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.

Warning: Debt collection tsunami coming

By Jacquelynne Bowman and Richard Dubois in CommonWealth Magazine

There’s a second COVID-related wave about to hit families in the Commonwealth: a tsunami of debt collection activity that threatens our economic recovery. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, 20 percent of folks in Massachusetts had a debt in collection–rising to an eye popping 39 percent in communities of color, according to the Urban Institute. These numbers will only worsen as we face uncertainty around future COVID shutdowns and whether additional federal aid will be offered to people who have lost and are still losing work during this pandemic. The inevitable eviction tidal wave resulting from the end of the eviction moratorium will also increase debt collection activity by landlords for back rent.

But Massachusetts legislators can help our struggling families right now by passing the Debt Collection Fairness Act. Our representatives in the State House must ensure that the COVID-19 crisis does not result in Bay Staters, particularly those in communities of color that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, entering a never-ending cycle of debt.

Right now, large out-of-state debt buyers who purchase portfolios of old credit card accounts for pennies on the dollar can sue individuals in court for these alleged debts. If the court issues a judgment , the collector can hound a struggling consumer for 20 years to collect that judgment. The entire time, 12 percent interest accrues on it. In the entire nation, only Vermont and Rhode Island also charge interest on judgments that high. Folks end up paying these debts for decades because they can’t afford to make payments large enough to reduce the principal.

After a judgment is issued, judges can require consumers to appear in court for payment review hearings. If the consumer fails to attend (even if they never received the notice), the court can issue a civil arrest warrant. In 2016, four randomly selected Massachusetts small claims courts issued a total of 1,325 civil arrest warrants in a single year. Abusive creditors use these civil arrest warrants to frighten consumers into making payments they can ill afford or might not even be legally obligated to make. No one in the Commonwealth should be imprisoned, or threatened with imprisonment, for failure to pay a consumer debt… Read more in CommonWealth Magazine.

Single mom, others kicked off unemployment and told to repay money prompts lawsuit against Mass. Department of Unemployment Assistance

Community Legal Aid has sued the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance after the department halted weekly benefits for five workers and demanded repayment, officials said.

The lawsuit alleges that the department’s conduct violates state and federal laws, including the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause, as workers who claim benefits have the right to receive notice, and an opportunity to be heard, before DUA stops paying benefits. Director of DUA Richard Jeffers is named in the suit.

DUA initially approved claims for the workers, a nurse, nursing assistant, machinist, payroll professional, and plant manager for a local food manufacturer, according to the statement. But weeks later, the payments allegedly stopped with no notice to the plaintiffs or opportunity for a hearing.

“At its core, due process requires our government to inform a person why her freedom or property might be taken away, and to give the person a meaningful chance to oppose the government’s position. Unemployment benefits are ‘property’ under the law. That’s why DUA’s own regulations require notice and hearings,” said CLA Litigation Director Leigh Woodruff.

“These Massachusetts workers did not choose to lose their paychecks in a global pandemic,” Woodruff continued. “But DUA’s actions are forcing them to accumulate credit card debt and even cash out their 401Ks just to buy food and pay bills, and stress is making workers sick.”

One of the defendants, a single mother of an 8-year-old daughter who is severely disabled and nonverbal, stopped receiving payments in August and UI Online lists the status of her benefits as on “hold.” Without the benefits, the woman has suffered financially in addition to non-economic harms, including “slippage in her daughter’s developmental progress due to inability to afford disability-assistive devices; extreme stress, worry, anxiety, and insomnia; adverse effects on her relationships; and a stress-induced outbreak of the painful disease called ‘Shingles,’” the lawsuit reads.

Community Legal Aid last week served a motion for a preliminary injunction that would order the department to immediately stop depriving workers of benefits without due process, according to the statement.

The injunction is needed to protect workers from debt, stress-induced health problems and being evicted, as Massachusetts’ eviction moratorium was lifted in October, Community Legal Aid contends.

“These are exactly the kinds of harm that unemployment benefits are supposed to prevent,” Woodruff said.

Community Legal Aid, which provides free civil legal services to the low-income and elderly residents in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire and Worcester counties, said it expects a decision on the motion by December.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that DUA’s practices in these cases violate the following federal and state laws: the Social Security Act, the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Massachusetts’ Unemployment Insurance Law, and DUA’s own regulations, among other relief.

