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.”

Governor Baker signs state budget with $3 million increase for civil legal aid

Statement from the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation:

BOSTON, July 26, 2018— Today, Governor Charlie Baker signed the FY19 Budget of the Commonwealth, which includes $21.04 million for civil legal aid through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation—a $3.04 million increase over FY18. The following is a statement from Lonnie Powers, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation:

“We thank Governor Baker for approving this important funding increase for civil legal aid. We are deeply grateful for his leadership, and for his recognition of the urgent need to address the overwhelming demand for assistance among our state’s low-income residents. With this funding increase, civil legal aid organizations across the state will be able to help thousands more people who otherwise would not receive assistance in resolving serious civil legal issues that threaten their health, safety, and financial stability. The FY19 Budget of the Commonwealth helps Massachusetts deliver on the promise of equal justice for all.

“In addition to the Governor, his cabinet, and his staff, we thank the Massachusetts legislature for voting to increase funding for civil legal aid. The broad support we received from the House and Senate and from members of both parties truly demonstrates the impact legal aid makes in every corner of the state. We are also grateful to the many supporters of civil legal aid who advocated for this increase, including our legislative champions, the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association, the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts, numerous county and specialty bar associations, managing partners at many of the state’s largest law firms, business leaders, and our social service partners. Their collective advocacy exemplifies the Commonwealth’s commitment to the principles of justice, fairness, and compassion, and we are fortunate to count them as allies. Our shared success is an important step towards the goal of ensuring that all people—regardless of income—have access to legal advice and representation.”

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About MLAC

The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation was established by the state legislature in 1983 to ensure that low-income people with critical, non-criminal legal problems would have access to legal information, advice and representation. MLAC is the largest funding source for civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts. For more information, please visit: www.mlac.org.

Massachusetts State House

Sen. Creem speaks in support of civil legal aid funding during Senate budget debate

The following are remarks by Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem, during the Massachusetts Senate budget debate on May 24, 2018.

“I would like to speak to amendment #992, an MLAC amendment. We voted in support of it. It provides $2 million for civil legal aid for those who can’t afford an attorney. 65 percent of those eligible are now turned away due to lack of resources. Every dollar spent on civil legal aid brings in $2 to $5. This provides a modest increase and moves us to full funding of legal assistance. If we care about civil rights and due process, we all deserve the right to be represented. I think this is one of the most important things that we’re doing with this budget. I’m happy this was approved.”

Massachusetts State House

Senate Ways & Means Committee recommends $1 million increase for civil legal aid

Below is a statement from the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation on the $1 million increase proposed by the Senate Ways & Means Committee.

BOSTON, May 10, 2018―In its FY19 budget, released today, the Senate Ways & Means Committee recommended funding civil legal aid in the Commonwealth at $19 million. This represents a $1 million increase over last year’s budget. Given the depth of unmet need for civil legal aid services among people living in poverty, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) will continue to advocate for an additional $4 million in funding from the Senate.

“Civil legal aid funding plays a vital role in promoting equal access to justice for low-income residents of the Commonwealth and we’re pleased that the Senate Ways & Means Committee recognizes this contribution,” said Lonnie Powers, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC). “Given the need for services among those seeking civil legal aid, and the significant return on investment yielded by civil legal aid funding, we will continue to advocate for increased investment by the state during the Senate floor debate.”

Currently, civil legal aid programs around the state turn away approximately 65 percent of eligible residents who seek services—nearly 45,000 people each year. To be eligible for civil legal aid, applicants must have incomes at or below 125% of the Federal Poverty Level, which is $31,375 a year for a family of four.

Earlier this year, MLAC released its annual Economic Benefits Report, which showed that civil legal assistance provided by MLAC-funded programs in fiscal year 2017 yielded at least $59.2 million in savings or new revenue for the state and its residents. Successful representation in appeals to Social Security Insurance, Social Security Disability Insurance, Unemployment Insurance, Medicare coverage, and federal tax decisions resulted in $17.6 million in new federal revenue for the Commonwealth. An additional $24.3 million was gained through child support orders, debt relief for homeowners in foreclosure cases, and additional non-federal Unemployment Insurance claims and representation for tenants. The state saved $17.2 million in services that it would have otherwise provided if not for civil legal aid, including emergency shelter, foster care, and medical costs related to domestic violence.

