Via Harvard Legal Aid Bureau
In a cramped church basement in East Boston, people gather together for a common purpose: to stay in their homes. East Boston is ground zero for no-fault evictions brought by investors seeking to increase rents and profit off of increased housing demand in the Greater Boston area. At their core, no-fault evictions are evictions where the tenant has done nothing wrong—hence the name “no-fault”. A tenant can have paid rent on time and abided by his or her lease regulations for decades and still be thrown out for no reason other than the whims of an investor landlord. Despite these evictions, a group gathers and organizes to fight back against the displacement.
City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU) is a community organization focused on supporting homeowners and tenants who have been hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis and now the displacement crisis. The model that CLVU and Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB) attorneys have developed together is called “the Sword and Shield.” The sword is composed of CLVU protests, rallies, eviction blockades, and other activist measures to fight back against evictions and displacement. The shield is composed of community legal services, including HLAB. Along with Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) and others, HLAB has worked with CLVU to represent tenants facing evictions in Boston Housing Court. Another Harvard Law student organization, Project No One Leaves, supports the work of HLAB and CLVU by canvassing homes facing foreclosure and buildings investors have purchased where tenants may be at risk of facing no-fault evictions. These canvassing efforts bring in potential members to CLVU, strengthening both the sword and the shield. In the basement of the East Boston church where CLVU meets, a group of tenants came to seek legal help and their case became a rallying point and exemplar of the fight against displacement throughout Boston.
The Bennington Street building is a three story mixed use building, with a nail salon on the first floor and four residential units on the second and third floors. The tenants of the four residential units had been living in their apartments for various lengths of time, from several years to up to twenty years. Several of the tenants have families, including small children.
These families had been paying their rent on time, but one day the owner of the building sold it to an investor landlord who wanted to double it. Five days after purchasing the building, the new landlord sent all the tenants No-Fault Notices to Quit, saying they had to leave the premises or face legal action. The tenants’ landlord offered them an impossible choice: $500 to leave their homes of many years or a doubling of their rent. This is a common extrajudicial tactic amongst investors in East Boston, in part because it is much cheaper to pay off tenants with the threat of a rent increase than to go through the court system. Oftentimes the threat of legal action also makes some tenants decide to leave their homes, because they are unaware of their legal rights and do not realize that the courts could rule in their favor. Instead of accepting this offer, the Bennington tenants came to CLVU looking for help in their fight against losing their home.
HLAB member and President Pedro Spivakovsky-Gonzalez was the first student attorney on the Bennington Street cases, in August of 2015, although the team eventually expanded to include Nan McGarry, Jack Solano, and Stanford Fraser in January in anticipation of four possible jury trials. The case came to HLAB as four separate cases, one for each apartment in the building. HLAB entered into a joint representation agreement with the tenants, meaning that while we still would represent each household in their individual eviction case, we would also represent them as a group. The significance of this was that for months client counseling and negotiations with the landlord’s attorney involved a great deal of communication with the residents of each apartment regarding their individual cases, but also clear communication about the impacts of each decision on the group as a whole.
Although the landlord’s attorney attempted to consolidate the four cases, Pedro successfully opposed the motion in October, thus allowing all of the Bennington tenants their opportunity to be heard in court in front of a jury. Negotiations with the landlord’s attorney continued, and HLAB requested an inspection of the building, which revealed a number of conditions of disrepair. Although the tenants had been paying their rent for years, there were important repairs that still needed to be made for the landlord to be compliant with Massachusetts housing law. Through the course of representation, the landlord started to make some repairs to the building. Months of motions in court to compel discovery, among others, and months of settlement discussions, exchanging offers and counteroffers, led up to the scheduling of jury trials in February.
In fact, four jury trials had been scheduled, forcing Pedro, Nan, Jack, and Stanford to prepare as if all four trials were going to happen. Substantial HLAB resources were dedicated to this trial preparation, as the Bennington cases together involved eleven witnesses, including two expert witnesses. The whole team engaged in rigorous trial preparation, including preparing motions for the inclusion and exclusion of evidence, putting together several evidence binders, and preparing direct and cross examinations of witnesses. Throughout all of this work, the trial team also maintained communication with CLVU and GBLS.
The Bennington cases provide a glimpse at the type of cross-coordination work common in community lawyering. The tenants often attended CLVU meetings, where tenants from many other households gathered to share their own stories, many very similar: landlords purchasing properties, not making any repairs, and then seeking to evict tenants that had been paying their rent. HLAB student attorneys attended these weekly community meetings in East Boston, and also consulted with CLVU organizers and GBLS attorneys about litigation and settlement strategy.
As the Community Lawyering Clinical Instructor and a Lecturer on Law at HLAB, Eloise Lawrence supervised the student attorneys and provided guidance in critical moments of the process. Lawrence leads HLAB’s community lawyering efforts, following in the footsteps of the late David Grossman, who helped to pioneer community lawyering. Lawrence’s experience as a community lawyer in Lynn, where she still takes cases, continues to inform HLAB’s work in this area.
After all of the trial preparation and coordination with CLVU, the day of the first Bennington trial came on February 1. The trial would end up lasting four days and involving multiple witnesses, several of whom needed translators. Before the trial even began, key testimony and reports from the Boston Public Health Commission about the nail salon in the first floor of the building, were excluded from the trial, even though they showed noxious fumes from the nail salon endangering the health of the Bennington tenants. Nevertheless, the first trial team of Pedro and Nan, with the support of Eloise Lawrence fought through this exclusion of evidence and other challenges throughout the trial.
In one particularly memorable moment from the trial, Nan cross-examined the landlord about a back fence that had been padlocked. Under the law, every residential building over a certain number of units needs two ways to enter and exit the building, in part for fire safety reasons. This back fence, being padlocked, made it impossible to leave out the back of the building. In her cross-examination, McGarry asked specifically how the family would escape. The landlord responded, “What do you mean, if there was a fire? They could jump over the fence.” In her closing argument, McGarry returned to this picture of a family, including a 67-year-old grandmother and a small child, trying to jump over a fence as their home burns. In the words of Eloise Lawrence, “You could feel the jury listen to every word and identify with our clients. If you didn’t know better, you would have thought Nan was a very experienced litigator, not that it was her first trial.”
Pedro and Nan won that first trial, with the jury returning a verdict in favor of the tenants on all counts, including attorney’s fees for HLAB. After winning the first trial, the team was able to successfully negotiate a settlement for all cases—including the other three cases that would have otherwise gone to trial—that included new long-term leases at affordable rents and landlord responsibility for repairs and maintenance to the units. As a result of these settlements, all the residents of this Bennington Street building will be able to stay in a home, with repairs being made by the landlord.
While not all cases have such a happy ending, the Bennington Street cases represent a window into how community lawyering can achieve individual results that are tied into a larger movement.
The tenants now have affordable and habitable apartments, while landlords in Boston understand that tenants will stand up for their rights. They will fight, with the help of organizations like City Life/Vida Urbana and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, and they will win.