The state GDP contracted by 43.8% and unemployment reached 17.7% in Massachusetts in June. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment across the country has reached its highest level since the Great Depression.

“These numbers have not been seen since the 1930s, and DUA has a duty to provide the benefits that Congress created to help working families in this situation. It is no excuse for DUA to say: ‘We are too busy to get this right,’” Woodruff said.

Read more in MassLive

Tenants and landlord in Mattapan reach a long-term contract on rents

This summer, when Lester White heard the Mattapan apartment building he has called home for 20 years was going up for sale, he figured, well, that was that.

“I thought, ‘I”ve got to get ready to move. The neighborhood’s changing over,’” he said. “I was ready to go to Home Depot and pick up some boxes.”

But instead, White went to a meeting with some of his fellow tenants at the Morton Village Apartments, an aging 207-unit complex off Gallivan Boulevard. Then he went to another, and another. Last week, the tenants group and the building’s new owners announced a deal that will keep the current residents of Morton Village in place, with modest rent hikes, for at least five years, with a little help from City Hall.

It’s the sort of deal supporters say can help stabilize Boston’s tumultuous housing market, especially for working-class renters at risk of being pushed from their neighborhoods as deep-pocketed investors move in. Not unlike a union contract, the private agreement reached between tenants and the landlord lays out modest rent increases so everyone knows what the next few years will look like, and can plan accordingly.

With housing advocates fearing a wave of evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, and landlords anxious about a growing effort to reinstate formal rent control in Boston, this kind of voluntary agreement can be a model that makes sense for all involved, said Maggie Gribben, an attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services who helped the tenants group negotiate.

“This is something that’s possible for other landlords to do,” she said. “And it creates a mutual respect from the very beginning.”… Read more in the Boston Globe.

SJC Rules Unidentified IOLTA Funds Must Be Transferred to IOLTA Committee

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that unidentified IOLTA funds do not fall under the state’s abandoned property statute and must be transferred to the IOLTA Committee for disposition. The decision, in the Matter of Gregory M. Olchowski, clarifies for attorneys what had been a disputed area: whether to remit unidentified funds to the IOLTA Committee or to the State Treasurer as abandoned property under G.L.C. 200A.

The decision, which was authored by the late Chief Justice Ralph Gants in one of his final acts, will benefit programs providing civil legal services to low-income and elderly Massachusetts residents. IOLTA funds are distributed to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and the Massachusetts and Boston Bar Foundations to support civil legal services and access to justice initiatives.

“In a year filled with loss and injustice, this decision is a ray of hope,” said MA IOLTA Committee Chair, Hannah Kilson. “In finding that the principal in an IOLTA account is not subject to the abandoned property statute, the SJC is rightly exercising its superintendence authority over the practice of law. The decision provides lawyers with the necessary guidance on how to address the issue of unidentifiable IOLTA funds while providing underfunded legal services programs with a small but badly needed source of additional funding.”

Jayne Tyrrell, Executive Director of the IOLTA Committee, added, “The IOLTA Committee is pleased with the court’s decision and looks forward to working with the Rules Committee to amend Rule 1.15 as ordered by the Court.”

Massachusetts Bar Association applauds IOLTA funds decision – read more in Mass Bar eJournal.

BBA Hails Olchowski Decision, on Unidentified IOLTA Funds, as a Win for Access to Justice – read more from the Boston Bar Association.

MAC Attorney Liza Hirsch pens Op-Ed in CommonWealth Magazine

CommonWealth Magazine published an op-ed by Massachusetts Advocates for Children attorney Liza Hirsch. Hirsch underscores the disproportionate rate that police arrest students of color and urges schools in Massachusetts to “institute bold and dramatic changes to counter practices built upon and perpetuating racism”…Read more.

Claribel Morales awarded Bart Gordon Fellowship to work at Community Legal Aid

Community Legal Aid, a non-profit organization that provides free legal services to low-income and elderly residents of Western and Central Massachusetts, is pleased to announce that Attorney Claribel Morales has been awarded the Bart Gordon Fellowship by the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC). The fellowship will support Ms. Morales’s housing work throughout Western Massachusetts, where she will assist tenants facing homelessness or denied the housing of their choice for discriminatory reasons. Ms. Morales will be based in Community Legal Aid’s Springfield office starting in August.

