Energy Audit

Energy Savings Law Would Have Required Energy Score On Homes for Sale

The 22,000-member Massachusetts Association of Realtors® (MAR) has successfully lobbied against a controversial provision within proposed energy saving legislation which would impose a new government energy inspection and labeling system on every home listed for sale. The Realtor group argued that one of the unintended consequences of the proposed labeling law is the negative impacts on Massachusetts’ old housing stock. Realtors assert that this especially would hurt low- and moderate-income communities where the homeowners cannot afford to make upgrades. The ratings could cause depressed values of those older homes as well, agents argued.

As reported on their Facebook page, MAR said that on July 31, legislators removed this language before releasing an updated version of the bill.

“Realtors® support energy efficiency and voluntary home improvement programs like Mass Save, which we already pay for through our utility bills. But if these mandatory energy inspections become law, the bill causes more harm than good,” said 2016 MAR President Annie Blatz, branch executive at Kinlin Grover Real Estate on Cape Cod. “This comes down to the unintended consequences of trying to mandate a one-size-fits-all approach. It will hurt the housing market for all homeowners, especially those low-income homeowners with older homes who can’t afford to improve their score prior to selling their home.”

“The idea that requiring a government energy label on your home is the same as a miles-per-gallon (MPG) rating on a new car that comes off an assembly line by the millions is a poor comparison,” said Blatz. “Every home is different and our Massachusetts housing stock generally is older, which makes that argument even weaker. Especially hard-hit will be homeowners who can’t afford to make upgrades, especially during such a complicated process as a home sale. Entire older communities could be stigmatized and lose value.”

From a market perspective, the bill as drafted would have further complicated an already complex process of buying and selling a home. Requiring an energy audit prior to listing a home will lead to home buying delays. Currently, the Massachusetts housing market is starved for homes for sale and Realtors feel that this bill would put one more roadblock in the way of needed inventory reaching the market. In addition, a home inspection is customarily not performed until the buyer is under contract to purchase a home.

 

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AR-160427630Eisai, Inc. v. Housing Appeals Committee: Master Plan Conflict Does Not Trump Need For Affordable Housing

Chapter 40B — the state’s so-called “anti-snob” affordable housing law — has pitted developers vs. towns and neighbors in contentious fights over affordable housing projects. It’s one of the most controversial laws in the state, with opponents seeking to reform or repeal the law in recent years. In my home town of Sudbury, for example, there are “Oppose Sudbury Station” signs all over town, in opposition to a planned 200+ unit development in the middle of the historic town center.

While battles rage on the local level, Massachusetts courts have been rather tough on 40B opponents and boards who oppose projects. Last month, in another setback to Chapter 40B opponents, the Massachusetts Appeals Court in Eisai, Inc. v. Housing Appeals Committee (June 20, 2016), allowed a controversial Andover 40B project to proceed over the local ZBA’s denial of the permit on grounds that the town master plan is a local concern that trumps the need for affordable housing.

In the Eisai case, an Andover developer filed a 40B Comprehensive Permit application to build a 248-rental-unit project within an existing office and industrial park. The local zoning board of appeals denied the application on the ground that the “proposed project is inconsistent with decades of municipal planning, economic development strategies, and planning with owners and tenants of the abutting industrial properties[,] . . . most notably, the rezoning of the locus and abutting properties to accommodate and develop a modern, competitive, and viable industrial park and industrial center.” On appeal by the developer, the state Housing Appeals Committee, a state agency which hears appeals of 40B permits, reversed and ordered the local board to issue the Comprehensive Permit. The case was further appealed to the Superior Court, which upheld the permit, then to the state Appeals Court.

The important aspect of the appellate ruling was the Court’s endorsement of a new reformulated four factor test announced by the HAC under which the ZBA must offer more evidence of local concerns to outweigh the regional need for affordable housing. On its face, the reformulated test requires boards to provide a greater amount of more specific, higher quality information in order to tip the scale in favor of upholding the master plan and denying a 40B project.

Project opponents must now demonstrate the following:

  1. The extent to which the proposed housing is in conflict with or undermines the specific planning interest.
  2. The importance of the specific planning interest, under the facts presented, measured, to the extent possible, in quantitative terms . . . .
  3. The quality . . . of the overall master plan (or other planning documents or efforts) and the extent to which it has been implemented. A very significant component of the master plan is the housing element of that plan (or any separate affordable housing plan). The housing element must not only promote affordable housing, but to be given significant weight, the Board must also show to what extent it is an effective planning tool. . . .
  4. The amount [and type] of affordable housing that has resulted from affordable housing planning.

Faced with the new, reformulated test, my prediction is that local boards and 40B opponents are going to have a much tougher time opposing 40B projects.

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This past week, I was honored to give a panel discussion on life after TRID (Truth in Lending Integrated Disclosure Rules) at the Massachusetts Mid-Year Mortgage Conference sponsored by the Warren Group. After my panel, Jim Morrison of Banker and Tradesman interviewed me and here’s the video they produced highlighting my talk.

Full-Term Delivery from The Warren Group on Vimeo.

As I said, life after TRID hasn’t been as bad as we all thought. It’s a good thing that the borrower gets their closing cost disclosures well ahead of the closing. The new Closing Disclosure form, however, is quite convoluted and hard to follow, leaving much to be desired. We’ve gone from a 3 page HUD-1 to a total of 11 pages of closing cost disclosures with the new buyer CD, the seller CD and the ALTA form. Not quite the simplification that CFPB was looking for…

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midyearmortgagelogo1-300x92On June 23, the Warren Group will host its widely attended Midyear Mortgage Update & Conference at the Verve Hotel in Natick, MA. The Midyear Update, for the mortgage and real estate industry, recaps the first 6 months of 2016, in addition to forecasting the remainder of the year.

Featured speakers include Middlesex North Registrar of Deeds Richard (Dick) Howe, Paul T. Pouliot, First Vice President, Mortgage Manager, Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, Robert Triest, Vice President and Economist, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Annie Blatz, President, Massachusetts Association of REALTORS®, and Timothy Warren, Jr., CEO, The Warren Group.

I am honored to be speaking on a panel with Kimberly Allard, former President of the MAR. As a panel speaker, I am able to offer my readers and guests 50% of the admission for an all event pass costing $37.50. You can register by clicking this LINK. Your discount code is: SPEAKERGUESTMA

When:
June 23, 2016
8:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.

Where:
The VERVE Crowne Plaza – Natick
1360 Worcester Street
Natick, MA 01760

The full schedule is below:

8:30 AM General Session Speakers

Paul Pouliot from webPaul T. Pouliot, First Vice President, Mortgage Manager, Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston
FHLB System Your One stop Shopping Partner for the Secondary Market
Come and listen to what the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston is doing about providing liquidity for the Housing Finance Industry, new initiatives that will promote job growth and new or enhancements to the Mortgage Partnership Finance program.

Bio: Paul Pouliot joined the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston in May 2000 as Vice President/Mortgage Manager. In December 2001 he was promoted to First Vice President. Paul has responsibility for the marketing and overall approval process of prospective Participating Financial Institutions (PFIs). He currently serves on the MPF Partnership Committee for the FHLB System. He has dedicated more than 40 years to the mortgage banking industry and holds a Master Certified Mortgage Banker designation from the Mortgage Bankers Association of America. He co-founded Colonial Mortgage, Inc and helped direct its operations until CFX Mortgage (which was subsequently acquired by Peoples Heritage Savings Bank) acquired the company.

Annie_Blatz_11-15Annie Blatz, President, Massachusetts Association of REALTORS®
The Massachusetts Association of REALTORS® is a professional trade association for licensed real estate practitioners and serves in a federated relationship with the state’s 13 local REALTOR® associations. Membership in the organization is voluntary and consists of both residential and commercial agents and brokers as well as industry affiliates. MAR’s membership currently consists of approximately 20,500 real estate licensees, and only MAR members are authorized to use the trademark term, REALTOR®. The state association’s headquarters is located in Waltham, MA

 

Tim Warren_Headshot for webTimothy Warren, Jr., CEO, The Warren Group
As one of New England’s foremost real estate thought leaders, Tim Warren will take you through The Warren Group’s extensive sales and property data. By combining the most up-to-date real estate statistics, framed with an in-depth historical perspective, you will start to see a one-of-a-kind illustration of the current marketplace. Mr. Warren’s session will address pressing questions, including when the significant effects of the foreclosure crisis will subside and how inventory levels will replenish themselves in the coming years.

