Violating Housing Rights Is Not Just Immoral, It’s Downright Criminal!

Rebecca Brodie
Spare Change News

An underutilized provision of
Massachusetts law allows unscrupulous
landlords to face criminal charges, not
just civil penalties, for illegally evicting
tenants. Facing incarceration, one should
expect that landlords would think twice
before locking out a tenant or shutting
off a tenant’s utilities. Unfortunately,
my experience has shown that police
departments, are reluctant to get
involved in housing disputes. Typically,
when contacted about illegal eviction,
police inform tenants that the dispute is
a civil matter and then direct the tenant
to housing court. Whether police fail to
respond out of ignorance of the law or
an unwillingness to apply the law, the
result is the same; every year hundreds
of Massachusetts residents become
homeless when they are illegally forced
from their homes.
If Massachusetts is serious about
preventing homelessness, then we
must “get serious” about illegal evictions.
It is no wonder that dishonest
landlords bypass legal procedures
when there is little chance of severe
repercussions. From the language of
Massachusetts General Law 186, section
14, it is clear that legislators intended
landlords to be held criminally accountable.
Why then, is that not happening?
Many attorneys would argue that there
is no need for criminal penalties as landlords
face monetary damages in civil
court. I disagree. Spending up to six
months in jail sends a very distinct message
that cannot be fully understood by
a monetary fine. Others would argue
that enforcing M.G.L. 186 would overburden
our already crowded jails and
that incarceration should be limited to
“serious crimes”. To that I say that in
my experience representing tenants, I
rarely saw a dishonest landlord who
only acted improperly on one occasion.
Often, corrupt landlords prey upon multiple
tenants for decades. The real possibility
of facing jail time could be a powerful
deterrent. Moreover, I believe that
jail time for landlords will have much
more positive results than jail time for
inmates incarcerated for violent crimes
or drug offenses. In fact, I expect that
the recidivism rate for landlords will
be significantly lower than most other
crimes. Even better, the filing of criminal
complaints will allow courts to see
patterns of illegal behavior in ways that
civil courts are unable. Imagine a landlord
with a long history of illegal evictions
facing fines in housing court. Now
imagine that same landlord in criminal
court, facing a judge who can review a
long history of housing crimes on the
landlords Board of Parole record.
It is important to note that even if the
police refuse to file a criminal complaint
against a landlord, tenants can go to
court and ask to file the complaint him/
herself. After the complaint is filed, a
hearing will be scheduled and the tenant
will need to go to court to explain their
situation. Again, courts are hesitant to
allow tenants to file criminal complaints
and often try to dissuade tenants so
community support is still very much
needed. Finally, once we get the police
and courts to take this issue seriously,
we also need to convince the district
attorneys office to prosecute these cases.
We have our work cut out for us. We
need to educate and hold police departments
accountable. We need to elect district
attorneys who are dedicated to preventing
homelessness. When our officers
do file a criminal complaint against
a landlord, the assistant district attorney
prosecuting the case need to take homelessness
seriously and convey a message
to landlords, “Not on my watch”.

Rebecca Woodworth Brodie is a founding
partner at Brodie & Brodie (www.brodieandbrodie.
com) and the director of the
Massachusetts Litigation and Mediation
Collaborative. MLMC provides free and lowcost
legal services in seven Massachusetts
counties. Additionally, Brodie has developed
several community programs, such
as the Framingham Family Advocacy
Program, which represents the women of
MCI Framingham, and the New Attorney
Mentoring Program. Brodie is a member of
the MBA’s Committee on Access to Justice.

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