Deborah Shearer’s landlord wanted to make renovations to the Hyde Park house that Shearer and her family had rented for decades, so he took them to court to evict them.
“That’s how we ended up in the eviction court, because we got served with an eviction notice,” Shearer recalled. “But we weren’t evicted.”
The case was dismissed on a technicality in 2020, but the family agreed to move out. They spent months looking for a new apartment.
But Shearer’s adult daughter, Sydney Clark, said that despite having good credit and savings, they weren’t getting applications accepted by new landlords. When they got passed over for one apartment they really wanted, Clark contacted the landlord.
“And I was just like, ‘What is stopping us from getting an apartment?’” she recalled. “And it basically was that eviction notice, even though we were not evicted. The eviction notice shows up on our background checks.”
As affordable housing becomes increasingly difficult to find in Massachusetts, some advocates and lawmakers say public, electronic records of prior evictions, even in no-fault cases, can create an insurmountable burden for many families searching for a new home.
Those advocates are renewing a push to allow renters to petition to have prior eviction records wiped clean — or expunged. And they’re optimistic it stands a better chance than previous attempts of passing under Massachusetts’ next governor.
Public access, personal challenges
A simple search on the state website masscourts.org brings up Shearer and Clark’s recent eviction complaint, as well as a few other housing cases that were settled more than a decade ago. When she realized those records were preventing them from finding a new home, Clark said she called the courts to ask if she could clear their record.
“I called the courthouse and they're like, ‘No, it’s public record ... there’s nothing you can do,’” Clark recalled.
Prior eviction records weren’t a major housing barrier until the state's searchable court database went live in 2013, said Andrea Park, a housing attorney and director of community-driven advocacy for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI).
“After that happened, it became very easy for anyone to simply go online and look up a name and see whether there was a court record,” Park said. “And that has become a de facto screening tool for landlords to use.”
"Just because your name appears in that database ... it doesn't necessarily tell you much."Andrea Park, housing attorney
Since the late 1980s, more than 1.1 million eviction cases have been filed in Massachusetts, according to data provided by MLRI. Each one of those cases shows up in a search of the involved parties, Park said, even if no one was ultimately evicted.
“Tenants can win the case. Cases get dismissed. Sometimes we hear about cases that get resolved,” she said. “Our concern is that there’s a lot of room for error there. Just because your name appears in that database ... it doesn't necessarily tell you much.”
But, she said, the database has become a widely used tool for screening out tenants. Even in no-fault cases, Park said, appearing in the database is often seen by landlords as disqualifying — even though the tenants did nothing wrong. Nearly one in five Massachusetts evictions were “no-fault” evictions so far this year, according to the most recent quarterly data available from MassLandlords.
“I think in a tight rental market like we have, where there are so many people chasing so few apartments, it’s probably not an unreasonable business decision for a landlord to say, ‘Well, this person’s name is here. I’m going to move on to the person whose name is not here,’” she said.
Clearing the record
An economic developmentbill that reached Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk last year included a provision that would have allowed tenants to petition the court to have prior evictions expunged from their records. Baker vetoed that part of the bill.
The governor acknowledged that families facing financial hardship are at risk of eviction, and those records make it harder to find new housing. But he took issue with the fact that eviction records could be sealed even in cases where tenants engaged in criminal activity or endangered other tenants.
“Keeping this kind of information sealed is unfair to landlords and creates unnecessary risks for other tenants,” Baker wrote in his letter explaining the veto.
Baker added that the provision would impose an administrative burden on the courts.
State Sen. Lydia Edwards (D-First Suffolk and Middlesex) said she plans to reintroduce a compromise version of the legislation, known as the HOMES Act, which addresses some of the concerns Baker raised, and has won the support of one-time critics.
“If we could just get it to the governor’s desk this time, I feel very confident that it would become law,” Edwards said.
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The compromise version of the bill that Edwards plans to introduce would no longer lump all eviction cases together. It would allow anyone with a no-fault eviction on their record to petition for it to be sealed after just 14 days. Anyone with a “fault eviction,” including for failure to pay rent, would have to wait seven years.
