Mass. Bishops support bill to bring equity to eviction process

BRAINTREE -- The Catholic Church teaches that housing is a basic human right. It is in this spirit that the Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC), the public policy office of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts, has expressed its support of a bill to guarantee legal representation for tenants in danger of eviction.

If passed, House Bill 1731, "An Act promoting access to counsel and housing stability in Massachusetts," would establish a "Right to Counsel Program" to provide legal representation for indigent individuals facing eviction proceedings in Massachusetts.

Jim Driscoll, the executive director of the MCC, was one of those who submitted testimony during a hearing for the bill on May 9.

"Massachusetts is facing a housing crisis right now. Evictions lead to homelessness in many cases. We must pass laws that decrease homelessness, not support current policies that increase homelessness," Driscoll said in his oral testimony.

The MCC also released a letter, dated May 11, addressed to Senate Chair James Eldridge and House Chair Michael Day on the Joint Committee on Judiciary, urging the legislators to act favorably on the bill.

In the letter, Driscoll quoted the Catholic Church's teaching that "having adequate shelter is a basic human right; a right that the Church affirms as a key part of respecting and recognizing the individual. Ensuring everyone is able to access a safe, stable, and adequate home is one part of working for the common good."

Driscoll said that in eviction proceedings, which he described as a "highly stressful, multi-level process," landlords and landowners are usually represented by counsel while tenants cannot afford such representation. He said the program proposed by the bill would "level the playing field in court."

"It is an approach that would prevent sudden displacement of families by providing the stability needed to make the most vulnerable residents of our state more secure in their homes knowing they have a trained professional to assist them," Driscoll said.

He went on to describe the impact of the pandemic on poor individuals, many of whom were also frontline workers, such as janitors, day-care providers, and restaurant and grocery store employees. He also cited statistics indicating that women and minorities make up the majority of those falling behind on rent or facing evictions.

"The poor, including many undocumented immigrants, provide these essential services and yet are often subject to eviction as wages remain low and the cost for rental units continue to rise at an unprecedented rate," Driscoll said.

When the pandemic necessitated shutdowns, the MCC supported a moratorium on evictions for those who could not pay rent. Since the moratorium ended, there has been a rise in the rate of evictions in Massachusetts.

The Boston Bar Association has estimated that the "Access to Counsel Program" would cost the Commonwealth approximately $26 million a year.

"This investment in our community is worth the cost because it is an investment in our most vulnerable members of society. It has been embraced by the State of Connecticut and many large cities across the United States and will be a very effective program in Massachusetts," Driscoll said.