Senators Cynthia Creem and William Brownsberger will file an amendment to increase the Senate Ways & Means recommendation by $4 million, for a total appropriation of $23 million, as the Senate budget is debated. This funding increase would be another important step in addressing the significant unmet need among those who are eligible for and seek civil legal aid.

“Our 14 community-based programs across Massachusetts improve the health, safety, and well-being of the state by making it possible for low-income residents to access civil legal resolutions to life-changing issues related to housing, employment, and health care,” said Marijane Benner Browne, chair of the MLAC Board of Directors. “In doing this, we ultimately save millions of dollars of the state’s money and bring in millions more in federal funding. This cost-effective and efficient use of our tax dollars strengthens families and all of our communities.”

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ABOUT MLAC

The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation was established by the state legislature in 1983 to ensure that low-income people with critical, non-criminal legal problems would have access to legal information, advice and representation. MLAC is the largest funding source for civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts. Visit www.mlac.org for more information.

Gavel

Rep. Cronin speaks in support of civil legal aid funding during House budget debate

The following are remarks by Representative Claire Cronin, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, during the Massachusetts House budget debate on April 25, 2018.

Rep. Cronin: “I rise in support of the amendment for public safety and judiciary. There are many important provisions in the consolidated amendment. I want to highlight one that is near and dear to us. That is the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. We fund it at $20.75 million, a $2.75 million increase over the current budget and a $2.57 million increase over the governor’s budget. This was a strong priority for the majority of members of this House. MLAC is a vital resource and removes barriers to legal assistance. Last year assisted over 83,000 individuals in Massachusetts regarding housing, domestic violence and other issues. In fiscal 2017, MLAC yielded a return of over $59 million in benefits, including securing federal assistance and generating substantial savings for the state in housing and health care costs. I ask for your support for this amendment.”

Massachusetts State House

House Ways & Means Committee recommends $2 million increase for civil legal aid

Below is a statement from the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation on the $2 million increase proposed by the House Ways & Means Committee.

Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp. Praises House Ways & Means Committee Budget

BOSTON, April 11, 2018―On Wednesday, the House Ways & Means Committee recommended $20 million for civil legal aid funding in its Fiscal Year 2019 budget, which represents a $2 million increase over the Fiscal Year 2018 budget.

“We’re pleased that the House Ways & Means Committee recognizes the role that civil legal aid funding plays in promoting equal access to justice for low-income residents of the Commonwealth, and we are extremely grateful for this support,” said Lonnie Powers, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC). “However, given the great depth of unmet need among those seeking civil legal aid, and the significant return on investment yielded by civil legal aid funding, we need to continue to advocate for increased investment by the state during the House floor debate.”

Currently, civil legal aid programs around the state turn away approximately 65 percent of eligible residents who seek services—nearly 45,000 people each year. To be eligible for civil legal aid, applicants must have incomes at or below 125% of the Federal Poverty Level, which is $31,375 a year for a family of four.

Earlier this year, MLAC released its annual Economic Benefits Report, which showed that civil legal assistance provided by MLAC-funded programs in fiscal year 2017 yielded at least $59.2 million in savings or new revenue for the state and its residents. Successful representation in appeals to Social Security Insurance, Social Security Disability Insurance, Unemployment Insurance, Medicare coverage, and federal tax decisions resulted in $17.6 million in new federal revenue for the Commonwealth. An additional $24.3 million was gained through child support orders, debt relief for homeowners in foreclosure cases, and additional non-federal Unemployment Insurance claims and representation for tenants. The state saved $17.2 million in services that it would have otherwise provided if not for civil legal aid. These services include emergency shelter, foster care, and medical costs related to domestic violence.

Representative Ruth Balser and Representative Claire Cronin will file an amendment to increase the House Ways & Means recommendation by $2 million, for a total appropriation of $22 million, as the House budget is debated. This funding increase would be another important step in addressing the significant unmet need among those who are eligible for and seek civil legal aid.

