Via the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau
It sounds absurd – tenants fighting for years for the right to pay rent and a landlord who refuses to take their money. Too many families living in foreclosed homes across Massachusetts find themselves in this situation. For two Lynn families, a sweeping victory came after three and a half years of struggle, as Harvard Legal Aid Bureau’s Foreclosure Task Force (FTF) helped them win a ruling that Fannie Mae broke the law by refusing to let them stay and pay rent.
On July 14, 2014, Judge David Kerman of the Northeast Housing Court dismissed eviction cases against two separate families in a building owned by the Federal National Mortgage Association (known as Fannie Mae). Judge Kerman ruled that Fannie Mae had “engaged in a strategy for eviction, frustrating the tenants’ efforts to remain in their homes,” violating “both the letter and the spirit” of state law. The order came after student and FTF member Sam Heppell ’14 argued the families’ cases at a hearing in May – and after more than two years of representation, by FTF staff attorney Eloise Lawrence.
The two families first learned that Fannie Mae had foreclosed on the building in November of 2010, when a realtor offered them cash to leave. The families asked to stay and continue paying rent, but their attempts to settle the issue with Fannie Mae’s realtors and attorneys were ignored. Despite years of trying to pay rent to Fannie Mae, the families received eviction notices for failure to pay rent.
In 2010, the Massachusetts legislature gave tenants in foreclosed buildings the right to stay and pay rent to the new owners, allowing evictions only if there was “just cause” such as violating a lease or failing to pay the agreed-upon rent.
“On paper, these were meaningful protections, but in practice too many families were still being forced out,” said Sam. “Some families would leave because they didn’t know their rights, whereas others – like these two families – faced banks who took unbelievable steps to get around the law and avoid signing leases with them.”
After receiving the eviction notices, the families joined Lynn United for Change, an organization that brings together both tenants and foreclosed homeowners and uses “the sword and the shield” model to keep them in their homes – the “sword” of direct action and political pressure to change laws and policies and the “shield” of legal defense to fight evictions.
“I met one of the families when they showed up at our office late one night with a 48 hour notice of eviction,” said Isaac Simon Hodes, lead community organizer with Lynn United, “They had their children with them; their youngest was an infant at that time. We stayed late into the night going through documents and working out a plan.”
Through Lynn United, the families were connected with Eloise and Sam. As the eviction cases began moving towards a trial, Sam filed motions arguing that no trials were needed because the facts were indisputably clear – that Fannie Mae was breaking the law by refusing to rent and forcing the families out. These motions resulted in the favorable judgment by Judge Kerman. Now, other Lynn United members can rely on this decision in their legal struggles.
“Victories like this are made possible by really close collaboration between public interest lawyers and law students like the folks at HLAB and grassroots social justice groups like Lynn United for Change,” said Isaac.
“It was a privilege to work with these two families and to help them win some certainty after nearly four years of struggle,” said Sam, “This judgment is an important victory, not only for them but for families across Massachusetts.”