Monday, July 22, 2024

An elderly Cambridge Housing Authority tenant is on the brink of losing her home at Manning Apartments in Cambridge’s Central Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

City employees, public interest lawyers and affordable-housing landlords are working on many fronts to prevent low-income tenants in Cambridge from facing eviction or to help them after an eviction filing in court. Last month the number of new cases for unpaid rent dropped sharply after a spike in April, to 29 from 50. Yet more tenants have reached the last step in the process – when they may be forced to leave their homes. And those trying to help tenants face greater obstacles.

Two city offices, the Multi-Service Center and Office of the Housing Liaison, try to head off eviction in the first place, offering “a variety of resources” to tenants who have fallen behind, from money for rent owed or other expenses to help in applying for aid, said Maura Pensak, the housing liaison. The city has given financial aid to about 400 households since last July 1, including 103 tenants helped with $50,000 in pandemic relief money since Jan. 1, Pensak said.

The two offices also work with affordable-housing landlords – tenants living in low-income housing are most likely to face eviction – “to do proactive outreach to folks who are falling behind,” Pensak said. The Multi-Service Center also contacts tenants named in new eviction cases every week with information about resources. Three public interest law organizations – Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services, DeNovo and Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, made up of Harvard Law School students who offer free help on evictions – may represent tenants, often not until later in the process, said Susan Hegel of Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services. The overwhelming majority of tenants have no lawyer.

Just A Start, the affordable-housing developer and landlord, has raised some money for a fund to help tenants avoid eviction, executive director Carl Nagy-Koechlin said. The organization also runs a mediation program that can work with tenants and their landlords to avoid a court filing or an eviction judgment, he said. Mediation “combined with this flexible money can enable a deal to take place,” Nagy-Koechlin said.

Tougher obstacles

The city, lawyers and low-income housing landlords trying to keep tenants in their homes face tougher obstacles, partly because of the pandemic and its eviction ban, which expired last October. The ban prevented landlords from carrying out eviction judgements but it did not erase the obligation to pay rent. Instead, arrearages piled up.

“Unfortunately what we’re seeing are a number of households haven’t paid anything in many years,” Pensak said. “Whether it is depression where folks have just let things go or the increased cost of living, and I think just being overwhelmed. Maybe to some extent folks start thinking they’re protected.”

Her colleague, Maria Melo, director of the Multi-Service Center, added: “Certainly people are doing their best to come out of this pandemic.”

Those trying to help tenants are also doing their best. “Even though there are these [eviction] filings, it’s not for lack of trying,” Pensak said. But city and state aid is limited, she said. The city’s program using pandemic aid funds “can offer folks up to $7,500.” A state rent assistance program offers up to $10,000 over 12 months. “People come in with $14,000 maybe $20,000 in arrears,” Pensak said. “What’s hard is the amount of arrears.”

The state aid program also requires an applicant to have received a “notice to quit” from the landlord, a detail that could persuade tenants to wait to act until the first step in eviction.

Tenants don’t respond

Whatever the reason, many tenants who have been summoned to court to answer an eviction filing don’t respond. The housing court schedules mediation sessions in every case; tenants don’t show up for Zoom or in-person meetings, according to housing court records.

That counts as a default, and a judge issues a judgment ordering tenants to pay thousands of dollars in back rent, fees and interest. In the next step, a landlord can obtain permission from the judge to “execute” the judgment, giving the owner the authority to force the tenant to leave.

The court has approved 22 execution orders affecting tenants in Cambridge since April 1; there were 10 in the same period last year, according to court system statistics on evictions. It’s not known how many were actually carried out. The Housing Court is also speeding up the eviction process in an effort to clear a backlog from the pandemic.

Case at Manning

In one case that has brought an elderly Cambridge Housing Authority tenant to the brink of losing her home at Manning Apartments in Central Square, the woman submitted no response to an April 14 eviction filing and defaulted for the mediation session in May. She owes $5,698 in back rent, fees and interest, according to a judgment issued May 17.

CHA asked the court on June 2 to carry out the eviction; there hasn’t been a ruling yet. Pensak said execution orders aren’t the end of the line for her office. “We have seen tenants at the execution stage and we have turned that around,” she said.

The city’s new Rise Up program offering $500 a month to any family earning less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level and with two kids under 21 could help some families avoid eviction, at least for the 18 months the program exists, Nagy-Koechlin at Just-a-Start said.

“We don’t know what will happen after 18 months,” he said. “The way we think of it is we help people navigate a broken system. Until we treat housing as a fundamental right, this is going to be ongoing.”