Mass. Residents Turning to Public Assistance Programs

A flood of new applications surged into state social safety net programs in recent weeks, another piece of evidence reflecting widespread economic hardships brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve never had a recession that happened like a flip of a switch, where literally the whole government, the whole private sector, social interactions, everything was shut down,” said Patricia Baker, a senior policy analyst in the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute‘s Benefits Unit. “In my lifetime, 9/11 gets close, the marathon bombing gets close, certain periods of time of shortened outages come close, but nothing I have seen is like this unprecedented surge in applications.”…Read more from State House News Service.

The coronavirus is expanding the safety net

The pandemic has exposed big holes in the country’s social safety net, openings that millions of people are now falling through. With nearly 10 million people filing unemployment claims in the past two weeks alone, the federal government is mounting an unprecedented emergency expansion of that safety net for workers…

“My hope is that we realize how constrained the current unemployment system is, that it is so inadequate in terms of covering the full range of workers we have now,” said Monica Halas, an attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services who specializes in unemployment law…

No one knows until the federal guidelines are issued how much independent contractors… will be eligible to collect under the CARES Act. Halas, the Greater Boston Legal Services attorney, speculates that it will be modeled after a federal program called Disaster Unemployment Assistance, first authorized in 1974, that has extended benefits to independent contractors and others in the aftermath of things like hurricanes.

Halas said getting the benefit program up and running on such a massive scale will be extraordinarily challenging. “It’s never been applied to a recession or to the entire country,” she said.

If it follows the disaster relief program model, she said, self-employed workers and independent contractors would be eligible for half the average weekly benefit in a state, which would be $268 in Massachusetts. That would be on top of the additional $600 per week that all unemployment beneficiaries will get under the CARES Act….

“I’m hoping after the crisis is over this creates a lot of impetus for change,” said Halas, the unemployment attorney…. Read more in Commonwealth Magazine.

Eviction bill bounces back and forth on Beacon Hill

The Massachusetts House and Senate agree that there should be a pause on evictions and foreclosures during the coronavirus pandemic. But what that should look like is raising thorny questions that have left the bill bouncing back and forth between the two chambers.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee released a version of the bill last Tuesday, to the consternation of advocates for tenants and struggling homeowners, who said the protections did not go far enough. The House then passed its version of the bill Thursday. The State House News Service reported that senators on Monday sent their bill back to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, presumably to be reconciled with the version that came over from the House.

A central issue is which part of the eviction process will be paused. The House bill would delay the entire eviction process – starting with a “notice to quit,” which is the initial letter sent to a tenant, and continuing through the court process to the action of forcing someone out of their home after a judgement. The Senate bill would generally mirror what is already being done through a standing order of the court, and would pause only the court proceedings.

Joey Michalakes, a staff attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, said the notice to quit in itself is enough to scare some tenants into leaving. And Andrea Park, a housing attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said her group has heard from tenants who were being told to leave during the pandemic, because a court, before the pandemic started, had agreed that the eviction could go forward. Read more in Commonwealth Magazine.

The pandemic poses significant access-to-justice obstacles. A Cambridge technologist is developing solutions

A burst pipe in your apartment needs emergency work, and you want to ask a court to force the landlord to take action.

In the age of the coronavirus, like nearly every other segment of local life, the state’s court system now features additional pandemic-related obstacles to addressing such a problem.

Local legal technologist Quinten Steenhuis thinks your phone can help. Or, more specifically, apps that he is developing for your phone.

Steenhuis, who is a clinical fellow at Suffolk University’s Legal Innovation & Technology Lab, has launched a project aimed at making about 30 court forms dealing with housing and family law issues available to the public online through a series of apps in a few weeks time… Read more from the Boston Globe.

Students With Disabilities And Their Families Cope With Prolonged School Closures

Across Massachusetts, thousands of parents and guardians are working long hours — often with little help — to protect, advocate and care for children with disabilities during the coronavirus crisis.

With the state’s public schools now closed for at least another month, the disruption is creating a new strain on busy caregivers, too….

As an education attorney for Greater Boston Legal Services, Elizabeth McIntyre represents some of those families.

Many of her clients are still struggling to answer the “basic questions” — rent and food, work hours and safety — which leaves them little time for the delicate work of making sure kids with disabilities keep making progress… Read more from WBUR.

