Legal Project Scaling Up to Help Prevent Evictions

A legal assistance project started by the Baker administration as a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures was set to end is looking to ramp up services and bring on a host of new attorneys as eviction cases for failure to pay rent are on the rise in the state.

The project, run by a group of regional legal aid organizations, provides assistance to both tenants and landlords facing pandemic-related eviction issues…The COVID Eviction Legal Help Project is hiring 48 attorneys, 48 paralegals, 24 senior lawyers, and 17 intake workers who will help tenants. And a group of pro-bono attorneys, through the Volunteer Lawyers Project, will provide legal assistance to income-eligible owner-occupants of two- and three-family properties. Read more at State House News Service. (subscription required)

For Legislators: A Guide to CELHP

On December 21, legislators gathered virtually for a briefing on the COVID Eviction Legal Help Project, which provides urgently needed legal assistance in pandemic-related eviction cases.

The CELH Project expands the capacity of existing legal aid organizations to provide essential help to income-eligible tenants facing eviction due to COVID-19 and to landlords who are income-eligible owner-occupants of two- and three-family homes.

The PowerPoint presentation below walks legislators, their staff, and anyone interested in learning how to prevent evictions, through the new program, which is administered by the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. The Project also has a new website.

Online training for attorneys to help domestic violence survivors launches at crucial moment

By Jamie Sabino, Rochelle Hahn and Brian Reichart, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

The COVID-19 crisis has caused another crisis for survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. While many of us are “safer at home,” for those who live with their abusive partners, staying at home may pose physical danger.

Accessing the courts to obtain restraining orders is more complicated now that many proceedings are being held virtually and concerns about COVID make it challenging to travel to a physical courthouse. Survivors face significant technological barriers on top of the longstanding difficulties they have confronted in trying to navigate a maze of unfamiliar court procedures and rules, during a time of great physical and emotional distress.

Although courts and advocates have undertaken efforts to ensure that survivors can indeed seek 209A restraining orders, now, more than ever, lawyers are needed to help survivors navigate these challenges. …Read more at Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (subscription required).

The courses are available for free at www.masslegalservices.org/dvtraining, along with links to attorney volunteer opportunities.

Civil Legal Aid for Veterans in a Time of COVID

Veterans Legal Services, located in Boston, recently hosted a virtual discussion with Harvard Law School Professor Martha Minow about the civil justice gap in Massachusetts, specifically in connection to low-income military veterans.

VLS Chief Counsel and co-Executive Director Anna Richardson and Minow covered a wide range of issues, most notably how the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare many of the inequalities embedded throughout society — from housing instability and access to quality health care, to the growing need for emergency financial assistance. Civil legal aid, particularly for low-income military veterans, will play an increasingly important role in the nation’s recovery.

“The pandemic, in many ways, is like a big spotlight exposing all of the holes in our social safety net and the failures to deliver on our promises to society,” said Minow, who recently co-chaired a project report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences titled Civil Justice for All.

“VLS exemplifies two of the key recommendations from our report, which is partnerships — notably medical-legal partnerships…really just meeting people where they are — and connections with advocates who are not lawyers,” she added. “It’s to help people access the benefits they are entitled and the protections to which the law is devoted.”

You can watch the full conversation from the Dec. 9 event online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAglYgC7fdU&feature=youtu.be

Evictions are hitting hard in parts of Mass. where people are most vulnerable

Tanya DiStefano gave birth to a baby boy on Halloween. She returned home from the hospital to find an eviction notice on her doorstep.

“Rent in arrears,” it read in part. “Total $800.”

It’s been a tough year for DiStefano. She has a state subsidy to help pay the $1,250 monthly rent on a three-bedroom apartment in the Worcester County town of Spencer, but still has to come up with about $400 out of her own pocket. A roommate who shared the load lost two restaurant jobs in the spring and moved out. DiStefano said she can’t work because her older son, a kindergartner, is home from school. Now this.

“It was very terrifying,” she said. “You have a newborn baby. I don’t have the money for November. It caught up with me.”

On Monday, DiStefano’s landlord filed an eviction case against her in Central Housing Court in Worcester.

It’s one of several places around Massachusetts where new cases have piled up quickly since the state ended its eviction moratorium in October. Like the counties that are home to Springfield and Fall River, Worcester County has seen far more filings, per capita, than Suffolk County — dominated by Boston — or suburban locales such as Middlesex and Norfolk Counties.