Bio: Timothy M. Warren Jr., CEO of The Warren Group, is the fourth generation of family ownership and management. A graduate of Bowdoin College, Tim joined the family business in 1973, rose to president in 1988, and CEO in 2004. He has played a vital role in extending the company’s comprehensive real estate database, growing its publishing and events business and expanding public relations efforts.

Mr. Warren is a regularly shares his analysis of real estate issues to major news outlets, including The Boston Globe and Boston Herald; radio stations WBUR and WBZ; and television, including appearances on Fox 25 News, NECN Business, The Chronicle (WCVB) and the Emily Rooney Show (WGBH). Tim serves on the advisory board of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston and the Family Business Association Advisory Council.

10:00 AM – 11:00 AM Concurrent Sessions – choose from one of two

Panel 1
Panelists will touch upon cutting edge technology and media, provide legal perspective, discuss life after TRID and pitfalls in your communications. More details coming soon.

2014_MAR_Past President_Kimberly_Allard-Moccia

Kimberly Allard, Past President of MAR, Century 21
With over 17 Years of Real Estate Experience, Kimberly Allard’s dynamic approach to sharing and presenting information will help refresh your professional development offerings.  Kimberly is a very active Selling Broker/Owner and that’s not likely to change. She is excited about taking her 15 years of hospitality management experience, 30 years of training experience and real estate experience and combining it ( with her usual humor) to get your programs on the fast track for success!

 

 

vetstein headshotRichard Vestein, President, Vestein Law Group, P.C.
Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a nationally recognized real estate attorney, helping people buy, sell, and finance real estate. Mr. Vetstein is the past Chair of the Boston Bar Association’s Title & Conveyancing Committee and was also named as one of Inman News’ Most Influential People in Real Estate. Mr. Vetstein has testified before the state legislature on landlord’s rights and title clearance legislation. Mr. Vetstein’s popular Massachusetts Real Estate Law Blog has won several awards including the American Bar Association’s Top Legal “Blawg” award. Mr. Vetstein also gives legal seminars to Realtor and property owner groups across the state. When he is not practicing law, Rich enjoys boxing workouts, arguing politics on Facebook and hanging out with his two kids.

William Pastuszek_from webWilliam Pastuszek, Principal, Shepherd Associates, LLC – Real Property Valuation and Consulting
The principal of Shepherd Associates is William J. Pastuszek, Jr., MAI, SRA, MRA. He has been involved in real estate appraising for more than 25 years and is licensed in several New England states.  His license number as a Massachusetts General Certified Real Estate Appraiser is #10. Bill has a background in banking and property management/development. His appraisal experience includes residential and commercial practice areas His clientele includes financial institutions, attorneys, accountants, governmental entities, corporations and private individual. He has qualified as an expert witness in many jurisdictions.

Panel 2
Panelists will discuss best practices, how to achieve and sustain grown and provide lenders perspective.
More details coming soon.
ASHeadshots March 2015-0006Amy Slotnick, Branch Manager, Fairway Independent Mortgage
Amy Slotnick utilizes over 33 years of industry experience in her daily function as Branch Manager and Loan Originator at Fairway Independent Mortgage Corporation. She joined the company in 2007 and quickly became the company’s number one producing loan originator, a title she held for six years. In 2014 Amy became a Branch Manager and over the past two years has grown the office three-fold and added a satellite office in Hingham, MA to her existing branches in Newton and Holden, MA.

 

 

Sousa, BrianBrian Sousa, Chief Lending Officer, Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union
Brian Sousa is Senior Vice President and Chief Lending Officer at Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union, a 1.1 billion dollar organization with over 75,000 members, located in Lowell, MA.  Mr. Sousa’s twenty-five years of experience in the lending and real-estate industry crosses retail and wholesale mortgage sales, residential and commercial mortgage appraising, and residential and commercial real-estate sales and leasing. Mr. Sousa was the founder of First Team Mortgage Corporation a Chelmsford, MA organization that he built from the ground up and ran for twelve years. As a well-established mortgage professional, he was hired by the credit union in 2012 as Vice President/Residential Lending to create opportunities and expand its product base.  His strong leadership and management skills have led to a 63% increase in the residential loan portfolio and a 25% increase in the total loan portfolio since being named Chief Lending Officer in April of 2015. Brian has always shared the credit union philosophy of people helping people through his community involvement and support of many local charities.  He currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Lowell, the Senior Advisory Board for the Lowell Community Health Center, and is an Advisory Board Member of Catie’s Closet, Inc.

Chip Poli_webChip Poli, Owner, Poli Mortgage
Chip has 20 years of experience in the real estate industry and has been consistently ranked in the top 1% of mortgage originators in the country. His expertise is broad-based, with a strong foundation in real estate sales, extensive experience in recruitment and management of highly successful brokers and sales teams, and exemplary leadership abilities which have enabled him to quickly achieve phenomenal success at Poli Mortgage Group, Inc.

 

11:15 AM General Session Speakers

cooper-geoffGeoffrey F. Cooper, Vice President Product Development, Mortgage Guaranty Insurance Corporation (MGIC)

Mortgage Credit Trends in the Post-Crisis Era
It’s been almost 7 years since the end of the Great Recession and the US single-family residential mortgage market’s recovery from the historic foreclosure crisis is almost complete. In this post-crisis era, the US has experienced a slow, rolling economic recovery and a bounce-back in home price growth. What has happened to the state of mortgage credit in this time? MGIC addresses this question, highlighting industry efforts to prudently expand the credit box, and identifying product trends in the market place. MGIC will also explore the fundamentals of mortgage credit risk, revisiting critical risk factors and their interrelation in layer-risk scenarios both pre- and post-crisis.

Bio: Geoffrey F. Cooper is Vice President Product Development at Mortgage Guaranty Insurance Corporation (MGIC). He recently returned to MGIC after serving for six years as Director – Single Family at the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA), a state HFA. Prior to leaving MGIC to join WHEDA in June 2008, Cooper held several positions over 14 years, most recently servicing as Director – Emerging Markets where he oversaw MGIC’s HFA business initiatives.

Richard-Howe-photoRichard P. Howe, Jr., Registry of Deeds – Middlesex North 

Electronic Recording in Massachusetts
After a decade of experience with electronic recording which now accounts for 50% of all documents and 65% of all mortgages recorded at the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds, Register of Deeds Richard Howe will review the successes and challenges of electronic recording in Massachusetts and will share plans for the future including electronic recording of registered land, ways in which state and local government might increase efficiency through electronic recording; and the recording of purely electronic documents that never exist on paper.

Bio: Richard P. Howe Jr. is the Register of Deeds of the Middlesex North District where he has been a leader in the implementation of new technology and improved customer service. Middlesex North was the first registry of deeds in Massachusetts to fully implement electronic recording which now accounts for nearly 50% of all filings. It was also the first registry to become entirely paperless, with all land records from 1629 to the present available in digital form, both at the registry and online.

Prior to becoming Register of Deeds, Mr. Howe practiced law in Lowell, concentrating in real estate and criminal defense. In the early 1980s, he served as a U.S. Army intelligence officer in West Germany. He holds a BA from Providence College, an MA in History from Salem State, and a JD from Suffolk University Law School.

Richard Howe is the author of Lowell: Images of Modern America and the co-author of Legendary Locals of Lowell. He is the founder and primary author of www.richardhowe.com, a hyper-local blog about the history and politics of Lowell. He lectures frequently on real estate law, Lowell history, and many other topics.

