Innovation in the Spotlight:
The Western Massachusetts Housing Court Project
The Western Massachusetts Regional Network to End Homelessness has recently launched an innovative Housing Court project with the goal of reducing evictions by linking community based resources, such as Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness (ICHH) and Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) funding, with court based resources such as mediation and housing specialists. This initiative was spearheaded by the collaborative effort of Judge Robert Fields, Associate Justice of the Western Division Housing Court and the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness. – It is Judge Fields’ assessment that even when there are resources in the community designed to avert homelessness (such as for paying arrearage or arranging for protective payments), the simple fact that those resources fail to connect with those who need them at the moment of their eviction case in court can often lead to eviction. By making that connection at the right moment, in the court case itself, the result can be to avoid eviction, make the landlord whole and prevent the detrimental effects of homelessness. As ICHH and HPRP grants were being awarded, Judge Fields and the Network brought together local service providers, local Housing Authorities, and members of the legal community to discuss better ways of connecting at-risk tenants with both the court and community supports that could keep them in housing. From this initial meeting which drew 45 people together, the Western Mass. Network began to facilitate the delivery of ICHH and HPRP funded services within the Western Division of the Housing Court.
The Housing Court project is a collaborative effort of many service providers across the four counties of Western Massachusetts. The first component to coordinating these services was to pull together a thorough resource list that outlined all of the tenancy preservation and supportive services available across the network that could be leveraged by the service provider on duty at the Housing Court at any given time. Participating service providers are not adding new services to their portfolio but rather bringing their services and resources to a new front door, the Housing Court. Local service providers have worked out a schedule of coverage to ensure a homeless service provider is present to allocate resources and advocate for individuals and families facing eviction. The collaborating service providers have access to ICHH, HPRP and other American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)funds to help at-risk tenants preserve their tenancies. This innovation is compelling because it offers a new format for delivering services without any new resources. This is genuinely an innovation of collaboration and sharing.
Not all participating organizations are funded ICHH subcontractors but all are part of the regional network who have come together to deliver better coordinated services. Below is a list of the participating organizations and the resources they bring to the Housing Court front door:
· HAP, Inc – ICHH
· Valley Opportunity Council – ICHH – (available by phone)
· Catholic Charities of Western Mass – ICHH
· Springfield Partnership for Community Action – ARRA
· New England Farm Workers Council – HPRP/ ICHH (available by phone)
· Community Action (in the Housing Court in Northampton and Greenfield)
· Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority – Tenancy Preservation Program – In Pittsfield
· Mental Health Associates – Tenancy Preservation Program in Greenfield, Northampton and Springfield
· Western Mass Legal Services
· Springfield Housing Authority
Despite having coverage from a variety of service provider s the Network is working to ensure uniform assessments for families and individuals and to track services provided at the Housing Court in a uniform way. The Network has developed a “Housing Court Record of Service” that will track services delivered and outcomes at the Housing Court.
The Court and the Network are hosting its next round of meetings across the region in March, at which point they will review initial outcome data tracking the success of the interventions. Already, however, Judge Fields reports seeing a change in the services families are receiving and the tenancies that are being preserved.
“This project keeps families out of shelter and in their homes,” Judge Fields states unequivocally. “Without the funds-and very importantly without the staff to stand before me in open court and report on the availability of those funds-I am certain that there would have been no basis to work out a payment plan and avoid eviction. In almost each case, the families would have ended up in shelter. Additionally in some cases, it was likely that DSS would have either not returned children to their families because of the housing situation or would have possibly taken them away due to homelessness.”
“This project has provided help for families with ‘one time’ financial hits due to loss of wages, cases where the tenants are now back to work,” Judge Fields notes. “If not for the ICHH/HPRP monies, the financial hole was simply too big to fill and eviction was certain. My sense and hope in each of these cases is that the solution will be long lasting.”
“Lastly, I want to report that the crucial difference I am feeling in the court-in addition, of course, to actual funds being available-is that we now have actual staff from outside agencies present in court to process and report on these situations. By way of example, on January 12th, HAP had staff present during the court session and the staff person came before me with the tenant in at least four cases. She was the difference between eviction and tenancy preservation.”
Information for this article was provided by interview with Pamela Schwartz and Judge Fields and with information from the Western Mass Network’s quarterly report to the ICHH.
From the Right Resources Forum