At Housing Hearing, SPOA Voices Support for Rent Escrow and Opposition to Eviction Sealing and Free Attorneys for All Tenants

by Amir Shahsavari

SPOA President Allison Drescher and SPOA Vice President Amir Shahsavari testified before the Joint Committee on Housing within the Massachusetts State Legislature on August 3, 2021 regarding different bills under consideration that affect property rights. Drescher and Shahsavari testified in support of rent escrow, while opposing the sealing of eviction records and the provision of free legal representation for all tenants in the Commonwealth at taxpayer expense.

 Rent Escrow

On the issue of rent escrow, SPOA supported House bill 1784, “An Act to Promote Housing Stability,” which was filed by Representative Paul McMurtry on SPOA’s behalf. This bill creates a level playing field in cases where Massachusetts law allows for the withholding of rent by a tenant alleging breach of duty or contract by a property owner. In these circumstances, rent payments are too often spent on other items by the time a final verdict is reached in each case. However, by virtue of setting the funds aside, a rent escrow requirement would guarantee that the funds will be available to whichever party the court decides should receive them based on the final outcome of each case. Moreover, a rent escrow requirement would guard against the withholding of rent payments based upon artificial pretenses or excuses that are inappropriate. This is therefore a simple fix to make the system work as intended. SPOA also supported similar House bills, including 1533, 1546, and 1677.

Sealing of Eviction Records

 With respect to the sealing of eviction records, as well as the other aspects of a potential tenant’s legal history, SPOA strongly opposed House bill 1808, in addition to Senate bill 921. These bills would require court records in any eviction action, or other civil action, to be sealed under certain conditions. As small property owners and small business owners, we need to know the business risks that we are taking when we consider potential tenants. A tenant with a history of evictions poses a financial risk, not only to the property owner, but to the other tenants in a building who could face rent increases themselves to cover the costs of a delinquent tenant. It is imperative to avoid placing blindfolds on property owners as they enter into rental agreements. This would have an unjust and negative effect on those who consider renting their properties at a time when we need to encourage more property owners to offer affordable rental housing options, rather than discouraging them from doing so, as would happen with the passage of these bills. 

Free Attorneys for All Tenants

Finally, SPOA opposed House bill 1911, which would establish a universal — and unreciprocated — right to legal counsel for all tenants into state law at the expense of the taxpayer. We think that this bill arises from a false narrative that most, if not all, eviction cases are brought by wealthy property owners against wronged tenants. In reality, many small property owners face the same financial challenges as their tenants and have been forced to engage in the eviction process as a last resort to recover lost income. SPOA informed the Committee that if it decides to provide free legal counsel to tenants, then it must consider House bill 1782, which would give the same rights to property owners. Providing universal right to counsel for both tenants and property owners is the only way to ensure a level playing field for both small property owners and tenants alike.

As stated by one housing provider and SPOA member, “I feel that the scales of justice should be balanced. That means free legal aid to both sides, which is not happening today. I feel it’s quite unfair to see our taxes go to support legal aid which is fighting us. And then there is IOLTA which also funds one side.”

Moreover, there is another school of thought indicating that a tenant right to counsel leads to higher rents, while increasing the rate of homelessness as well, per Boaz Abramson, a Ph.D student of economics at Stanford University. In his 2021 research study entitled “The Welfare Effects of Eviction and Homelessness Policies,” Abramson verifies that one-sided policies intended to benefit tenants only harm the tenants themselves, in addition to the property owners. Thus, tenant right to counsel only benefits the attorneys to the detriment of the tenants, the housing providers, and the taxpayers.

All these bills are still under consideration by the Housing Committee — so there is still time to make your voices heard. For the reasons stated above, we respectfully ask our members and all those who care about maintaining affordable rental housing to join us in supporting rent escrow and opposing eviction sealing and free legal representation for all tenants in the Commonwealth, regardless of a tenant’s ability to pay. Please contact your representatives to express your views. 

Return to December 2021 Newsletter Table of Contents

This entry was posted in Advocacy, Eviction Sealing, Free Attorneys, Rent Escrow. Bookmark the permalink.