Massachusetts State House.
Policy Library

Housing Court For All

December 18, 2014

The BBA is pleased to add its name to the large and growing list of supporters for a statewide housing court, following unanimous Council approval earlier this week.The proposal had earlier received recommendations from our Real Estate and Delivery of Legal Services Sections.  Housing Court is a special court session conducted by experienced and expert judges.  They operate out of already existing court houses, providing landlords and tenants with a special legal forum to resolve disputes, as well as code enforcement, mortgage fraud, and numerous complex housing matters.

Housing Court was first established in 1972 for the City of Boston.   Since then, it has gradually expanded through the advocacy work of local constituencies to its current makeup consisting of five divisions covering approximately 80% of the state geographically.  Housing Court is the only forum in the Commonwealth set up to handle code enforcement, evictions, and other housing issues on a daily basis.  Its judges have the expertise to analyze the federal, state, local laws, and codes on housing.

Housing Court is also the only forum to use Housing Specialists, individuals who mediate cases, saving potential litigants time and money they would otherwise spend to have their case heard in court.  Over half of Housing Court cases were resolved in this way last year.  Specialists also perform on-site reviews of property to resolve issues concerning housing conditions.  In part because of these services, Housing Court is extremely efficient, featuring the lowest cost per case of any Trial Court department.

Finally, Housing Court is adept at serving pro se litigants and individuals facing evictions.  It is home to the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP), a counseling service designed to intervene in cases affecting individuals with physical and/or mental disabilities to help prevent homelessness, as well as volunteer lawyer-for-the-day and other self-help forums.

Despite all these benefits, nearly one-third of Massachusetts residents do not have access to a housing court.  Currently, there is no Housing Court for all of Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket Counties, most of Norfolk County, and a large portion of Middlesex County.  These areas include cities such as Chelsea, Framingham, Malden, Cambridge, Medford, Somerville, Watertown, Woburn, and Waltham, which have some of the highest number of rental units.  As a result, any housing or code enforcement issues in these counties are heard in District Court, where judges may not have any special housing expertise and housing cases are simply a drop in the bucket of a high volume caseload.  One consequence we’ve heard is that municipalities not covered by the Housing Court sometimes don’t even bring code-enforcement actions to District Court, because they know the inevitable delays make it not worth the effort.

Another interesting element of this proposal is the simplicity with which it can be accomplished.  Because the Housing Court is simply a special sitting, it will continue to operate out of existing court houses.  A handful of support staff is all that is needed to make it a reality.  The total cost to the state is estimated to be roughly $2.4 million per year.  However, funding is a secondary element, as the current proposal seeks only approval of the policy issue of expanding Housing Court statewide. With the support of SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants, the court will pursue funding on a separate track.

We hope that lending the BBA’s voice to the chorus of supporters will help put this proposal over the top.  We will do our part to make the case in the Legislature that expanding the Housing Court is a step toward greater efficiency and a move in the right direction not only for lawyers and the judiciary but also for two million people, many of whom are renters, in the communities that currently lack the special services only Housing Court provides.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association