A 2019 graduate of Western New England University School of Law, Ms. Morales joined Community Legal Aid in the summer of 2019 as an AmeriCorps Legal Advocate serving in the organization’s Civil Legal Aid for Victims of Crime and Housing Units. A native of Trenton, New Jersey, Ms. Morales earned her Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice in 2008 and Masters in Public Administration in 2014 from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Ms. Morales worked at the Bronx District Attorney’s Office for six years as a paralegal before moving to Massachusetts to attend law school.

While attending law school, Ms. Morales interned at Mass. Fair Housing Center in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities in Hartford, Connecticut. She also participated in the Legal Services Clinic, a partnership between Western New England University Law School and Community Legal Aid, where she assisted tenants with eviction cases in the Western Housing Court.

“Even though she is just beginning her legal career, Claribel Morales has already demonstrated her strong commitment to ensuring that the most vulnerable people among us can live in safe housing,” said Lynne Parker, executive director of MLAC. “Her work is so needed during the COVID-19 crisis, when many people are at risk of losing their homes. I’m thrilled that MLAC can fund this essential work through the Bart Gordon Fellowship.”

Jonathan Mannina, Executive Director of Community Legal Aid, said, “We are so grateful to MLAC for funding the Bart Gordon Memorial Fellowship and enabling us to hire Claribel. This Fellowship will let us expand our housing work in Western Massachusetts at a time of great community need.”

MLAC created the Bart J. Gordon Memorial Fellowship to improve access to justice for people who face linguistic or cultural barriers to attaining legal assistance. The fellowship funds positions for recent law school graduates at legal aid organizations funded by MLAC. It is named in memory of Bart Gordon, a Springfield attorney and founding member of the MLAC Board of Directors.

MLAC is the largest funding source for civil legal aid in Massachusetts. It was established by the state legislature in 1983 to ensure that people with critical, non-criminal legal problems would have access to legal information, advice, and representation.

About Community Legal Aid:

Community Legal Aid provides free civil legal services to the low-income and elderly residents of the five counties of Western and Central Massachusetts (Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire, and Worcester), and maintains full-time offices in Worcester, Fitchburg, Springfield, Northampton, and Pittsfield. Community Legal Aid works to assure fairness for all in the justice system, protecting homes, livelihoods, health and families. For more information, please visit www.communitylegal.org.

COVID-19 is a disaster for people with disabilities. Without 30-year-old law, it would be worse

The isolation can be terrifying and tragic. The stress can exacerbate mental illness and other health problems. Add the loss of mobility and independence, the disruption of routines: the beloved caregiver who doesn’t come, the day program that doesn’t open, the concern that lack of support will give families no choice but to institutionalize.

In the hospital, people who can’t speak are left with no one to communicate for them, vulnerable to the fear medical care will be rationed, given to someone deemed more worthy or valuable than themselves.

Though everyone has been suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic, people with disabilities have perhaps been the most disadvantaged, their lives the most disrupted….

…“This is another example of a very powerful way that the ADA is an important tool to stop some of the most insidious discrimination – literally discrimination that will have an impact on ‘will you live or will you die,’ ” said Alison Barkoff, director of advocacy for the Center for Public Representation, a public-interest law firm that focuses on the disabled community…Read more in USA Today

White, white, white. Then there’s me.’ A Black lawyer shares her experiences

Danielle Johnson is a staff attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services focusing on elder housing and disability benefits. Here, she shares her experiences as one of the few Black lawyers during weekly Housing Court proceedings (pre-pandemic) at the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse, which is named for the first Black politician from Massachusetts to serve in Congress. — As told to Katie Johnston

By 8:45 a.m. on “Eviction Thursday” there’s usually a long line of people waiting outside the courthouse to go through the metal detector. There’s a separate line for attorneys, which is white, white, white. Then there’s me. Then it’s white, white, white again. I definitely always get looks. “Where is she going? Doesn’t she know the line starts back here?”… Read more in the Boston Globe