Robert Triest, Vice President and Economist, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston

Regional Economic Update
Dr. Triest will present regional economic trends and discuss recent monetary policy actions.
Bio: Robert K. Triest is a vice president and economist in the research department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, where he leads the macroeconomic applications and policy studies section. Prior to joining the Boston Fed in 1995, Triest was a member of the economics faculties at the University of California, Davis and at The Johns Hopkins University. He has also been a visiting scholar at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and has taught in the economics department at M.I.T. and Northeastern University and at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He currently serves on the Universal Pre-Kindergarten Advisory Committee convened by Mayor Walsh to make recommendations for a strategic framework and action plan to expand pre-kindergarten programs in Boston. Triest’s research has been mainly on topics in labor economics and public sector economics, with recent work focusing on the interaction of economic circumstances and educational outcomes. He earned a B.A. degree in economics from Vassar College and an M.S. and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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Text Messages Enforceable As Written Contract, Court Rules

With the proliferation of email and texts as the primary method of communications in real estate negotiations, it was just a matter of time before Massachusetts courts were faced with the question of whether and to what extent e-mails and texts can constitute a binding and enforceable agreement to purchase and sell real estate. In a ground-breaking case, Land Court Justice Robert Foster ruled in a case of first impression that text messages may form a binding contract in real estate negotiations–even where a formal offer has not been signed by the seller. This is huge wake up call for the remaining industry people who still believe that electronic communications are not legally binding.

St. John’s Holdings LLC v. Two Electronics, LLC

The case (embedded below) involves a commercial real estate deal between two businesses both represented by commercial real estate brokers for the purchase and sale of an industrial park property in Danvers. Two Electronics, as seller, and St. John’s Holdings, as buyer, negotiated for several weeks exchanging two “Binding Letters of Intent” spelling out all material terms of the proposed purchase of $3.2 Million. Towards the culmination of the negotiations, the real estate brokers exchanged several emails and texts, with the seller’s agent sending an email that his client was “ready to do this,” then a text that —

“[the seller] wants you to sign first, with a check, and then he will sign. Normally, the seller signs last or second. Not trying to be stupid or to the contrary, but that’s the way it normally works. Can Rick sign today and get it to me today? Tim”

The buyer signed four copies of the final Letter of Intent and tendered the deposit check with the buyer broker, after which the buyer’s broker sent the seller’s agent another text — “Tim I have the signed LOI and check. It’s 424 [PM]. Where can I meet you?” Shortly thereafter, the two agents met, and the buyer’s broker tendered the buyer signed Letter of Intent along with the deposit check.

Unbeknownst to the buyer, that same day, the seller had received another offer on the property, and proceeded to sign that offer. The seller then refused to sign the Letter of Intent with St. John’s. St. John’s sued, claiming that the series of letters of intent, emails and text messages constituted a binding and enforceable contract.

Intersection of 17th Century Statute of Frauds with 21st Century Text Messages

In Massachusetts, the Statute of Frauds requires that contracts for the sale of real state must be in writing signed by the party (or agent) to be charged. In the old days of pen and paper, application of the Statute was quite simple. If there wasn’t a written agreement signed in wet, ink signatures, there was no binding contract. With the proliferation of e-mail and text communication, application of the Statute of Frauds has become much more nuanced.

In the case discussed here, Judge Robert Foster noted several recent judicial decisions holding that emails may be binding as well as the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, under which parties may impliedly consent through their actions to make email and text transmissions binding and enforceable. Emphasizing the fact that the seller’s agent signed his name “Tim” at the end of the critical text message, the judge found that the text message was sufficiently “signed” under the Statute of Frauds to constitute a binding agreement at the culmination of the previous communications and unsigned letters of intent. The judge also found persuasive that the seller’s agent told the buyer’s agent to have the buyer sign the letter of intent first, and that’s exactly what the buyer did. Finding in favor of the buyer, the judge denied the seller’s motion to dismiss and issued a restraining order against the seller’s conveyance of the subject property.

Take Away: IMO, Watch What You Say!

This area of the law is really becoming a dangerous minefield. After the e-mail ruling came out a few years ago, I advised my clients to use the following disclaimer: “Emails sent or received shall neither constitute acceptance of conducting transactions via electronic means nor shall create a binding contract in the absence of a fully signed written agreement.”

The problem, however, with text messages is that they are so short and informal. It’s not practical to use a legal disclaimer on texts, and there’s no technology that I’m aware of that would insert one into every text. You could always start off a negotiation with the caveat that electronic communications will not create a binding contract until a formal offer is executed. Also, it’s always a good idea to end every email/text with “subject to seller/buyer review and approval” when negotiating an offer. But, such boilerplate language can always be waived by subsequent conduct or actions.

This case reminds me of Lomasney’s First Rule of Politics:  “Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.” — and by winking that does not mean an emoji. 😜

And always take screenshots of important texts…just in case.

This post is sponsored by Brian Cavanaugh, Senior Mortgage Banker, Mortgage Network

Cav Zillow

St. John’s Holdings LLC v. Two Electronics, LLC by Richard Vetstein

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criminal-background-checkWidespread Racial Disparities In Criminal Justice System Justifies New Policy

Last week the Obama administration released new controversial Fair Housing guidelines telling the nation’s landlords that it may be discriminatory for them to refuse to rent to those with criminal records. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says refusing to rent based on a criminal record is a form of racial discrimination, due to racial imbalances in the U.S. justice system, despite the fact that criminal history is not a protected class under the federal Fair Housing Act.

“The Fair Housing Act prohibits both intentional housing discrimination and housing practices that have an unjustified discriminatory effect because of race, national origin, or other protected characteristics,” say HUD’s newly-released guidelines. “Because of widespread racial and ethnic disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system, criminal history-based restrictions on access to housing are likely disproportionately to burden African-Americans and Hispanics. While the Act does not prohibit housing providers from appropriately considering criminal history information when making housing decisions, arbitrary and overbroad criminal history-related bans are likely to lack a legally sufficient justification.” About 25 percent of Americans have some kind of criminal record, which can range from felony convictions to arrests that never led to charges.

HUD says that landlords may be allowed to bar those with criminal records, but they will have to prove that such a policy is necessary for protecting the safety of other tenants, and designed to avoid illegal discrimination. The new guidance recommends that landlords consider factors such as the severity of the criminal history and how long ago it occurred.

Practice Pointer: Blanket prohibitions denying applicants with criminal histories will get landlords into major trouble under the new HUD policy.

 HUD’s revised guidance discusses the three steps used to analyze claims that a housing provider’s use of criminal history to deny housing opportunities results in a discriminatory effect in violation of the Act.
  • Evaluating whether the criminal history policy or practice has a discriminatory effect
  • Evaluating whether the challenged policy or practice is necessary to achieve a substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest
  • Evaluating whether there is a less discriminatory alternative

Policy Places Burden On Small Landlords

I’m all for giving people a second chance at life, but the major problem with this policy is that it puts the onus and burden on the small landlord to do the criminal history check and then figure out how severe the offense is and what the underlying circumstances are. Also the policy does not advise a landlord exactly how old a crime is to be considered “too old.”

In Massachusetts, a CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) report contains only the basic of information of the offense such as the date of arrest/conviction, disposition, court and sentence, if any. There is nothing in the CORI report showing the underlying facts of the crime and it does not include police reports. Thus, for a charge of open and lewd conduct, a landlord does not know whether this is a serious offense or just a college kid urinating in an alley. Under the new HUD policy, landlords now have the burden of playing criminal investigator and assessing whether a crime is not truly serious.

Also, please remember that under the so-called Mrs. Murphy exemption, the federal Fair Housing Act does not apply to owner-occupied rental properties of up to 4 units.

What Now?

So how are landlords going to navigate this new policy? Well, first I would expect that risk-adverse landlords will cut down or stop requesting criminal history information all together. Of course, this puts landlords in a dilemma because they retain a legal duty to keep residents safe, and if they rent out to a known sexual offender, for example, who attacks another resident, they can be sued for millions.

For those who still ask for criminal record information, they will have to offer an applicant the opportunity to explain the circumstances of their arrest/conviction before making a final decision. As with all rental application decisions, it’s best to make the decision rest on financial considerations such as credit, income, and employment.

