Room for more at Housing Court

Issue July 2005 By Krista Zanin

Department seeks to expand its geographic, subject matter coverage

Despite being more than 25 years old, the Housing Court Department has by no means finished growing.

In fact, Housing Court Chief Justice Manuel Kyriakakis is hopeful that this year will mark an important year for the court to expand both geographic and subject matter jurisdiction.
“We now cover geographically 80 percent of the state,” Kyriakakis said. “There are areas we do not cover, such as the Boston division does not cover all of Suffolk County. We hope to correct that this session by including Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop.

“We do not cover Norfolk County. There’s no housing court. So anybody who has a problem with housing in Norfolk County has to go to District or Superior Court. We do not cover the Cape Cod area. We do not cover certain areas around Boston such as Cambridge …. That is going to come in steps, I hope. We are working on [Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop] this year, with the others, I hope, in coming years. Once those areas are covered, there should be a housing court available in the entire state.”

Legislation is currently pending to expand the Boston division of the Housing Court to cover Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop, creating the Suffolk County division. Approval by the legislature will allow the Housing Court Department to send a housing court judge to Chelsea District Court once a week to cover housing matters for the three communities. (At press time, a hearing on this was scheduled to take place in late June.)

“One of the reasons why we want to go into Chelsea, for example, and Revere and Winthrop, is mainly because we have had a lot of requests from inspectors saying, ‘Look, we know that Boston housing inspectors can come into your court and get this very quick action and we don’t have that authority. We go to District Court and our cases take forever,’” Kyriakakis said. “That is nothing critical about the District Court, but the District Court involves itself with so many other types of things, it really can’t concentrate on housing.”

In his 2002 memorandum, “Roadmap for Housing Court Department,” Kyriakakis outlined his plan for expansion to also include creating a Norfolk County division to cover communities such as Quincy, Braintree, Brookline and Dedham; a division for Cape Cod and the Islands; and expanding into southern Middlesex County to include Cambridge, Somerville, Waltham, Framingham and Natick.

Geographic expansion is just one example of how Kyriakakis is hoping to continue to develop the Housing Court Department and its hallmarks — a user-friendly environment and helpful programs.

Kyriakakis has served at the helm of the Housing Court Department since June 2002, when he replaced Chief Justice E. George Daher, who retired after serving as chief justice from the Housing Court Department’s inception in 1978. Prior to becoming chief justice, Kyriakakis served 12 years as first justice of the Southeast Division.

The roots of the housing court started in 1972 when the Boston Housing Court was formed to deal with numerous complaints of code violations and unsafe living conditions in apartments throughout the city. A few years later, a second housing court developed in Hampden County and in 1978, the Housing Court Department was formed. It continued expansion right up through 1995, now including five areas that cover a majority of the commonwealth.

This includes the Boston Housing Court as well as the Worcester Housing Court, which covers Worcester County, four communities in Middlesex County and one community in Norfolk County; the Southeast Housing Court, which covers Bristol and Plymouth counties and sits primarily in Fall River but also in New Bedford and Brockton; the Western Housing Court, which sits primarily in Springfield but covers communities in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties; and the Northeast Housing Court, which covers Essex County and 19 communities in Middlesex County.

In addition to Kyriakakis, 10 judges preside in the housing court throughout the state. Though he does not sit on the bench as much as he used to, Kyriakakis does continue to hear some cases, particularly those involving receiverships.

Expanded jurisdiction, from criminal to small claims
Beyond geography, the Housing Court Department also has expanded to cover far more subject areas than it began with in the 1970s.

Today, the Housing Court Department handles more than 30,000 cases, which include criminal, summary process, civil, small claims, supplemental process and ticket hearings.
The civil side of the court mainly includes eviction and summary process actions. But landlords also seek to void leases under chapter 139, section 19, for tenants caught using the home to store or sell drugs.

The Housing Court Department also hears complicated cases, such as lead poisoning actions, as well as requests for temporary restraining orders. In the small claims division, individuals sue for back rent, security deposit returns and damage to rental units. The Housing Court Department also has a criminal side that handles complaints from housing inspectors against property owners for violations to the health, sanitary and fire codes.

“We don’t end up with too many convictions on the criminal side because we use the carrot-and-the-stick approach, the stick being the complaint,” Kyriakakis said. “And if they come in and straighten out the property, usually the carrot is we will dismiss the charge as long as they straighten the property out. We get a lot of filings by state sanitary code inspectors or town inspectors, building code inspectors and fire department inspectors.”