It’s a trend that appears to highlight yet another way the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting hardest in places that were struggling before the health crisis, and could further exacerbate longtime divisions in the state’s economy and housing market.

“This is not a coincidence,” said Andrea Park, a housing attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “These are places with a lot of vulnerable people. They work service jobs. Maybe they don’t speak English. They’re dealing with a lot.” …Read more in The Boston Globe.

Gov. Baker Approves $29M for Civil Legal Aid Funding

$5M increase boosts aid for people harmed in COVID’s wake

Governor Charlie Baker has signed the FY21 Budget of the Commonwealth, allocating $29 million for civil legal aid through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation – a $5 million increase over the prior fiscal year.

“I applaud and thank Governor Baker for recognizing the urgent need for civil legal aid to help low-income people avoid the loss of essential benefits and protections during the pandemic,” said Lynne Parker, executive director of MLAC. “Civil legal aid is an essential part of the Commonwealth’s recovery from COVID-19, and the additional funding will help civil legal aid organizations in every part of the state serve more people facing serious threats to their safety and well-being.”

Parker also thanked the leadership of the House and Senate and the many legislators who recognized the unprecedented need legal aid lawyers are working to address. “Thousands more Massachusetts residents will receive legal assistance because of this funding, in the areas of housing, unemployment, domestic violence, family law, consumer debt, immigration, health care, education, and other benefits.”

Parker also recognized the advocacy of the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association, the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts, numerous other county and specialty bar associations, and managing partners at many of the state’s largest law farms. In addition, many social service workers and advocates spoke out for legal aid funding to help people in the communities they serve.

“Every day during this pandemic, we are reminded that everyone’s well-being is served when the health and safety of others is protected,” Parker said. “Additional funding for civil legal aid creates a wide array of benefits and advances the principles of justice and fairness for all people.”

MLAC applauds Budget allocating $29M for Civil Legal Aid

House and Senate approve FY21 budget, recognizing need for greater access to legal protection

BOSTON, December 7, 2020 — In voting to approve a compromise budget for Fiscal Year 2021, the Massachusetts House and Senate have included $29 million to fund civil legal aid through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation 0321-1600 – a $5 million increase over FY 20.

“We’re grateful to House and Senate leadership and all the legislators who recognized the extraordinary hardship low-income people are facing because of the COVID-19 crisis and the remedies that civil legal aid can provide to people facing eviction, unemployment, loss of benefits, and other serious problems,” said Lynne Parker, executive director of MLAC. “This much-needed funding will go a long way to providing more essential legal services to people in every city and town in Massachusetts.”

Parker recognized the members of the Budget Conference Committee, who worked hard to create the final budget and provide the $29 million in funding for civil legal aid. The Conference Committee members included: Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues; House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz; Senate Ways and Means Vice Chairwoman Cindy Friedman; Senate ranking Republican Patrick O’Connor; House Ways and Means Vice Chairwoman Denise Garlick; and House ranking Republican Rep. Todd Smola.

Speaking on the House floor on Friday, Chair Michlewitz said that the legislature was “investing $29 million into the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, a $5 million increase over last year. These additional funds will provide greater access to the legal protections they deserve.”

“It was wonderful to hear the Chair publicly recognize the extraordinary work that legal aid lawyers have been doing in their communities during the pandemic,” Parker said.

She also thanked the Equal Justice Coalition that has championed the crucial work of civil legal aid during the COVID-19 crisis, including the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association, the Women’s Bar Association, managing partners of many of the state’s largest law firms, and advocates with social services organizations in every corner of the Commonwealth.

# # #

State instructs Boston, Worcester, and Springfield to open classrooms for special education students

Massachusetts education officials are intervening in an increasingly tense debate between parents of students with disabilities and school leaders in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield, ordering officials in those cities to reopen classrooms as quickly as possible.

State officials instructed local leaders to provide comprehensive information on whether students with disabilities are accessing education in their homes on a daily basis. If the responses are unsatisfactory, the state will audit the district’s learning plans to determine whether officials are doing enough to meet their legal obligations to serve those students.