If you need guidance navigating this new policy, feel free to contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Landlords Cry Foul Over Ruling

In a ruling which reaffirms Massachusetts’ place as one of the most landlord-unfriendly jurisdictions in the country, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled yesterday that a landlord’s minor security deposit law violation over failing to pay $3.26 in interest can be a complete defense to an eviction case even where the tenant owed thousands in rent. After this ruling, tenants will have another powerful tool to avoid eviction in both no-fault and non-payment cases. A change in this ruling would only come about through legislative action — which is usually a non-starter on Beacon Hill.

Rich’s Legal Advice: I have long advocated to my landlord clients that they NOT take security deposits. This ruling should be the nail in the coffin on that issue.

Garth Meikle v. Patricia Nurse

The Massachusetts Security Deposit Law provides a three month penalty, including payment of the tenant’s legal fees, against landlords who don’t follow its strict requirements. One of the requirements of the Security Deposit Law is that annually the landlord must pay the tenant any accrued interest on the deposit. That’s what got landlord Garth Meikle in trouble with his tenant who was three months behind in rent. Meikle brought a no-fault eviction case in the Housing Court, but the tenant raised the counterclaim and defense that she did not receive interest on the security deposit. Ruling that the landlord’s minor violation of the security deposit was not a complete defense to the eviction, the Housing Court Judge Marylou Muirhead allowed the eviction to proceed, ordering the tenant to pay the past due rent, but deducting the security deposit plus the $3.26 in unpaid interest. However, the tenant, represented by Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, appealed her case all the way up to the Supreme Judicial Court.

Statutory Interpretation

The issue on appeal was the distinction between a counterclaim and a defense for a security deposit violation. Everyone agrees that the tenant can raise a security deposit violation as a counterclaim (entitling the tenant to up to triple damages), but the question was whether such a violation could be a complete defense to an eviction, preventing the landlord from regaining possession of the rental unit. Landlords and yours truly argued that a security deposit is a separate financial matter between the landlord and tenant which has nothing to do about whether the tenant owes rent or the condition of the property.

Justice Geraldine Hines, writing for SJC, disagreed and found that a security deposit violation was within the list of defenses to an eviction. Despite quite unclear and murky statutory language, the justice was persuaded that the Legislature’s historical tightening of penalties and sanctions against landlords was indicative of the legislative intent to include a deposit violation among the list of available defenses to eviction.

So we’ll have to thank the SJC and the Legislature for sticking it to Massachusetts landlords once again. With tenant activist groups pushing “Just Cause Eviction” i.e, rent control and the Legislature’s continual failure to enact any sensible landlord-tenant reform, no wonder Massachusetts has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most tenant-friendly states in the union.

I’ve embedded the opinion below.

Garth Meikle v. Patricia Nurse by Richard Vetstein

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Judge-Timothy-SullivanGov. Baker Earmarks $1M for Expansion

The Housing Court expansion plan to have statewide coverage has been gaining political momentum, but whether the plan will receive the long-term funding it needs to make it a reality remains a question mark. The Governor’s fiscal 2017 budget proposal earmarks $1 million for the court’s expansion, which calls for its jurisdiction to be widened with the addition of a sixth division and its bench increased from 10 to 15 judges.

While supporters are pleased with the language in Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget, which authorizes the Housing Court’s structural changes through a so-called outside section, Trial Court officials estimate that the annual cost of the proposal would be more than double the earmarked sum, reaching up to $2.4 million. “The $1 million will allow us to ramp up over a period of time,” Housing Court Chief Justice Timothy F. Sullivan (shown right) told Mass. Lawyers Weekly last week. “We don’t expect it will happen overnight. We’ll have to grow into our new roles.” Meanwhile, House and Senate bills are pending that seek a larger statewide court as well, providing access to those who currently do not fall within the court’s jurisdiction — about one-third of the state’s population.

The budget and legislative proposals call for adding a Metro South Division that would encompass all of Norfolk County (Dedham) — except Brookline — plus Abington, Bridgewater, Brockton, East Bridgewater, West Bridgewater and Whitman. Four of the five existing divisions would absorb additional communities, which includes the highly populated MetroWest area including Framingham, Newton, Cambridge and the rest of Middlesex County.

Of the five new judges that would be added, two would be assigned to the Metro South Division; the circuit judge pool would grow from one to three; and the Northeastern Division would take on an additional judge.

Guarded Support

As I told Mass. Lawyers Weekly, I am a “guarded supporter” of the expansion. Most landlord groups do not consider the Housing Court a level playing field and prefer to have their cases heard in District Court. While the Housing Court’s housing specialists and mediators can help matters move quickly, the volume of cases at some courts can be a bottleneck. “You have to look at the number of cases versus the number of judges available to handle the cases. That’s going to be an important consideration,” I told MLW.

We also need to look at the pro bono legal support available to both sides of the dispute. In Boston Housing Court, for example, there is a small army of Harvard law students ready to assist tenants free of charge. There is no comparable service for small unrepresented landlords, and that’s not fair.

Doug Quattrochi, executive director of the MassLandlords.net trade group, agreed. Though the Housing Court has a process — not available in District Court — that allows landlords and tenants to mediate first and then move directly to trial if an agreement cannot be reached, his trade group would like to see some of the “lopsided, tenant-centric” laws corrected if the Housing Court is expanded, he said. “The laws build in procedural delays that tenants become more aware of in Housing Court. Let’s look at changing these laws,” Quattrochi suggested.

I would fully support the Housing Court expansion if the legislation were linked to the passing of the rent escrow bill and other reforms to make landlord-tenant laws fairer to landlords.

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massachusetts condominium super lienDrummer Boy Homes Association, Inc. v. Britton

In a long awaited ruling pitting condominium associations against mortgage lenders backed by the Federal Housing Finance Authority, the Supreme Judicial Court has upheld the so-called “rolling” super-priority lien for unpaid condominium fees. What this means for condominium associations in Massachusetts is that they are able to seek super-priority liens for successive 6 month periods of unpaid condominium fees, rather than be limited to one six month period. The super-priority lien takes priority over the first mortgage on the delinquent unit, thereby giving the condominium association a powerful tool to collect unpaid condo fees.

Thomas Moriarty, Esq. of Marcus, Errico, Emmer and Brooks, who represented the condominium association told me that “we are pleased with the results and we believe that this leaves condominium associations with the power to ensure payment of condominium fees as was intended by the Massachusetts legislature when it enacted the priority lien provisions of the statute 23 years ago to deal with the emergency created by unit owners not paying condominium fees to pay for essential services.”

The SJC recognized that the non-payment of condominium fees can have disastrous consequences upon a condominium association, especially smaller projects. The super-priority lien was established by the Legislature in reaction to the real estate recession in the early 1990’s where many condominium associations were financially devastated by non-payment of condo fees. Among other protections, the super-priority lien enables an association to leverage the mortgage lender to pay up to 6 month’s worth of outstanding condominium fees on behalf of the delinquent owner. The “rolling” lien practice developed by condominium attorneys where the outstanding balance exceeded 6 months worth of fees. Two years ago, the Appeals Court ruled that the rolling lien procedure was not permissible, leaving condominium associations in limbo regarding their ability to collect unpaid fees.

Led by Tom Moriarty and Alan Lipkind of Burns & Levinson, condominium associations successfully persuaded the SJC that the Legislature intended for associations to have the protections of the “rolling” lien. The justices reasoned that “our interpretation of the statute is consistent with the Legislature’s long-standing interest in improving the governance of condominiums and strengthening the ability of organization of unit owners to collect common expenses, thereby avoiding a reemergence of the serious public emergency that developed in the early 1990”s.”

This is a major victory for condominium associations who should all be having collective sigh of relief. If you have any questions about this ruling or need assistance collecting unpaid condo fees, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

Drummer Boy Homes Association v. Britton

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meter-reader-660x370Massachusetts Water/Sewer Sub-Metering Law 

Many Massachusetts landlords are unaware that before charging tenants for hot water and sewer service, they must comply with the numerous and onerous requirements of the Massachusetts Water Sewer Sub-Metering Law, General Laws chapter 186, chapter 22. These requirements include having separate water meters for each unit, installation of low flow faucets and toilets by a licensed plumber, and certification with the local health board, among other requirements outlined below. Non-compliance with this law may result in a three month rent penalty to the landlord plus payment of the tenant’s attorneys fees.

