By Seth Daniel
The Housing Court in Boston has been a refuge since the 1970s for mediation, litigation and resolution of all sorts of housing issues, but throughout all of that time, it has been closed off to Chelsea landlords, tenants and City officials.
Instead, they had to file cases in Chelsea District Court with court officials who were more adept at understanding criminal statutes rather than housing codes and laws. It was a constant point of contention, as many in the city wished for the professional expertise of those in the Housing Court division.
That wish came true on July 1, and Housing Court Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan and Department Administrator Paul J. Burke told the Record they are busy rolling out the court right now to the rest of the state – including Chelsea. That comes after it was approved in the State Budget this year, an appropriation and direction from the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker to bring housing court to everyone.
“Over the years we grew to have five divisions in Housing Court, but there were still 84 communities underserved or unserved by the court,” said Judge Sullivan. “In July, the State Budget authorized us to expand and absorb those communities. Previously, for example, in Chelsea and Revere, one had no access to Housing Court. They could litigate disputes, but it had to be in district court.”
Housing Court began in the 1970s to address substandard housing conditions in Boston, and gradually grew to other areas of the state. However, that specialized court never go the go-ahead to expand everywhere to offer their unique services.
Judges and staff in Housing Court are specially trained and have tremendous expertise in housing issues – particularly when it comes to mediating landlord-tenant disputes or evictions, which make up about 66 percent of the 41,000 cases filed annually. Another 15 percent come from municipalities looking to enforce the sanitary code or code violations on problem properties.
The call is nothing new for Chelsea to be absorbed into Housing Court, and even Supreme Judicial Court Justice Ralph Gants has been a strong advocate for the creating of a statewide Housing Court – not to mention numerous local housing organizations.
However, it wasn’t until this year that the call was answered, and Sullivan said they were ready and continue to ramp things up.
Already, he said, many cases that had previously been filed in Chelsea District Court for Revere and Chelsea have been transferred to the new Eastern Division in Boston’s Edward Brooke Courthouse.
Revere, Chelsea and Winthrop will now be included in the jurisdiction of that Eastern Division. The Legislation also creates a new, Sixth Division, on the South Shore – currently being rolled out in Brockton. It will be known as Metro South.
The Western Division has no change, but the other divisions throughout the state will also be absorbing the communities like Chelsea who have had no access to the specialized services of the Housing Court.
“As we build our new Sixth Division in Norfolk County, we’ll also be absorbing probably 52 to 54 communities in other parts of the state – for example Chelsea and Revere – in four of our five existing divisions,” said Sullivan.
“We have really hit the ground running,” he continued. “Fortunately, with Paul Burke’s expertise, this had been talked about for some time and he had a plan on the shelf ready to go. This idea to expand had been kicking around for a bit in the State House, probably for about four years or more. Paul did a magnificent job preparing for that.”
One of the major services that will now be offered to Chelsea resident through Housing Court is access to a Housing Specialist to help mediate cases before the come to a judge.
“The Housing Specialists are very skilled at bringing people together, both sides, to work out an agreeable resolution to landlord/tenant disputes,” said Sullivan.
Burke said 80 percent of the cases mediated by a Housing Specialist resulted in an Agreement for Judgment, and presumably meaning that all parties left the courthouse satisfied and that the judge never had to engage with the parties.
Last Thursday, which is known as Summary Judgment Day, the Edward Brooke Courthouse was teeming with people coming to resolve housing cases – most of them landlords and tenants trying to work out disputes.
At the first of the day, their cases are called in a large courtroom to make sure everyone on both sides has appeared. If everyone is present, they usually move the case to a Housing Specialist. After a brief wait, the parties mediate the case with the Specialist.
If an agreement is worked out, an Assistant Clerk Magistrate can resolve the case with a short hearing. Then all parties are free to go and are to follow the new agreement – whether it be repairs or rent payments.
Anyone not satisfied, however, can ask to see the judge and, later in the day, go before the judge to discuss the matter.
Another program is related to the Housing Specialist program, but deals with anyone who might have a disability. It is called the Tennessee Preservation Project (TPP).
Clinicians who specialize in disabilities of all kinds are immediately called in to consult with court staff if anyone on a case is eligible for the services. They can consult and help to also resolve the case.
“They can help come up with a plan to accommodate the disabled individual and try to prevent homelessness, and at the same time alleviate the landlord’s problem as a result of the disability,” said Sullivan.
One example where that could apply is in a situation where there is a problem with Hoarding – or the gathering of things to the point where it violates the Sanitary Code. Any agreement made in consult with TPP can be rolled into an Agreement for Judgment with the Housing Specialist – meaning both parties are accountable to the agreement and it can be brought back before a judge is one party does not uphold it.
One of the final benefits now offered is the Lawyer for a Day program, where lawyers from the community volunteer their time and talent to assist those coming in without representation.
In a place like Housing Court, that is crucial, Sullivan said, because many don’t bring a lawyer.
Burke said more than 70 percent of litigants come without a lawyer, and the program helps people understand what is a very complex section of the law dealing with housing.
“The Lawyer for a Day program is of tremendous value to litigants,” said Sullivan.
For cities and towns, the entry into Housing Court is also a major boon, and they were likely the voices that finally pushed the effort over the top legislatively.
With so many foreclosures coming after the 2008 housing crisis hit, many cities and towns underserved by Housing Court found themselves in a difficult situation when trying to enforce the building and sanitary code on vacant homes tied up in foreclosure.
Municipalities had to get a court-appointed receiver to take over the home, which is something Housing Court is accustomed to, but District Court is not.
Many times, housing law expertise was needed, but cases had to be filed in the District Court.
“Our staff is trained and skilled in all aspects related to building codes, fire codes and we’re equipped to deal with the Housing Statutes in a very efficient way,” Sullivan said.
The rollout of the court is still in progress, and includes adding five new judges to the existing 10 judges now serving on Housing Court. There will also be one new Clerk Magistrate for Norfolk County’s new division.
Burke said the hope is to be fully up and running in all divisions by the end of the next fiscal year, which is June 30, 2018. That will include getting new staff aboard next spring to help absorb the cases that are coming in from places like Revere and Chelsea.
A key resource for those who have a case in the new Housing Court is the Access Centers that are in each division, including the Edward Brooke Courthouse.
The Center is available and staffed to help litigants file forms and get information on an upcoming case. It’s not a resource for the day-of, but can be invaluable for those who check it out ahead of time.
“That’s a resource people need to affirmatively reach out for,” said Burke. “You don’t wait for your day in court to use it. You have to seek it out ahead of time and then you can really be prepared for your court date.”
Catarina Andrade is one of several Housing Specialists in the newly expanded Housing Court that are prepared to help landlords and tenants resolve cases before going to a judge. Some 80 percent of cases that go before a specialist are resolved agreeably without seeing a judge.
Assistant Clerk Magistrate Tom Trilla conducts a hearing on a case that was successfully mediated by a Housing Specialist last Thursday in the Edward Brooke Courthouse –which houses the newly expanded Eastern Division of Housing Court. Such access to mediators and hearings were previously not available to residents of Revere, Chelsea and Winthrop. They had to go through the District Court for housing disputes.
Attorney Patricio Rossi – a Winthrop resident – is one of the many attorneys that volunteer their time to help those without representation in Housing Court. The Lawyer for a Day Program is another amenity of Housing Court previously not available to those in Revere, Chelsea and Winthrop who had to filing housing cases in District Court.