Sunday, July 14, 2024

Councillor Sumbul Siddiqui confers during a meeting in 2020. She has proposed more legal aid for lower-income tenants facing eviction. (Photo: Derek Kouyoumjian)

Any lower-income Cambridge tenant who wants legal help fighting an eviction should get it for free, and money should be allocated in the next municipal budget to make that happen, city councillors told the city manager Monday.

The policy order passed unanimously. Every one of the more than 15 residents giving public comment on the policy was in favor too, including self-identified tenants and landlords, unlike more contentious rent stabilization proposals discussed in recent months. Studies have shown that access to free legal representation results in a higher chance of tenants remaining housed, facing smaller financial losses in court proceedings and being less likely to face an eviction notice at all.

The council has been focused on housing issues this year. On Feb. 26 it passed orders supporting a real estate transfer tax that would pay for affordable housing, vouchers to bridge the high cost of Cambridge rents and an easier permitting process to build homes.

With a Covid-era moratorium ended, evictions have surged – in part because owed rent accumulated during the moratorium. The order by councillor Sumbul Siddiqui cited State Trial Court data show that in evictions that reach a courtroom, 90 percent of landlords and management companies are represented by lawyers and only about 10 percent of tenants are. 

“So many tenants do not have adequate representation, and here, in Massachusetts and across the country we are seeing this huge imbalance,” Siddiqui said.

Under the proposal, the city manager would allocate funds for lawyers for tenants who qualify financially – eligible households would bring in no more than 80 percent of the area median income – as well as tell landlords and tenants regularly of their legal rights. There would also be more efforts at mediation so cases never reach court. The ideas, which Siddiqui began working on as chair of a Tenant Displacement Task Force during the 2018-2019 term, are similar to a state bill and Massachusetts funding proposal by Gov. Maura Healey.

Cambridge has continued some Covid-era renter aid, offers tenants help through city services and even pays for some legal contracting already, meaning the order is not “asking the city to start from scratch and build out a completely new piece. This is just asking the city to go a little further,” co-sponsor councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler said.

The city’s Multi-Service Center says it 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, though often not until later in the process, said Susan Hegel of Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services. 

Just A Start, an 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.

“We’re really lucky in Cambridge to have the resources that we do with the Multi-Service Center and our housing liaisons office to support our residents and help with evictions,” Siddiqui said. “The reality is that our tenant protections here really require state legislative action. We’re limited in what we can do.”

Councillor Ayesha Wilson wanted to see more data – including whether evictions were most common in public housing or market-rate rentals – but supported the order as “someone who grew up in public housing and has seen eviction letters come to my door, my mother’s door” and knew that just getting information on what rights tenants have is important.

“It can be very intimidating when you don’t know how you are protected,” Wilson said. “And what does representation look like when you have to go to court? Whether it’s from language barriers to other gaps in communication when dealing with systems, it’s just really important.”

Sue Reinert contributed to this report.