Kyriakakis wants to continue the Housing Court Department’s trend of adding new areas of jurisdiction. One area he would like to see the court cover is commercial evictions.
“If you try a case in housing court, you are going to realize very quickly that there is no difference between, in most cases, a residential eviction and a commercial eviction,” Kyriakakis said. “My problem always has been why can’t a commercial property owner come into housing court and evict a commercial tenant? For whatever reason, it was never designated for commercial property evictions. We’d like to expand it to that area.”

Kyriakakis would like to see the Housing Court Department have concurrent jurisdiction so that litigants have more options as to where they can bring commercial evictions. Another bill is pending to address this. Kyriakakis hopes the Housing Court Department in the future will gain jurisdiction to hear other cases such as civil suits involving real estate construction and condominium use.

“We are looking for expanded subject matter jurisdiction,” Kyriakakis said.

Housing specialists help case flow
Individuals trained in how to handle complicated housing matters help the Housing Court Department keep cases flowing.

Much of the time housing specialists, who are court system employees, mediate cases. An overwhelming majority of cases — approximately 80 percent — are settled through mediation, Kyriakakis said.

“They are the frontline of the court,” he said. “They are trained personnel who meet with litigants even before the litigants see a judge … If it wasn’t for them, we would have tremendous problems in handling the number of cases we do handle. It’s a high-volume court.”

For instance, on Thursdays, which are eviction days in Boston, the court will handle anywhere from 150 to 250 cases a day, amounting to upward of 300 litigants.

Lawyer for a Day unique resource
In addition to housing specialists, the Housing Court Department offers litigants a unique program to help them understand the court system through its Lawyer for a Day Program — particularly useful in light of the growing number of pro se litigants. The program is active in the Boston and Worcester divisions and is expanding to the Western and Northeast divisions.

For eviction day in Boston on Thursdays, there are two tables set up — one for landlords, one for tenants.

“If a landlord or tenant shows up in court without an attorney, they have the ability to consult with this lawyer,” Kyriakakis said. “It’s very, very helpful to people coming into the housing court. They advise them as to their rights. They advise them as to what’s going to happen during the court (appearance). It’s been very effective.”

Attorneys usually don’t directly represent the litigants, but they give them general advice. On occasion, an attorney may represent an indigent litigant for a trial if appointed by the court to do so, but this does not happen very often, Kyriakakis said.

“That’s limited to only the absolute great need type of cases,” he said. “We are not trying to discourage people from hiring attorneys. The attorneys here for the Lawyer for a Day Program are here mainly for (general) advice.”

Additionally, judges are trying to do more to explain how the court process works. Before beginning a court session on eviction day, the judge gives brief opening statement informing litigants as to what to expect that day.

“We have found that to be very advantageous,” Kyriakakis said. “We are a very, very user-friendly court. The whole system in housing court is based on being user friendly.”

Tenancy Preservation Program helps the troubled
Another innovative program is the Tenancy Preservation Program, which addresses “troubled tenancies” for those suffering from a disability or illness that threatens their ability to stay in an apartment because they are not paying rent or causing some sort of disruption. Often, this program deals with alcoholics, drug addicts, the elderly and those suffering from physical and mental illness who violate a condition of their housing agreement because of their illness or disability.

“When that type of case comes in, either the housing specialist or the judge will put the person in touch with the Tenancy Preservation Program,” Kyriakakis said. “It’s been very, very successful. It saves the landlord the problem of evicting a tenant, which can be costly, and it allows the landlord to have the tenant stay in the premises under court guidance.”

The tenant will meet with a committee of representatives from social services agencies to work out a structured plan to remedy whatever problem the tenant is experiencing or causing. For example, an alcoholic tenant may work out an agreement to stay in an apartment as long as he or she attends weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and provides documentation to that effect.

“It affords the landlord the assurance through this agreement that the court is going to oversee what the tenant is required to do,” Kyriakakis said. “In most cases, the tenant straightens out his or her act and is able to stay in the premises, not be evicted and the tenancy is preserved …. These agreements for judgment are supervised by the court over a period of time …. and in that way we don’t put people out on the street.”
Kyriakakis credited Justice Dina Fein for coordinating the program, which is staffed with the assistance of the FHA and is funded by various agencies concerned with housing.
Because of programs such as Tenancy Preservation, Lawyer for a Day and housing specialists, the Housing Court Department is able to serve a wide array of needs. Kyriakakis is hoping he will be able to provide these hallmarks to more individuals across the state through expanded jurisdiction.

“It’s a court that offers unique services to litigants,” Kyriakakis said. “And it is a court that is very user friendly. We have a lot of outreach programs …. Compared to the other court departments, the superior court and district court specifically, it’s a small court department, but it’s one I feel should grow in the future with additional judges and additional personnel to cover the entire state and cover even more subject matters than we cover right now.”