sign up and try it at https://MassLandlords.net/ews, and you can get your own categories added by emailing hello@MassLandlords.net.
At this point I guess I will stop here and I’ll stop sharing as well and open it up for questions. Jillian, what have we had for questions come in?
Questions and Answers
Jillian: Okay, yes. Can you talk a little bit more specifically on how they could filter these emails better into their inbox please?
Doug: Sure, yes. So every email service is a little different. I use Gmail because I find those filters to be very helpful. In the case of Gmail, I go to the upper right and I go I click the gear and I see all settings and then there’s a whole tab for filters, and you can set up something that would say like if the subject is EWS, I want to skip the inbox. I want to put. this label on it, and then later you can go back and click that label and see all the EWS emails. It willbe different if you’re on Outlook or you’re on iCloud, but the basic idea is there and they all have some kind of rule. It might be called a rule or a filter.
Jillian: Okay, yes. Could you answer about being you must be a member before participating in the EWS?
Doug: Right, yes so we just want to make sure that the integration with our information systems is tight and the way it works if you sign up and pay dues, then we have all the information we need to help you make sure that that when you select stuff it’s going to get tied to your account as opposed to have a separate system where we’re trying to match this person’s name, is this the same name and so on. It’s just much easier if you log in and register as a member.
Other questions or comments? I can look at the question answer now I stopped sharing as well. So we have a question from Joe here I guess, environmental waste solutions. Well yes it depends. If it’s bracket, EWS, then we really can’t help with that but maybe try adding that square bracket first at the front and that will help using the subject as a filter. You’ll see I didn’t put the email sender in in this because it could vary but the email address like statewide bills at MassLandlords.net could be used as a filter as well so you could have because it’s all going to that address. You should be able to see that.
Okay, I see a question from Marita. “Do you share any important items from EWS with other landlord organizations as well?
I mean yes. For if we use our broadcast communication process and if we have enough time for that, then there’s a set of landlord groups that we notify, leaders around the state, but as you probably noticed our broadcast communication process is designed for something that’s ordered weeks and we typically get ordered days’ notice for early warning systems so we tend to focus just on grassroots engagements with our own members.
Yes, so Joe’s asking. “Can I set up a separate email address?”
Yes that’s so that’s another reason why if you’re a member we have extra fields where we can add secondary emails so if you were to tell us that you want this email address just for early warning system announcements, we can totally do that, yes.
Okay, Jillian, what else have you seen that I should comment on?
Jillian: Okay, Peter is asking if you could talk more about following up you know once the EWS is activated and you know we do something so.
Doug: Right, so the first stage of the whole grassroots engagement process is to know something is happening. EWS doesn’t help us craft talking points or rally the troops so called. It just lets us know. Once we have noticed that a hearing is going to happen, staff will write talking points. We’ll have a broadcast communication or just an email or a text message or something, and we’ll give people options. If you want to write in here’s how to write in. If you want to call in, that matters. You can call in the case of when we used to have physical in-person hearings, here’s when to go and where to meet and so on. I hope that answers the question, Peter. If not, ask again.
What else has come in?
Jillian: Nothing new as of yet.
Doug: Yes okay I see anonymous asks. “Is this a brand-new system for this coming legislative session?”
No we’ve been running it for a year now, but this is the first time where we really want to make sure that lots of folks participate in it because now we know it’s meaningful, it works and we’ve got a scalable solution here.
I see Allison in the chat has asked. “Isn’t it necessary to look at your email every day?”
I mean it would be helpful but the idea is we want to have a lot of folks looking at the same sets of EWS notices, so if you happen to be checking your email at a time when it’s just come in, you might be the first person to notice if you’re looking at stuff that’s a little bit late or whatever maybe you would already have got the notice from MassLandlords that we’ve incorporated it. So for instance if you’re checking your email and you see an EWS notice from six days ago or something, you can still forward it to us because we might have missed it at that point and maybe it’s not too late to intercede at some point. But on the other hand if you see that email from six days ago and that’s relevant you might also have gotten another email since from MassLandlords that says hey this hearing is happening so you already know that we’ve got the word from someone else.
But the point is it’s not a rigorous tight system we’re trying to design it for redundancy the fact that people aren’t going to check their email every day, so it’s whenever you can participate you’re adding to our ability to monitor this stuff and it doesn’t have to be every day it can be whatever frequency works for you.
Yes, and so Peter I see is asking. “Does the early warning system keep updating us as the bill moves through the stages?”
Yes I mean once we identify a bill as of interest, we point it to that page as long as they keep posting stuff to that page we’ll keep following. Now they could stop posting. The only thing they’re legally required to post is a hearing and it’s a practice that they post other status updates so they can say, “Oh, yes it’s in conference committee. They’re going to floor vote or whatever.” To the extent that they will publish stuff about it, EWS can point at it and let us know about it.
Jillian: Doug, can you describe the top three legislative concerns that they should look out for? JP just asked us.