A landlord can only charge a tenant for water/sewer service under the following conditions:

1. The tenant’s unit must be separately submetered by a separate water meter installed by a licensed plumber. A separate water meter measures the amount of water supplied to a particular unit, and enables the landlord to charge the tenant for the tenant’s own water usage. So, for example, if a building contains 4 dwelling units and a basement where water is utilized for the entire building, a landlord would need to have 5 submeters installed in addition to the primary meter that measures the building’s water use in its entirety. If the building does not have separate meters for each unit, the tenant may not be charged for water service.

2. The tenant’s obligation to pay for water usage must be contained in a signed lease, in an obvious place, and not in the fine print. Each bill for submetered water usage must clearly set forth all charges and all other relevant information, including the current and immediately preceding submeter readings and the date of each such reading, the amount of water consumed since the last reading, the charge per unit of water, the total charge and the payment due date. If the landlord bills the tenant on a monthly basis, payment of the bill by the tenant must be due 15 days after the date the bill is mailed to the tenant, but if the landlord bills the tenant at intervals greater than 1 month, payment of the bill by the tenant is due 30 days after the date the bill is mailed to the tenant.

3. A landlord may not charge the tenant for water supplied through a submeter unless the a licensed plumber has installed fully functional water conservation devices for all faucets, showerheads and water closets/bathrooms in the unit (low-flow shower heads and faucets and low-flush toilets)

4. The landlord must provide a certification under the penalties of perjury, with the board of health or health department, that the appropriate submeters and water conservation devices were installed by a licensed plumber.

5. A landlord cannot charge a tenant for water/sewer service mid-way through a tenancy or lease. A landlord can only charge a tenant for water/sewer upon the start of a new tenancy in the unit; and only if the unit is being occupied for the first time, or if the previous tenant left voluntarily, or was evicted for non-payment of rent or other breach of the lease.

6.  A landlord who engages in self-help by willfully failing to furnish water or directly or indirectly interfering with the furnishing by another of water, or transferring responsibility for payment for water to the tenant without their knowledge or consent, is punishable by a fine of not less than $25.00 nor more than $300.00 , or by imprisonment for not more than 6 months and is liable for actual and consequential damages or 3 month’s rent, whichever is greater, and the costs of the action, including a reasonable attorney’s fee.

Given these onerous requirements, my advice to landlords is to never charge the tenant for water/sewer! Just pay the bill and make it “hot water included” in the rent.

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Owens_Pinto-780x439Hundreds Cram Into City Council To Debate Controversial Petition

Hundreds of tenant activists, small property owners and landlords packed City Hall and poured over into overflow rooms last night as the Boston City Council held its first public hearing on the need for “just cause” eviction legislation, to stem the city’s skyrocketing rents. Harking back to the days of rent control, the proposal would prohibit a landlord from evicting any tenant except for certain “just cause” grounds. These grounds and their related procedural impediments to eviction, would in my opinion, make it nearly impossible (or cost prohibitive) to evict tenants, raise rents and sell occupied rental property in the City of Boston. For more specifics of the proposal, please see my prior post, Boston Tenant Activists Pushing Just Cause Eviction Proposal.

The City Council, led by Councilor Josh Zakim, heard four hours of impassioned testimony from both sides of the issue. Renters say it would create safeguards against eviction; landlords say it would slap them with thinly disguised rent controls.

“Any way you look at it, this is rent control,” Skip Schloming, of the Small Properties Owners Association, said in an interview just before the hearing started.

Lisa Owens Pinto, executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana, for the tenant side told news outlets that “this proposal would just require property owners to provide a good reason to evict someone.” Ms. Owens Pinto said her organization’s measure has three central provisions – landlords must provide a reason for an eviction; if a rent increase is sought, a landlord must first notify the city; once notified, the city must use its resources to contact and advise the affected tenant.

Gilbert Winn, chief executive of Boston-based developer Winn Companies, told the council that a new set of regulations isn’t needed and warned that any changes may have an adverse effect on housing. “You can’t attack the very thing you are trying to protect, which is the rental economy,” Winn said. His company is a major developer of affordable housing projects. Winn, the son of Winn founder Arthur Winn, also claimed the proposal would provide tenants with a potential avenue to avoid living up to their rental agreements. “If a contract between a willing renter and a willing owner cannot be adhered to, and only one party has to adhere to it, then the whole system falls apart,” Winn said.

The proposal has been a moving target. A revised draft of the group’s proposal, originally submitted as a home-rule petition, wasn’t available at the hearing, leaving several councilors perplexed as to why it hadn’t been officially filed. “We’re talking about a specific proposal and I’m finding it hard to follow because we don’t have the draft in front of us,” City Councilor Josh Zakim said about halfway through the four-hour hearing.

Prior to the hearing, tenant advocates agreed to drop one of their most controversial requests: a mandate that rent increases of 5 percent or more be subject to nonbinding mediation. Instead, they are pushing for a rule that would require landlords to notify the city of rent hikes that result in eviction, known as a no-fault notice to quit.

Mayor Marty Walsh had initially signaled support for the measure, but wanted to see how the details would be fleshed out. As they say, the devil is in the details and it’s quite possible this proposal will get significantly watered down during the legislative process, if it survives at all.

The hearing was videotaped and can be viewed on the City’s website here.

Photo credit: New Boston Post photo by Evan Lips

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Spring-Home-GreenOr Will Low Inventory Bring Rain Showers? | The Spring Market 2016 Expert Panel Report

Wow, what a difference a year makes! Last year we had one of the snowiest winters on record and a foot of snow on the ground. This year, we have 70 degree record temps with the Charles Esplanade filled with runners. The winter weather always affects the spring real estate market, and last year the market got started unusually late. So will this year’s warm winter usher in a hot real estate market? Or will the pesky low inventory rain on our parade?

To answer these questions, I’ve brought in a panel of top Realtors who will give you the report from the trenches, from the City to the ‘burbs. So without further ado, let’s hear from the experts.

danielsteamsidebar2The Sudbury & Wayland Real Estate markets are easing into the always anticipated “Spring market.” Like a slow motion game of Dominos, many soon-to-be sellers are waiting for a house they would potentially buy to come on the market before they commit to putting their own homes on. With that, inventory has been low, but is increasing at a steady pace now that it is March and Mother Nature doesn’t seem as eager to make a point as she did last winter. Buyers are actively looking and although not every Open House attendee is a serious buyer, the high numbers of attendees are typically a good indicator of an active market. 2016 is starting to form as a healthy Real Estate market. — Gabrielle Daniels Henken and Carole Daniels — Coldwell Banker, Sudbury. www.LiveInSudburyMA.com

Inman_Sep14_600x-144054In Cambridge and Somerville, we’re still dealing with the inventory shortage — I don’t think it would be hyperbole to call it a crisis — that we’ve had for the last several years. And although the mild weather has brought buyers out in full force already this year, the listings are just beginning to trickle on, so we’re seeing 9, 10, 20 parties competing for the same home. Hopefully it will be a bit less brutal as we get further into March, but for the foreseeable future, demand will continue to outpace supply here.  Lara Gordon–Gibson Sotheby’s Cambridge. www.cambridgeville.com

heidi-zizzaDear Sellers, please don’t wait until spring to list your house at the SAME time as everyone else! Inventory is historically low so list now while you can be a real stand out in the market. Chances are you will bear a higher price as well! The Metrowest market is a popular market that’s constantly strong and growing. Due to the fact that we have 3 major highways that touch Metrowest, it is a popular spot for commuters to Boston and Worcester alike. Metrowest real estate is also a great investment! Heidi Zizza, Broker/Owner, mdm Realty, Framingham, MA

High demand, low inventory and continued low rates create a healthy and fiesty market in MetroWesali-cortont! Investors still have great opportunities with multi-family properties and first time buyers who didn’t take a break this winter were able to achieve their housing goals without busting their budgets. Glad to report that TRID was just a small bump in the road and had far less direct impact on the financing process than expected. Ali Corton, Real Estate Executives Boston West www.liveinframinghamma.com