“Public spending should be aligned with effective, successful programs that improve the health, safety, and well-being of our residents. Our 14 community-based programs across Massachusetts meet that bar,” said Marijane Benner Browne, chair of the MLAC Board of Directors. “Civil legal aid programs assist people who are struggling to make ends meet resolve civil legal issues related to basic necessities such as housing, employment, classroom accommodations for children with disabilities, and conflicts related to child support and custody, divorce, and domestic violence.”

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ABOUT MLAC

The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation was established by the state legislature in 1983 to ensure that low-income people with critical, non-criminal legal problems would have access to legal information, advice and representation. MLAC is the largest funding source for civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts. For more information, visit www.mlac.org.

Massachusetts Map

Letter to the Editor: Civil legal aid is a bargain in its rescued lives

This letter appeared in the Worcester Telegram.

With uncertainty about how federal tax reform will impact Massachusetts, state lawmakers writing next year’s budget have an almost impossible task. They must align public spending with programs that not only improve lives, but yield a substantial return on investment, as well.

Civil legal aid does just this by providing legal representation or advice to people with low incomes facing life-changing noncriminal legal issues, such as divorce, home foreclosure, or improperly denied public benefits such as unemployment or health insurance. Free legal representation can stabilize lives of individuals and families in crisis – such as a frail elder needing protection from an abusive family member or caregiver; a military veteran denied health care benefits; or a family facing evictionbecause of a job layoff. This work is provided by 14 civil legal aid programs around the state, including Community Legal Aid in Worcester.

Politicians in Washington have changed federal policy and cut anti-poverty programs, increasing the legal needs of people struggling to make ends meet, making it more important than ever that vulnerable people in our Commonwealth aren’t left to navigate our complicated legal system alone. Those who qualify for civil legal aid are some of the most vulnerable among us, an individual scraping by on little more than $15,000 per year, for example, or afamily of four living on $32,000 annually.

Simply put, equal justice under law should not be a privilege based on how much money you make. We hope that lawmakers continue to support civil legal aid.

John A. Shea, Board President, Community Legal Aid

Worcester

Douglas Brown, Board Member, Community Legal Aid

Sherborn

Job Opening: Executive Director, Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation

The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), a statewide organization that provides leadership and support for civil legal services to low-income individuals and families, in partnership with the broader civil legal services community in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, seeks nominations and applications for its next Executive Director.

Read the announcement and full job description on the MLAC website.

Massachusetts Map

Letter to the Editor: The health, safety and livelihoods of many of our neighbors depend on civil legal aid

This letter appeared in the Springfield Republican.

In Massachusetts, legal aid lawyers are helping a growing number of elders escape exploitation and abuse at the hands of adult children who are addicted to opioids, and helping victims of Hurricane Maria who narrowly escaped Puerto Rico’s devastation navigate the legal requirements of resettling and restarting their lives here.

These are just a few ways that civil legal aid organizations respond to emerging needs in our communities. In Massachusetts, there are 14 such programs, including Community Legal Aid in Springfield.

In times of unforeseen events, public crises, and catastrophes, civil legal aid lawyers are often on the front lines alongside the Red Cross, law enforcement and first responders. Legal aid organizations are among the last to leave because crises of any type usually create long-term, civil legal needs resulting from such things as the loss of vital documents needed to enroll kids in school or receive medical care, or home foreclosure caused by a temporary inability to make mortgage payments after one is forced to leave their home.

Catastrophic weather events, public health emergencies like the opioid epidemic, changes to immigration policy, and the continued whittling away of federal safety net programs create increased demand for legal help in communities where people are already struggling to get by. Indeed, those who qualify for civil legal aid are some of the most vulnerable among us — an individual scraping by on little more than $15,000 per year, for example, or a family of four living on a $31,375 annual income.

Now is not the time for to cut state funding for civil legal aid; it should be increased. The health, safety and livelihoods of many of our neighbors depend on it.

Timothy Murphy, Springfield
The writer is a member of the board of directors of Community Legal Aid