Doug: Sure, yes I mean so if you’re following MassLandlords and you know that we have a set of policy priorities members vote on, we want security deposit reform, we want late fees, I mean probably nobody’s working in that space except us so if there’s a security deposit bill we’re probably already following it because we filed it ourselves. So what you particularly want to watch out for is you want to watch out for stuff that we haven’t been invited to participate in prior to this date.
If you’re getting a notice about housing stability for instance like that’s not language that landlords tend to use and it’s a good bet that we haven’t been invited to participate in the text so anything that says housing stability, we want to know about. It doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it probably means it didn’t come from us, so that’s important. Then in terms of actual specific areas there’s a lot of attention right now being paid on rent cancellation and eviction moratorium, but long term I think there’s just this general trend of disrespect toward housing providers and this idea that all housing should be cooperatively or socially owned.
I just don’t know that that’s going to work because the public doesn’t have enough money in state budget to provide all this housing. Most of our housing is provided privately. Either we pay for it ourselves as homeowners or we rent it from someone else on the market, so I would be particularly concerned so. First, it’s housing stability. Second, it’s anything related to ownership. For the word owner, I would definitely pay attention to that and because the owner is the legally significant party, they tend to be written into these bills and laws and so on.
Then third I think it’s really important to always follow the money. I mean part of the reason why landlords are not historically effective advocates in the legislatures because we haven’t continued to contribute to campaign donations, and we have intended to contribute to large numbers of votes and to the extent that state money is routed through non-profits for rental subsidies and so on and they collect an admin fee, those organizations are very effective and influential because they have so many staff hours to scatter on to policy work. So anytime they’re talking about appropriating money for rental subsidies, housing, or anything like that, that’s important to pay attention to now. Those keywords – housing stability, owner, and then funding. That’s kind of the phase one approach.
In phase two of course we know that we have land use restrictions and restrictions in Massachusetts, so we really want to be working on zoning, density, transit but those are issues that are a little bit more difficult for us to contemplate addressing now, so we’ll focus on landlord-tenant stuff in the meantime.
Jillian: Okay, then Peter wants to know if there’s information available that we could track regarding how the various reps and senators are weighing in on the legislation?
Doug: Yes, so that’s actually a very good point, Peter. Thank you for bringing that up. We have a page that I didn’t show in this. We probably should go to it again. I’ll just put up here as a matter of fact. I’ll share my screen one more time. We have this rep and senator contact response form, so if we discover that something is happening and we have a communication to members and say contact your representative for this, we hope that everyone will go back to MassLandlords.net/grassroots. It redirects to this longer URL here and enter in details because this form goes directly into our whip board where we can see as MassLandlords staff who supports who opposes and so on so. That’s not going to be something public for members, but it is something that we’re coordinating internally because that is a very relevant to know.
Alright. Have we covered all the questions do you think, Jillian?
Jillian: I think so. Nothing new has come through yet.
Doug: Alright, Joe has asked I see just now. “Where was that form?” MassLandlords.net/grassroots. I’ll put it out there in the oops I’ve sent it to all panelists and attendees, MassLandlords.net grassroots is where it’s going. Yes.
Alright. Allison, I see a hand raised. Let’s see. Jillian, is it possible for you to mute Allison? Allison, you no longer have a hand raised. It looks like it went down. Yes, okay.
Jillian: Yes, I’m not able to unmute.
Doug: Interesting. Allison, did you have a question you wanted to ask or is that an inadvertent hand raise? Okay, the trouble with the Zoom world. Let’s hope we get back to normal soon. Alright, so we are going to — I’ll just try one more time. I’m guessing you’re good, Allison.
Allison: Yes. When I realized I was muted, I put it in chat. My question was shouldn’t you be looking at this thing every day?
Doug: Okay so we’ve addressed that, I think.
Allison: Yes, you have, thank you.
Doug: Alright, super. Thanks so much.
Allison: Okay. Alright, well I’ll un-raise again [laughter].
Doug: Alright, very good. Well thanks very much for your attention and uh time and willingness to volunteer everybody and again thanks for understanding with my voice cracking like that. It’s a problem for people who talk too much. I know I’ve just got to talk less [laughter]. Thanks for listening to me all this time and definitely if you have any questions at all about how this works or how to get started as a volunteer, email hello@MassLandlords.net. Jillian, Naomi, and I can help you get pointed in the right direction and access any of the information systems no matter what kind of difficulty you’re having. Not to worry. We’ll help.
So Jillian, what do you think? Should we end there?
Jillian: I think so. If you just want to touch on one last question that just came through.
Jillian: Marita asks if we share any important items found via the early warning system with other landlord organizations?
Doug: Okay, yes. I think I referred to that in the broadcast communication approach, but yes there’s a bunch of clubs and other organizations out there and we’re very much keen to get them involved and have our message amplified as well. When we start a formal process of communicating, we do have that checklist and it’s only a question of whether the early warning system has given us enough time to run that whole process so that other groups get noticed before the hearings because everybody’s got a lag in their communications, but yes that’s the intent for sure.
Okay, so let’s end there. Thank you very much everyone. Remember firstname.lastname@example.org if there’s anything we can do to help.
Just one final public health note. Wear your masks we’ll get through this. Stay safe. I’ll talk to you all soon.