11426494_10205439742007723_5117613197280979861_nAt the risk of sounding like a broken record, in Winchester, Arlington, Stoneham, Melrose, and the surrounding towns, quality inventory is scarce, and when it hits the market it’s scooped up within days. Buyers must be crystal clear about what they want, and then develop the stamina of a marathoner. They must be willing to brave packed open houses, make rapid decisions about writing offers, endure having 1,2,3,4 great offers rejected before securing a property. Sellers with quality listings are being presented with 10,12,20 offers, all over asking, all waiving contingencies, all with heartfelt letters and photos from buyers who are pulling out all the stops to get a house. As agents in today’s market one of our most important roles is to support our clients, both buyers and sellers, to remain calm and focused during the frenzy of the market. Katherine Waters-Clark, Re/Max-Winchester-Arlington

I work primarily with buyers and in towns from Bolton, Westford to Shrewsbury and even as far as Gardner and Ashburnham, when a house comes on the market and is in good condition it is snapped up quickly with multiple offers. I have had clients submit written letters with their offers to try and help sway a seller to choose them. The rates are still low and the lack of inventory on the market is making a rather difficult market to guide buyers. 284083_1902949570525_2002933_nFirst time home buyers are overwhelemed with the speed things have to be done to get their offer picked. Sellers are in a good place when it comes to selling a home in this Spring Market. I just did an Open House in Metheun yesterday, I had 16 families come through and today our seller has 3 offers to choose from, this is going to be a great Spring Market.  Sherry Stone-Graham,www.baystate-homes.com

images.aspxThe condo market in Metrowest is starving for inventory. I received 8 offers on one unit on Spyglass Hill in Ashland and a couple on a garden style unit. My open houses on Spyglass Hill have had over 25 guests. We desperately need inventory. So many buyers with so few properties is allowing sellers to possibly get more money. It’s a fantastic time to sell. Annie Silverman, Realty Executives Boston West.

10014301_10152691646478077_8626708505441128924_oI service Franklin and the surrounding area and am also licensed in RI. Right now the inventory is still low so sellers are really getting the activity they desire when priced correctly. My most recent listing had 23 sets of people through and we received 5 offers and most were over asking. Buyers are also fortunate as there was also just a dip in the financing rates. Franklin and most surrounding towns are also eligible for 0% down financing so the time is now to make the most of the Spring Market! Amber Cadaorette, Keller Williams Realty Franklin / Wrentham.ambersoldmyhouse.com

Feel free to offer your comments here or on Facebook! And good luck with your listings or buyers!

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DSC_0418Gov. Baker Selects Newton Lawyer For Housing Court |  Now First Trial Court With Female Majority

Maria Theophilis (pictured right in red), a 46 year old partner in the Newton law firm of Broderick Bancroft, has been selected by Gov. Baker to sit as a new judge of the Housing Court. Theophilis replaces Chief Justice Steven D. Pierce, who retired Sept. 30, 2015.

Theophilis was nominated by Governor Charlie Baker who stated to the Metrowest Daily News that “throughout her career, Maria has provided support to those seeking an outspoken advocate on their behalf. Combined with her lengthy record of proceedings before the Housing Court on behalf of both tenants and landlords, I know she carries all the requisite experience to provide sound decisions from the bench.”

Some landlords and small property owners, however, may be a bit concerned about Theophilis’ legal background. She was a staff attorney for several years with Greater Boston Legal Services, which represents tenants and advances a very liberal social agenda. She was also worked for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the Committee for Public Counsel Services — also two very left leaning public interest groups. More recently, however, she represented property owners as a partner in private practice.

That said, Theophilis has deep experience on both sides of the landlord-tenant relationship which is very important. By all accounts, she has an excellent reputation and was voted in unanimously by the often fickle Governor’s Council which says a lot these days. Plus, she was picked by Republican Governor Baker, who is has been doing a good job with judicial appointments, in my opinion. As with any new justice, she deserves the benefit of the doubt as she steps on the bench for the first time. It’s a tough job.

Theophilis is the sixth woman selected for the Housing Court, which now has a majority of female justices. I believe that no other trial court department can claim that accomplishment.

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41 Oakland Street image 3A picture is worth a thousand words.” – Old Photograph Found In Attic Key to Victory

I handle a fair amount of Massachusetts boundary line and adverse possession disputes. For those who don’t know, adverse possession is a legal doctrine in Massachusetts where one property owner can make a claim of ownership over his neighbor’s land if such use was “open, hostile, adverse, notorious and exclusive” for 20 or more years. These disputes often come up where neighbors don’t know the true location of their property line, and one neighbor puts up a fence, retaining wall or has essentially annexed the land of the other neighbor.

In my most recent case, I am defending a gentleman whose next door neighbor claims adverse possession to an area about 15 feet into my client’s side yard which includes a small portion of the neighbor’s driveway. The dispute arose because my client wanted to put up a 6 foot privacy fence along the lot line. The neighbor sued, asking the court for a preliminary injunction to stop the installation of the fence.

My opponent claimed adverse possession dating back to when he purchased the property in 1985. The first problem I had was that my client bought his property in 2009. Thus, in order to poke holes in the claimed 30 year period, I had to track down the former owners of his property. Luckily, I found them — a charming elderly couple living in Medway. I met them over the weekend and sat down at their kitchen table with the case file and photographs. They said my opponent was a liar and disputed virtually everything he said in his lawsuit.

The elderly man went up to his attic and found several old photographs showing his then young grandchildren playing in the sideyard. That’s the picture in this post. In the background of the photo dating back two decades, you can see a fence in the disputed side yard area. The fence essentially destroyed my opponent’s adverse possession claim because he was physically prevented from using the disputed area, and thus, could not prove 20 years of uninterrupted and adverse use. When I showed the photos to opposing counsel, the response was that his client didn’t remember the fence despite the fact it was there for at least 10 years of his ownership. How convenient!

After working all weekend on the case and armed with the photographs and affidavits from the prior owners, I felt optimistic heading into the injunction hearing before a judge in Norfolk Superior Court. In order to obtain an injunction, the plaintiff is required to show a “likelihood of success on the merits.” The bottom line was that I caught my opponent in a lie, given that he never disclosed the existence of the fence in his original complaint, then came up with the convenient excuse that he didn’t remember it. The judge ruled that the neighbor could not establish adverse possession at this juncture of the case, and denied his motion for an injunction.

As with every adverse possession case, relentless preparation and determination to investigate the history of the property is critical. I was more prepared than my opponent, and that is one of the reasons why I won this round.

_______________________

100316_photo_vetstein-2-150x150.pngIf you are dealing with a Massachusetts boundary or property line dispute involving adverse possession, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5253. I’ve handled scores of these cases successfully through trial and appeal.

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maura-healeyGood news to report today! Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy has summarily dismissed a petition by the Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending (MAAPL) to repeal the Act Clearing Titles to Foreclosed Properties. The Act would automatically cure foreclosure related title defects after a one year waiting period.

In a three-page letter to Secretary of State William Galvin yesterday, Healy wrote, “I have concluded that it is not lawfully the subject of a referendum petition.” Healy’s main citation for the denial is a clause in the state constitution that says no law related to the power of the courts can be subject to a voter referendum.

As reported by Banker and Tradesman, Attorney Doug Troyer, co-chair of the Massachusetts Real Estate Bar Association’s Legislation Committee, said he thought the attorney general made the right decision. “It looked like the attorney general really took it into consideration, taking over 20 days to fully analyze all aspects in order to see if the petition could lawfully go to a referendum – and found that it couldn’t,” he said.

Opponents to the Act vow they will challenge it in court. However, they need to find a live case which may be difficult. Going forward, the Act will remain law, and after the one year waiting period, most Ibanez related title defects will be automatically cured by operation of law. Good news for the market!

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1201110897_7507Former Green Party Gov. Candidate, Grace Ross, Leads Repeal Effort

A group of anti-foreclosure activists recently filed a petition to repeal the Act to Clear Title to Foreclosed Properties, which was signed by Gov. Baker just before the new year. The leader of the repeal effort is Grace Ross, the former gubernatorial candidate and coordinator of the Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending.

