Imagine having lost your job during the COVID pandemic. You fall behind on your rent, but you now have a way to pay your back arrears—yet your landlord moves to evict you and won’t let you negotiate to pay back your debt. Statistically, you are likely a woman, a single mother or over 65 years old, and are a person of color. You’re facing being homeless, perhaps living with several family members, and nowhere to go. The federal and state eviction moratoria which once protected you are now no longer in effect.
Having legal representation can be the difference between staying in one’s home and being evicted. Yet only 10% of tenants are represented by counsel in eviction cases—compared to over 85% of landlords.
Massachusetts recognizes right to counsel for criminal proceedings, but not for evictions. Yet a Boston Bar Association study found that for every dollar spent in legal representation in eviction cases, the commonwealth would save $2.40 in shelter, health care and medical costs. And, in New York City, which does have a right-to-counsel program, 86% of tenants represented by counsel got to work with their landlords to find a way to stay in their homes.
Jewish tradition recognizes the importance of having safe and secure housing. In Isaiah we are told to “take the poor into your homes” when necessary. Likewise, Jewish law prohibits landlords from evicting tenants during rainy seasons, breaking rental agreements or simply treating tenants unfairly. Despite being thousands of years old, these practices instill a message of housing justice by reminding us that we have an obligation to ensure that we respect the rights of those in danger of homelessness or displacement.
Massachusetts should join New York City, San Francisco and Connecticut—other high rental cost areas—and enact a right-to-counsel program. Massachusetts’s program would allow low-income tenants and small owner-occupant landlords to have legal representation in eviction cases. The Massachusetts Right to Counsel Coalition, a coalition of over 200 municipal leaders, housing advocates, community organizations, health care and public health institutions and faith-based organizations, along with property management companies and housing owners, have come together to support this concept. JALSA has been a member of this coalition from the start, working to find the resources to help people stay in their homes.
During COVID, the state funded a pilot right-to-counsel project to keep people housed during the pandemic. This money is going to run out, and the coalition is asking legislators to provide funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) so that tenants and small landlords can continue to be represented in court.
Email your state senator and representative and ask them to make Right to Counsel one of their top American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) priorities. Time is of the essence. Decisions are likely to be made before Thanksgiving, and this funding is crucial to get a Right to Counsel enacted in Massachusetts.
If you want more information about this issue or want to work with JALSA on putting our Jewish values into action, contact JALSA legislative director David Albright at email@example.com or 617-227-3000.
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