Housing court may be available on Island

For now the plan is for Barnstable, but chief justice meets with local attorneys to discuss housing court accessibility.

Housing Court Chief Justice Tim Sullivan (left) meets with Island attorneys and Rep. Dylan Fernandes. — Brian Dowd

Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Housing Court Department Tim Sullivan met with a group of local attorneys Friday at the Dukes County courthouse for an informational session on the accessibility of housing court throughout Massachusetts.

The housing court hears eviction cases, small claims cases, and civil actions involving personal injury, property damage, breach of contract, discrimination, and other claims. District court is often busy with criminal and other cases, and does not offer some of the specialized services housing court does when it comes to tenant and landlord rights, which can be complex.

Some of the services include housing specialists, court employees who serve as mediators and provide information about Massachusetts housing laws to the public; disability assistance for people with disabilities; and the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP), a homelessness prevention program that focuses on tenants who have disabilities and works with landlords to see if a disability can be accommodated to keep a tenant in his or her home.

Last year, House and Senate leaders along with Gov. Charlie Baker expanded the housing court to include all municipalities in the commonwealth. Before the expansion, the housing court was made up of five divisions throughout the state, but did not cover Dukes, Nantucket, Middlesex, Norfolk, and Barnstable, and parts of Suffolk counties. With the expansion, the housing court created a new southeastern division that includes Dukes, Barnstable, and Nantucket counties.

Previously, people who filed housing cases in Dukes, Barnstable, and Nantucket counties used to only be able take their cases to district court. Once in district court, cases could then be transferred to housing court with the approval of the district court judge. Now people have a choice to either take their case to district court or go to housing court. If they want a transfer, it is immediately approved, and does not require district judge approval.

“The reason I’m here today is largely to listen,” Sullivan said to the attorneys, “to listen to the stakeholders who are most affected on the Islands, perhaps on the Cape, to see how we best can serve you.”

Several of the attorneys at the information session raised the issue of traveling off-Island to have their disputes heard in housing court. Currently, litigants on Island have to travel to Plymouth to have their cases heard in housing court, which can increase attorney fees and be inconvenient with boat, car, or bus travel.

The challenge moving forward for Dukes County is finding a way to provide housing court services to people on-Island while also not inconveniencing them by having them go off-Island.

Sullivan plans to have a housing court designated in Barnstable by the end of the summer, but said nothing was set in stone, and he is very much open to all ideas to better serve the Cape and Islands. Video-conferencing, a rotating housing court that would move from the Vineyard to Nantucket and Barnstable, and cross-designation, which would allow a judge to hear district, superior, and housing court cases, were ideas Sullivan plans to take under consideration. Sullivan said one of the issues housing court faces is finding available space, which prevented a housing court in Falmouth.

Cross-designation received a lot of support from several attorneys at the session. “Cross-designation works very well for the Island. It’s absolutely necessary in order to give individuals the access to the justice that they deserve,” Edgartown District Court clerk-magistrate Liza Williamson told the Times in a phone interview.

While cross-designation might make the most sense for the Island, Sullivan said he is committed to getting the Island what it needs, but there are several steps to having a district court judge designated as a housing court judge, and if it happened, services like housing specialists and TPP would need to be available on the Island.

In Dukes County, district court judges can act as a superior court judge and vice versa, increasing availability and accessibility. Attorney Erik Hammarlund praised the Dukes County Court during Friday’s meeting. “We have the best courthouse in the state here in terms of accessibility,” he said of the accessibility to services.

State Rep. Dylan Fernandes, who was late to the meeting due to a ferry delay, explained how travel can be unpredictable. “It’s incredibly hard to get around this district. I know [Sullivan] is absolutely committed to making this work in the district in a way that it could make a reasonable accommodation for everyone. If it gets to the point where it’s not feasible, we can have another conversation. Let’s keep the dialogue going,” he said. Fernandes said he liked the ideas of cross-designation and video-conferencing.

Island housing issues, which Island attorney T. George Davis described as “a severe crisis,” were also brought up at the session. “Even now it’s getting worse,” Davis said. “You’ve got seasonal houses. You can rent a place from Labor Day until Memorial Day at a certain rent. The homeowner then through the summer months can have four times that amount of rent. In other words, what you get for a month you can get for a week. Say you’ve got a holdover tenant and you can’t get that person out from May through August because they don’t want to spend that amount, and they can’t find a house to move to. All of a sudden you have a homeowner who says, I’ve lost all that income, why the heck would I ever want to do that again, and they’re moving out of the market quickly.”

In a phone conversation with the Times, Sullivan said the Friday meeting was productive and educational. “I was aware of the Island housing crisis. It was good to hear directly from attorneys on Martha’s Vineyard various ways it could be dealt with. I was not really quite sure of the magnitude of it, that was a bit of an eye-opener,” he said.