Edwards said it’s important to allow even those who have been evicted because of criminal activity to petition for expungement.
“This is about a second chance for a lot of people that they may have made a mistake, that they are being judged for a moment in their life,” she said. “They should be able to petition the court and demonstrate that they are not that person.”
There is a system for people to have criminal records sealed, and Edwards said it only makes sense to allow the same for eviction records related to criminal convictions.
Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden has expressed support for the compromise bill, which Edwards said should help address some of the concerns Baker expressed when he vetoed the bill.
“If the public safety experts are saying we’re not going to become less safe because of this, that is huge, and a narrative that we didn’t seek last time,” Edwards said.
The new version also has the backing of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, which was against the initial bill. The organization’s CEO, Greg Vasil, said that, like Baker, they had opposed the initial bill because it lumped all evictions together.
“A no-fault eviction should be handled much differently than somebody that was convicted for a crime,” he said.
After many hours of discussion with Edwards and others focused on the issue, there was a meeting of the minds, Vasil said. In addition to a longer time period before someone with a “fault eviction” could petition for their record to be sealed, the compromise includes additional judicial hurdles for those evicted because of violent crime, drugs or other offenses.
“There are parts of the bill where there was a lot of give and take in the negotiation,” he said. “And there are parts that either party will say isn’t great for them. But I think it works.”
New bill, new governor
Governor-elect Maura Healey isn’t saying whether she’d support expungement of eviction records.
“Maura believes we should be working to lower barriers for people to obtain stable housing,” her spokesperson Karissa Hand said in a statement. “She will review any legislation that reaches her desk as Governor.”
Healey’s track record as attorney general, though, suggests she’d support the idea.
In 2016, Healey’s chief of the Consumer Protection Division wrote to a state judge overseeing a committee on public access to court records, proposing a rule to allow housing court records to be removed from the public online database.
“We submit that this limited procedure appropriately balances the public’s right to open courts with the need to ensure that tenants can assert their legal rights without fear of future harm,” wrote Max Weinstein of Healey’s office in a letter provided by the AG’s office.
‘We don’t know what we don’t know’
Some landlords say an expungement law could bar them from seeing information that's crucial to determining if someone is a suitable tenant.
Brian Lucier is with Belaire Property Management, which manages more than 300 units for landlords in Worcester County. He said it’s his responsibility to protect himself and his clients from risk — a risk that could be foreshadowed by prior evictions.
“The problem with this is we don’t know what we don’t know,” he said.
"It's putting all of us in the same bucket, with a higher risk, whether we're a good actor or a bad actor."Brian Lucier, manager with Belaire Property Management
Lucier said if his company sees an eviction on a prospective tenant’s record, they reach out to that person to find out the full story, and could still rent to them. And he said many other landlords do the same.
“It depends on where your core values are as a business,” he said. “I don’t think this law or any law will be able to control [that]. So it’s putting all of us in the same bucket, with a higher risk, whether we’re a good actor or a bad actor.”
A new chance
Deborah Shearer and her family did wind up finding a new apartment after months of searching. But their new landlord only agreed to rent to them after speaking with the landlord who took them to court to evict them, Cesar Rojas.
“I had to explain to this landlord what was the story and what was the reason behind it,” Rojas said. “And then, after he understood the story, he was more willing to rent to her. But I don’t think you should have to go through the whole process of getting the previous landlord involved — getting, you know, so difficult — when you haven’t done anything wrong.”
With just a year’s lease guaranteed, Shearer said she worries about going through the same challenges again if they have to leave for some reason. She said the ability to expunge those records would make a difference, and the law would give her a new chance.
“A chance to stop being scared,” she said. “Just a chance. Equal footing. That’s what it would mean.”
GBH News pursued this story after several people, including Sydney Clark, shared their experiences about the impact of an eviction on their search for housing. You can share your Priced Out story or ask a question you’d like answered by filling out this Google form. Find more from the series at Priced Out: The fight for housing in Massachusetts.