By Peter Ciurczak
January 26, 2017
At around the same time that the Boston Foundation debuted the latest Boston Housing Report Card, Project Hope, HomeStart, and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative published the “Boston Housing Court Data Report,” which highlights major challenges with evictions in Boston. Peter Ciurczak, Research Associate at the Boston Indicators Project, spoke with Christine Dixon (Deputy Director) and Kristin Haas (Data and Policy Coordinator) of Project Hope, as well as Kelly Mulligan (Chief Program Officer) and Vinnie Wisniewski (Homelessness Prevention Program Manager) of HomeStart, to learn about the report’s findings and hear what Boston can learn from them.
Released originally in 2006, the first Boston Housing Court Data Report was an effort to get a better handle on evictions across the city. At the time, Project Hope was running a number of homelessness prevention programs, but didn’t have a clear understanding of what neighborhoods had the greatest need. As Christine notes, they originally undertook the 2006 report to get a better handle on the number of evictions across the city, since this data didn’t otherwise exist locally. Nor for that matter, does it exist in any national dataset due to the difficulty of access.
After completing the original report, they were able to see that management companies in the area they served – principally the Dudley Street neighborhood – had very high eviction rates. In response, Project Hope cultivated partnerships with these companies, and, as Christine Dixon tells us:
“That information that we gathered from the housing court really did help us to design programs to better support families in the community to stay housed, to prevent evictions and prevent homelessness.”
Closer to the workings of City Hall than private management companies, HomeStart also found the original 2006 report tremendously useful. Using the data Project Hope had pulled from the housing courts, HomeStart debuted the Court Intervention Project in 2010 aimed at understanding how much money the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) was spending per eviction. In collaboration with the BHA and its residents, they determined it was about $10,000 per person. As a result of these findings, HomeStart was, as Kelly Mulligan says, able to:
“Demonstrate to them how much more cost-effective prevention services were, and [actually reach] an agreement with (BHA) in 2012 where they fund part of our prevention program… and help their tenants [avoid] eviction because they see how cost-effective it is.”
Though useful, these reports are difficult and time intensive to produce. For the third edition of the Boston Housing Court Data Report, Project Hope and HomeStart relied upon a small team of six individuals that went, three days a week, to Boston’s housing courts. There, they manually entered the contents of around 5,000 files into the team’s instrument, with Vinnie Wisniewski noting that it took the housing court team “about seven weeks” to complete this stage of the report.
Mulligan further elaborated on the challenges:
“I went back and forth with some researchers at Harvard and some folks at the City of Boston this past summer in 2016, because they really wanted to find a way to get more up-to-date data more quickly… The researchers at Harvard were trying to figure out a way to go through and scrape the court database but it kicks you out if you do that, for good reason. There are landlords who are using the MassCourts database as kind of a de facto way of doing housing screening and that information isn't accurate. There's huge problems with that so I think there are really good reasons to keep the MassCourts' data a little less accessible, but it is really frustrating that there isn't a way to go through that data and get some sort of dis-identified aggregate information.”
Once the housing court team had pulled all the data necessary for the report, the research team began their analysis. Some of the focus of the Housing Court Data Report was on two different dimensions – unsubsidized and subsidized housing evictions. The team was particularly interested in how evictions could be characterized under these housing categories. For Project Hope and HomeStart, the division was a natural one, fitting well within their overall mission focus. As Kristin Haas puts it;
“One particular factor that is of primary concern for Project Hope is when a family is evicted from subsidized housing they are typically not eligible for emergency shelter. So they are really kind of at wit's end and don’t have any options so we really want to be looking at a lot of the program's targets -- subsidized tenants for that reason, including the work that we do with Winn and Maloney and other management companies… HomeStart is working with BHA so those are subsidized tenants, so I think because those are particularly vulnerable households we really want to see what the trends are and see if we are making an impact over time. I think this data shows that there are often very different trends if you break it down between subsidized and market rate, and it makes it a little easier to think about the data when we can kind of think about that breakdown.“
The distinction between subsidized and unsubsidized housing tenants were not easy to parse out, however. Since court files did not have detail on whether or not the tenant was in subsidized housing, Project Hope and HomeStart had to make a certain amount of educated guesses. To understand these differences, Haas and the team looked at “how much rent [was] owed and how many months that represent[ed],” and used that as a proxy for their subsidized/unsubsidized divisions. What they found was that, surprisingly, subsidized housing tenants were at a much higher risk of being evicted as compared to those in market-rate units. For the most part, the team chalked it up to shock. If you’re subsisting on this or that subsidy, and suddenly have an unexpected cost, it’s very hard to recover from that financially and much easier to fall behind on what rent you do owe.
As the team dove deeper into the subsidized housing question, further divisions on evictions among the different landlord types surfaced. Units run by the Housing Authority; large, private landlords with thousands of units; and smaller, individual landlords – were all tracked, revealing some interesting trends. For instance, while Project Hope and HomeStart have helped larger management organizations bring evictions down from 2006 highs, there have been clear increases in evictions from individual private landlords.
This is a particularly vexing problem for Boston. Unlike the major landlords, who are able to enact significant policy change over thousands of units, these individual private landlords may hold only a small number of leases. As a result, where meeting with one person at a management company or the BHA had the potential to significantly reduce evictions across a multitude of units, meeting with these landlords may only reduce evictions for one or two families. For advocates, effecting meaningful change across thousands of smaller unit holders is a difficult and uncertain prospect, but is increasingly seen as necessary. Evictions in this category have increased by nearly 20% as a share of all evictions in the city, even as all others have fallen or remained flat.
There is yet more that the Boston Housing Court Data Report covers that we haven’t touched on here – from disparities in legal representation at the courts, to the geographical distribution of evictions – that help fill in a more complete picture of housing in Boston. It is important to note that the expansion of housing is only one part of the solution to Boston’s housing challenges – understanding the loss of housing within the city is also critical to our efforts to build a more inclusive and diverse society.