The new law, which aims to protect homeowners who purchased foreclosed properties with defective titles, has already gone into effect, but activists are using a seldom-used referendum process to try to suspend the law and put it on the ballot in November 2016. However, they need over 43,000 signatures to do this. Ms. Ross struggled to get 15,000 signatures for her 2010 election bid. They also plan to sue to block the law, however, no lawsuit has been filed to date.

As reported in Massive.com, State Sen. Will Brownsberger, D-Belmont, who worked on the bill as chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said he thinks the law will stand. “I think it’s a sound bill,” Brownsberger said. “I think it’s a complicated area, and there are people who interpret the law differently, but I’m pretty confident that we got the basics right and the bill will be upheld.”

The goal of the bill is to protect the rights of homeowners who legally purchased a house that was once foreclosed on. “Once a house has been sold to a third party, they shouldn’t have to worry forever about whether there was some problem with the mortgage way back when,” Brownsberger said.

Brownsberger said lawmakers tried to protect the rights of foreclosed homeowners by preserving their ability to sue for damages. “It’s not in the interest of anybody to keep legal matters open and unsettled for years,” Brownsberger said. “What this is designed to do is create some finality and stability in the housing market.”

The Massachusetts Land Title Association, which represents title insurers, was the major proponent of the bill. (Disclaimer: I also testified in favor of the bill on behalf of the Boston Bar Association). Thomas Bhisitkul, president of the Real Estate Bar Association for Massachusetts, said the law will help homeowners who may be two or three owners removed from a foreclosure but who found themselves unable to sell or refinance after the Supreme Judicial Court ruling.

I would be surprised if the activists’ repeal efforts are successful, and I am confident in the constitutionality of the new law. However, this being Massachusetts, anything is possible. I will, of course, keep the readers posted as to developments.

Until the Attorney General, Secretary of State or a court says otherwise, the Act remains valid and in full force and effect. Attorneys, check with your title rep for specific guidance.

Photo Credit: Boston.com

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mml6T1h

As with this year’s blockbuster Star Wars — The Force Awakens, my prediction for an active and entertaining 2015 in Massachusetts real estate law has come to fruition. Without further ado and with a Star Wars theme, I present you with the top 5 “episodes” for the last year in Massachusetts real estate law.

I. TRID (Truth in Lending RESPA Integrated Disclosure) Rules

Heralded as the most comprehensive change to real estate closings in the last 20 years, the new TRID rules (Truth in Lending/RESPA Integrated Disclosure) have certainly lived up to their billing. If TRID were a Star Wars character, it would be Kylo Ren of the First Order, smashing and destroying the old way of doing closings with his scarlet cross-guard lightsaber. The new rules went into effect on October 3, and the real estate industry has been, by and large, scrambling to get up to compliance speed with the new regulations. The new “Closing Disclosure” is quite convoluted with far too much information, and also necessitates a separate “seller” closing disclosure. So, the old three page HUD-1 form has turned into two forms with seven pages. That’s the government for you… There is also a 3 day waiting period for closings to be scheduled after the issuance of the new Closing Disclosure. Some lenders have been great getting the “CD” out on time. Some others, not so much. In my estimate, I would say that at least 50% of my transactions have been delayed due to TRID related issues. For 2016, I predict continued delays and compliance issues for the first two quarters of the new year, with things hopefully smoothing out for the spring market. Oh, did I already tell you that I miss the old HUD-1 Settlement Statement already!

II. SJC Rules Real Estate Agents Can Remain Independent Contractors 

The summer saw the SJC come down with its long awaited ruling on independent contractor classification in Monell, et al. v. Boston Pads, LLC. After much lobbying from the industry, the Court ruled that Massachusetts real estate and rental agents can remain classified as independent contractors under the state’s real estate licensing and independent contractor law. The ruling keeps the traditional commission-only independent contractor brokerage office model in place, with brokers allowed to classify agents as 1099 independent contractors, without facing liability for not paying them salary, overtime or providing employee benefits. However, like the plot holes in The Force Awakens, the Court left open a few important questions such as whether agents could build a case on other legal theories. In 2016, look for the Legislature to address the murkiness which remains with the law.

poe-dameron_70f5aee2III. Gov. Baker Signs Foreclosure Title Clearance Law

If Gov. Charlie Baker were a character out of the Force Awakens, he would be the hotshot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, swooping down in his X-Wing fighter and saving the day for thousands of Massachusetts homeowners who have been unable to sell or refinance their homes due to foreclosure title defects. After a five year legislative struggle (in which I testified before the Legislature), Gov. Baker signed into law the Act Clearing Title To Foreclosed Properties. The bill will resolve potentially thousands of titles which were rendered defective and un-transferable after the SJC’s landmark ruling in U.S. Bank v. Ibanez. There is a one year waiting period, but after that we should start seeing previously unsellable homes start to come back on the market.

IV. SJC Continues To Scrutinize Foreclosure Compliance

In a major foreclosure decision, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in Pinti v. Emigrant Mortgage Co. Inc. that a lender’s defective notice of default is grounds to void and nullify a foreclosure sale. This is so even after the property was purchased at auction by a third party without knowledge of the defect. This ruling has resulted in two leading title insurance companies, First American and Fidelity/Chicago, deciding to restrict underwriting title to foreclosed properties

V. Just Cause Eviction Proposal

The upcoming year will see a looming “Resistance” battle between liberal tenant activists and small property owners over a Just Cause Eviction proposal submitted to the Boston City Council. As I’ve written here, the proposal is just a clever re-branding of rent control which was outlawed a decade ago and has been proven not to work by leading economists and city planners. The Just Cause Eviction petition would prohibit a landlord from evicting any tenant except for certain serious “just cause” grounds, making it very difficult and expensive to evict tenants at will or those whose leases have expired. Small property owners claim — and I agree — that the procedural impediments to the Just Cause Eviction proposal are shockingly socialist in nature. Everyone agrees that Boston has a problem creating affordable housing, however, rent control disguised as a just cause eviction proposal is not the answer. It’s not fair to make small property owners to bear the burden of creating affordable housing across the city. That’s the job of the government. Rent control has never been a successful solution to the housing problem. To be continued in Episode VIII…

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I hope everyone has a very happy, healthy and prosperous New Year! –Rich

Photo credit: Lucasfilm, Inc.

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Charlie BakerNew Law Will Resolve Thousands of Foreclosure Title Defects In Wake of U.S. Bank v. Ibanez Ruling

After a five year legislative struggle (in which I testified before the Joint Judiciary Committee), I’m very pleased to report that Governor Baker has signed into law the Act Clearing Title To Foreclosed Properties (Senate Bill 2015), embedded below. The bill will resolve potentially thousands of land titles which were rendered defective and un-transferable after the SJC’s landmark ruling in U.S. Bank v. Ibanez. The Ibanez ruling invalidated thousands of foreclosures across the Commonwealth due to lenders’ paperwork errors.

The problem addressed by the legislation is that scores of innocent buyers purchased these foreclosed properties, fixing them up, renting them out, etc., but they were unaware of the title defects — only to discover them once they went to refinance and sell. Title insurance companies have been bogged down trying to solve these defects, and in the meantime, many of these innocent folks are left with homes which cannot be sold or refinanced. The same bill passed the Legislature last year, but former Gov. Patrick, bowing to housing activists, vetoed it with a poison pill. After several amendments addressing housing activists’ concerns, a new bill was again passed, and just signed into law by Gov. Baker on November 25, 2015.

The bill, which is effective on Dec. 31, gives foreclosed owners a three (3) year statute of limitations to file a challenge to a foreclosure, after which the foreclosure is deemed to have been conducted legally. For foreclosures which have already been concluded, the new law has a one year waiting period, so that a defective foreclosure would be considered non-defective on Dec. 31, 2016. The bill does retain a homeowner’s right to seek compensatory and punitive damages for a wrongful foreclosure, provided it is within the statute of limitations. The bill also requires the Attorney General’s Office to spearhead more robust foreclosure prevention solutions with the HomeCorps Program and housing activists groups.

The passage of the bill is fantastic news for both owners and potential buyers/investors of foreclosure properties. There is a  shadow inventory of defective title properties which will be able to go on the market.

