Guest Column: Increases in public funding to legal aid providers protects tenants

This column appeared in the Cambridge Chronicle.

Since my term as a Cambridge city councilor began in January 2018, housing has been the number one concern for members of our community. Calls come in to my office nearly every day: A panicked family has received an eviction notice and is searching for support. A tenant wants to understand their rights after a situation arises with their landlord. The rent has been adjusted, and a family cannot afford the increase.

I’ve helped constituents comprehend application forms and connected them to the many resources we have in Cambridge, such as RAFT (Residential Assistance for Families in Transition), which provides short-term financial assistance to low-income families and individuals who are at risk of homelessness or currently homeless. While working directly with those facing all manner of housing emergencies, and attempting, alongside my constituents, to navigate a complex system of forms, laws, deadlines and regulations, it became increasingly clear how severe our urban housing crisis is here in Cambridge.

Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services (CASLS), a division of Greater Boston Legal Services, provides free legal services to low-income families and individuals (those who earn up to 125 percent of the poverty level — $31,375 for a family of four in 2018 — or up to 200 percent in limited circumstances). As a legal aid attorney myself, I understand how critical these services are to helping people stay in their homes, and why they’re a necessary component of our city’s housing plan.

The city of Cambridge’s contract with CASLS allows services for households up to 60 percent of the HUD area median income ($64,680 for a family of four), and these standards enable CASLS to serve a broader group of individuals and families than is typically served in other communities. CASLS is also collectively responsible for serving six cities and towns, including Cambridge. As rents continue to escalate throughout our city, and tenant protections remain sparse, tenants in need of Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services’ support far outnumber those it can assist.

Receiving these emails and phone calls from constituents, I turned to CASLS for guidance and referred tenants to its services. Yet the organization’s caseload was overwhelming; CASLS only had three attorneys, none of whom were exclusively dedicated to housing law, and a single AmeriCorps service paralegal. As I continued to encounter more and more of my neighbors swept up in a current of housing instability, I knew we needed relief now — we needed another lifeboat. This past June, I submitted a policy order that was co-sponsored by Mayor Marc McGovern, Councilor Dennis Carlone and Councilor E. Denise Simmons requesting more legal aid funding for CASLS so that the organization could afford to hire an additional housing attorney. The city’s decision to agree to this increase in legal aid funding was a critical first step in protecting Cambridge tenants.

On Oct. 15, the city appropriated $65,000 to increase the funding for legal services for Cambridge residents at risk of losing their housing. This increase in funding reflects a 50-percent increase to the current funding of $130,000 through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. In addition to hiring another attorney, and therein increasing legal representation for individuals and families, the funds will allow CASLS to increase the number of open office hours provided at the Multi-Service Center by 50 percent, as well as improve access to trainings and ongoing consultations for other local providers and Multi-Service Center staff, who are similarly supporting clients facing housing insecurity.

This funding is significant because it not only ensures that the CASLS Office in Cambridge stays open, but it also allows CASLS to address a greater proportion of the immediate needs in Cambridge — those constituents facing eviction or other housing emergencies. The Harvard Law Review conducted a study which found that two-thirds of tenants who had a legal aid attorney were able to stay in their homes, compared with only one-third of tenants who had represented themselves in housing court. Considering the positive impact access to legal representation has on our city’s tenants, I will advocate for further increases in funding to legal aid services in the future.

It remains imperative, however, that we as a city acknowledge both historic catalysts and what is to come. In addition to responding to emergencies, we must identify and address the many factors that have generated our present housing crisis and establish informed, proactive solutions. We must collaborate on the construction of long-term solutions, using the tools at our disposal to fight displacement before it occurs. I will be writing about tenant displacement and proactive housing policy through future columns in weeks to come.

City Councilor Sumbul Siddiqui, Cambridge
Sumbul Siddiqui is a first-term councilor who grew up in Cambridge. She also has a podcast, along with councilor Alanna Mallon, called “Women Are Here.”