“For these particularly vulnerable groups of students, it is vital to have a plan for providing in-person instruction as soon as possible,” Jeffrey Riley, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, wrote last Monday in letters to the districts, giving them 10 days to respond. The state publicly released the letters on Friday.

Students with disabilities have been among the hardest hit by the school closures that began nearly nine months ago at the start of the pandemic. Parents have shared heart-wrenching stories of children suffering devastating regressions that could take a year or longer to recover from because school officials have refused to provide required services. Growing research is identifying similar losses.

Boston, Worcester, and Springfield — the state’s three largest school systems — collectively serve about 22,000 students with disabilities, but it’s doubtful that all those students would return. Some students with special needs are finding success with remote learning, while others are worried about potential exposure to the coronavirus.

Boston currently is providing in-person learning for fewer than 200 students at four schools, representing less than 1 percent of its more than 51,000 students. Springfield and Worcester are not educating any students in person, according to the state. Boston school officials, however, would not make any commitments Friday on when they will open more schools….

…Boston is already facing pressure from Greater Boston Legal Services to reopen classrooms. The organization sent a letter to school officials last month on behalf of a dozen clients detailing enormous learning losses and deteriorating mental health affecting students over the past nine months.

Elizabeth McIntyre, a senior attorney with the organization, said she appreciated Riley’s desire to help students, but said his efforts fell short, particularly in providing districts with the support and resources they need to open schools. Ultimately, both the state and districts are failing to meet their legal obligations to students with disabilities and are needlessly creating long-lasting harm. Her group is now contemplating next steps.

“There is a group of kids with complex disabilities who just can’t access school through a computer, and they are not getting” a free and appropriate public education, she said. “It’s disgraceful.” …Read more in The Boston Globe.

Evicted Families Face Long Waits, Emergency Placements Far From Home

…As COVID-19 drives up the need for emergency housing, advocates fear many more families will have to be placed farther away from the lifelines of their home communities. The state has to piece together priority placements and available housing, so it’s a bit like a “jigsaw puzzle,” said Andrea Park, attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

“Homelessness and eviction can spiral a family in a way that has really long-lasting repercussions on the children, [and] the family itself. It’s a really destabilizing force,” said Stephanie Herron Rice, a housing benefits attorney with the Justice Center of Southeast Massachusetts. “Once a family has been destabilized in that way, it’s very hard to get them rehoused in a stable way in a state like ours with such high rent and such little affordable housing.”

Read more at WGBH.org

State budget raises welfare grants for poor families

By Shira Schoenberg

Poor families and older adults getting cash assistance from the state are likely to see a boost in their payments this January – a boon to struggling families from a program that has not increased payments in decades.

The budget deal that emerged from a conference committee Thursday and sailed through both branches on Thursday includes a 10 percent increase in welfare grants for the rest of the fiscal year.

Deborah Harris, senior staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, which has been lobbying for an increase, called it a major victory for those in need. “It is a dramatic and historic recognition by the Legislature and legislative leaders that cash assistance grants are far too low, that families, elders and people with disabilities suffer, and that this is contrary to the values of our Commonwealth,” she said.

Despite rising costs for everything from food to housing, state welfare grants have remained unchanged for decades. Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TANF) last increased the size of its grants in 2000, and Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled, and Children (EAEDC), which primarily helps older and disabled adults, has not increased its grant size since 1988.

The budget bill will be voted on by the House and Senate Friday. If Gov. Charlie Baker signs the provision into law, beginning January 1, the maximum grant for a family of three on TANF would increase from $593 a month to $652. The maximum grant for a single person on EAEDC would increase from $303 to $333.

The budget allocates an additional $3.6 million in state money for EAEDC and $9.42 million for TAFDC to cover the increases.

A coalition of advocacy groups that work with low-income individuals had been campaigning for a bill, sponsored by Cambridge Democratic Rep. Marjorie Decker and Everett Democratic Sen. Sal DiDomenico, that would have raised the size of grants by 10 percent a year over five years until they reached half the federal poverty level – currently $905 a month for a family of three. The budget is silent on future increases, but advocates say they hope the new benefit level will be a floor for future years as they continue advocating for the rate to climb higher.

“This increase is an incredibly important first step and really historic because there has been no inflation adjustment to these grant amounts for a generation,” said Naomi Meyer, a senior attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services.… Read more in CommonWealth Magazine.