The bill was sponsored by Millbury Democrat Michael Moore whose office (especially Julie DelSobral) worked tirelessly for the passage of the Act.

MA Act Clearing Title to Foreclosed Properties by Richard Vetstein

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Update: Hearing On Proposal Scheduled for March 14, 2016 at 4PM at Boston City Council Chamber Room

Rent Control Thinly Disguised As “Just Cause” Eviction Proposal

Citing skyrocketing rents and lack of affordable housing, several activist pro-tenant groups in the City of Boston, with the assistance of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, have submitted a home-rule petition to the Boston City Council to create a wide-ranging “just cause” eviction protection for all Boston tenants. Harking back to the days of rent control, the petition would prohibit a landlord from evicting any tenant except for certain “just cause” grounds. These grounds and their related procedural impediments to eviction are shockingly socialist in nature, and in practice would make it nearly impossible (or cost prohibitive) to evict tenants, raise rents and sell occupied rental property in the City of Boston. Rental property owner groups are vigorously opposed to this proposal.

“Just Cause” Grounds for Eviction

The petition provides that landlords may only evict tenants for eight (8) specified reasons. The most troubling situations are outlined below.

  • Non-payment of rent. A tenant’s failure to pay rent must be “habitual” (which is left undefined) and “without legal justification.” Ordinarily, if a tenant fails to pay rent even once, the landlord may terminate the tenancy and evict. Under the just cause standards, the standard is significantly higher. What exactly is “habitual”? Two late payments, three, four? No one knows, but the petition puts the burden of proof on the landlord.
  • Damage by tenant. In order to evict, the tenant must have “willfully caused substantial damage to the premises beyond normal wear and tear and, after written notice, has refused to cease damaging the premises, or has refused to either make satisfactory correction or to pay the reasonable costs of repairing such damage over a reasonable period of time.” This would make it much more difficult to evict based on damage caused by a tenant.
  • Disorderly conduct. The tenant has continued, following written notice to cease to be so disorderly as to destroy the peace and quiet of other tenants at the property.
  • Illegal activity. The tenant has used the rental unit or the common areas of the premises for an illegal purpose including the manufacture, sale, or use of illegal drugs.
  • Failure to provide access. The tenant has, after written notice to cease, continued to deny landlord access to the unit as required by state law.

Rent Increases and No Fault Evictions

The most fundamental impact of the just cause eviction petition is how it attempts to severely curtail landlords’ legal right to raise rents and file no-fault evictions. Make no mistake about it, the underlying premise of the petition is rent control – to keep rents (even under market) from increasing and stabilizing “affordable housing.”

Resurrecting the old Boston Rent Control Board, landlords are required to participate in a City-approved mediation session with that agency before raising rents or even declining to renew an expired lease. The board is then required to notify all tenant advocacy groups in Boston of the situation. These groups are invited into every eviction or rent increase process. It will be one landlord against many tenants and advocates. There is no stated limit as to how long the mediation process can last, and after which a landlord still must go to Housing Court which can take anywhere from 6-12 months to complete a no-fault eviction under current law. A landlord’s failure to follow these requirements will result in the immediately dismissal of their eviction case and can also subject them to a $1000 fine by the City.

Moreover, in true socialist form, there are also substantial roadblocks to evicting tenants even where the unit will be used for the owner’s own personal residence. Owners are banned from evicting tenants who are 60 years old, disabled or have children in the school system and have lived in the premises for 5 or more years. (Landlords can only end tenancies after the school year is over.) Seeking to turn private properties into government subsidized elderly and disabled housing, the petition thereby creates lifetime tenancies for these classes of renters. This will greatly discourage investment and capital improvements for these properties many of which are double and triple deckers in struggling neighborhoods.

Rent Control Does Not Work

As counsel for landlords across Greater Boston and having testified at the State House in support of various landlord tenant legal reforms, I am strongly opposed to this proposal. This petition is the fourth attempt by Boston tenant advocates to bring back rent control, all of which have failed after voters rejected rent control state-wide in the mid-1990’s. The idea of rent control has been debunked as a failed policy by countless economists, and actually makes affordable housing stock shrink. A restrictive price ceiling reduces the supply of properties on the market. When prices are capped, people have less incentive to fix up and rent out their property, or to build new projects. Slower supply growth actually exacerbates the price crunch. Those landlords who do rent out their properties might not bother to maintain it, since both supply and turnover in the market are limited by rent caps; landlords have little incentive to compete to attract willing tenants. Landlords may also become choosier, and tenants may stay in properties longer than makes sense.

The problem of skyrocketing rents in Boston and affordable housing is complex and certainly worthy of out-of-the-box thinking. As an old city with little if any developable land left, Boston has always dealt with a supply vs. demand problem. Boston developers have long been required to pay into linkage funds designed to promote affordable housing. Mayor Walsh recently announced a plan to build 53,000 new housing units by 2030. The city’s colleges can also do a better job of creating new student housing. But even with all of this centralized planning, the influx of people to the city, drawn by jobs and Boston’s quality of life, have made this problem a very tricky one to solve.

However, rent control disguised as a just cause eviction proposal is not the answer. It’s not fair to make small property owners to bear the burden of creating affordable housing across the city. That’s just flat out Un-American. If we want more affordable housing, create economic incentives to build more, and encourage the City to buy their own properties and create housing. Rent control has never been a successful solution.

If and when the Just Cause Eviction proposal rears its ugly head in the Boston City Council again, email your local city councilor and the Mayor.

A copy of the Just Cause Home Rule Petition can be found below.

Boston Just Cause Ordinance Draft Sept 2015

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Updated (4/27/16): SJC Rules That Security Deposit Violation Is Full Defense to Eviction

Landlord Stopped From Evicting Tenant Over $3.26 In Interest

Massachusetts has a well-deserved reputation as being a hostile jurisdiction for landlords. With a myriad of tenant favorable laws on the books, the proverbial playing field is often stacked against landlords. Exhibit A is the Security Deposit Law which provides a three month penalty, including payment of the tenant’s legal fees, against landlords who don’t follow its strict requirements.

One of the requirements of the Security Deposit Law is that annually the landlord must pay the tenant any accrued interest on the deposit. That’s what got landlord Garth Meikle in trouble with his tenant who was three months behind in rent.

Garth Meikle v. Patricia Nurse, SJC-11859

Meikle brought an eviction case in the Housing Court, and essentially won with the judge ordering the tenant to pay the past due rent, but deducting the security deposit plus the three dollars and change in interest. However, to the tenant’s rescue came the crusading Harvard law students from Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. Representing her for free, the students have taken her case all the way up to the Supreme Judicial Court. (Why is it that landlords are not offered the same free legal aid?). The tenant posted an appeal bond so she’s allowed to stay in the apartment while paying the rent during the pendency of the case.

The SJC heard arguments this morning with third year Harvard Law student Louis Fisher arguing the case. (Damn lucky kid!).

The Harvard tenant lawyers are advancing the dangerous argument that a landlord who violates the security deposit law — even in the most minor of circumstances — cannot evict a non-paying tenant.

Scary right? If the Court accepts this argument then tenants will have yet another powerful tool to avoid eviction. The Security Deposit Law is so strict that most landlords make minor errors in holding the deposit. That’s why I have advised that landlords don’t even bother taking security deposits in the first place.

You can guess where I stand on the merits of the case. The security deposit is a separate financial matter between the landlord and tenant which has nothing to do about whether the tenant owes rent or the condition of the property. Those are the two primary issues in a non-payment eviction case. You don’t pay the rent without legal defense, you’re out. Period. Compliance with the security deposit law should have no bearing on a non-payment eviction. The Legislature did not intend otherwise, and regardless, that should not be our policy. Enough is enough already.

You know what else bothers me? These legal aid organizations take on these “test cases” to train law students and get them experience. After all when does a law student ever get to argue a SJC case? Is that really fair and just to small unrepresented landlords like Mr. Meikle who told the justices that his son and fiancee were hoping to live in the apartment?

The SJC should come out with a final ruling in the next few months. Check back here for future developments. In the meantime, I will keep on fighting the good fight for landlords.

Case Link:  Garth Meikle v. Patricia Nurse SJC-11859

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