MLRI’s Georgia Katsoulomitis discusses legal aid’s COVID-19 mobilization on WGBH

Massachusetts Law Reform Institute’s Georgia Katsoulomitis shares with WGBH how legal aid organizations in Massachusetts have mobilized to protect low-income residents from “economic devastation” during the pandemic. Listen Here (Interview starts at 30:55).

What Boston renters need to know during the coronavirus pandemic

As the novel coronavirus continues to upend life in the Boston area, a worry looms among renters in the region: What happens on and after April 1?

For many tenants, April 1 is the next date that rent is due; but, if people are out of work or have lost other sources of income as a result of the pandemic, they may not be able to pay rent. Other Boston-area residents who were planning on moving now confront uncertainty over whether it’s safe or feasible to move to a new apartment at all.

Below are answers to some key questions as the outbreak unfolds, including ones surrounding what comes after April 1….

Can my landlord evict me if I contract COVID-19?
No. “Attempting to evict someone because they were infected with or thought to be infected with COVID-19, or another medical condition, would be a violation of existing fair housing laws,” said Andrea M. Park, housing and homelessness attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute… Read more in Curbed.

Domestic, Sexual Violence Survivors at Greater Risk in Crisis

MARCH 19, 2020…..Most lawmaking business has been paused as the Legislature turns its attention to the coronavirus outbreak that has shut down most of the state, but advocates reminded lawmakers Thursday not to forget bills to help sexual assault and domestic violence survivors — many of whom face heightened risks during the emergency conditions — and to reprioritize the legislation as soon as possible…

All of the proposals discussed, they said, have become even more important during the spread of COVID-19 because survivors are more vulnerable to abuse when they are out of work or may need to stay in an unsafe situation amidst widespread closures….Read more from the State House News Service.

Disability community will fight any attempt to discriminate over scarce medical resources

Letter to the Editor, Boston Globe

The March 17 editorial “Hospitals on the front lines as pandemic takes hold” highlights the importance of preparedness in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The editorial includes many sensible suggestions, such as canceling or postponing elective surgeries and repurposing hospital beds to expand ICU capacity. However, there is another crucial issue that requires immediate attention: ensuring nondiscrimination in the increasingly likely event that needs exceed scarce medical resources.

Recent proposals to ration access to ventilators and other scarce resources using criteria that disadvantage those with underlying conditions are a source of serious concern to people with disabilities and our allies. Should hospitals prioritize those with the least resource-intensive needs or exclude from access to life-sustaining care those with lower survival probabilities, they would be engaging in discrimination.

The disability community will aggressively push back against any attempt to ration care against the disabled, through advocacy and, where necessary, legal action. Hospitals and other providers should be aware: Even during a pandemic, any attempt to discriminate against the disabled will expose them to protest, liability, and the rightful condemnation of the public at large.

Colin Killick
Executive director
Disability Policy Consortium

Marlene Sallo
Executive director
Disability Law Center

3 Ways Automation Can Enhance Access To Justice

The delivery of legal services to low income consumers is being transformed by automation technology such as TurboTax-like forms for people facing eviction, and that transformation only shows signs of picking up steam as researchers continue to mine its potential for legal aid.

Three lawyers at the forefront of the change spoke last week at the American Bar Association’s TechShow in Chicago about how they’re using automation and AI to help solve the access to justice crisis in the United States.

Quinten Steenhuis, a senior housing attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, highlighted a piece of technology he developed that is similar to TurboTax that is aimed at helping people facing eviction get the legal help they need.

The online form, called Massachusetts Defense for Eviction, is an intake form of sorts that queries users on what eviction-related legal issues they’re facing and gathers relevant information about the facts of their case. The questions are tailored to the user based on their responses to previous questions.

The ultimate result, Steenhuis said, is that the user gets an idea of what their legal needs are and when they connect with a legal aid provider like him there is a baseline of useful information that allows the interaction to take up less time, which lets him spend more one-on-one time with each client and fit more clients into his schedule on a given day.

“People are very hungry for this service,” Steenhuis said. “They are used to this way of interacting to solve a problem. They like that there’s something they can do on their phone.”… Read more from Law 360.