COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is not a blank check for the Governor and other elected officials.” — U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf Issues Landmark 102-Page Opinion on Constitutionality of Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium; Gov. Baker Signals He Will Allow Moratorium to Expire On Oct. 17

As readers of this blog know, I, along my colleague Jordana Greenman, Esq., are lead counsel for several housing providers in a federal court challenge to the Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium in the case of Baptiste v. Kennealy, United States District Court – Massachusetts, CA 1:20-CV-11335 (MLW). For the past three months, we have been battling with the Attorney General’s Office over the constitutionality of the Moratorium and whether the court should enjoin it. After five days of hearings and thousands of pages of legal briefing, Judge Mark Wolf has issued a landmark 102-page opinion in the case. The opinion is embedded and linked to below.

“A public health emergency does not give Governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists.”

In a nutshell, Judge Wolf declined for now to enjoin the Moratorium, reasoning that legislators had a reasonable basis for enacting it as a temporary emergency measure back in April during the beginning of the pandemic. However, and most notably, Judge Wolf expressed serious concerns over the constitutionality of the Moratorium if it is extended past its current expiration date of Oct. 17. Judge Wolf wrote:

“The COVID-19 pandemic is not a blank check for the Governor and other elected officials. Rather, it should be recognized that “a public health emergency does not give Governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists. As more medical and scientific evidence becomes available, and as States have time to craft policies in light of that evidence, courts should expect policies that more carefully account for constitutional rights.”

“In other words, in deciding how to exercise their broad discretion in responding to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, elected officials have a duty to consider the limitations imposed by the Constitution, rather than merely to rely on courts to remedy any violations of it. As Justice Anthony Kennedy has written, “the very fact that an official may have broad discretion . . . makes it all the more imperative for him or her to adhere to the Constitution and to its meaning and promise.” 

Judge Wolf also recognized that the Moratorium imposes a substantial impairment of leases between housing providers and tenants across the state:

“The rights to evict and recover property if a tenant does not pay rent are important elements of the contractual relationship that a lease creates. The Moratorium deprives the landlords of a remedy for a violation of these rights while it is in effect. It does not prevent a landlord from suing a tenant for rent owed. However, that remedy will often be illusory because landlords are unlikely to benefit from money judgments against tenants who are unable to pay rent during the COVID-19 pandemic or who are unwilling to do so. Therefore, the Moratorium materially undermines the contractual bargain.”

Judge Wolf did rule in our favor that the Moratorium Regulations violate the First Amendment as they force housing providers to provide a state mandated missing rent notice which directs tenants to pro-tenant advocacy groups like City Life/Urbana Vida.

Gov. Baker Signals He Will Not Extend Moratorium Past Oct. 17

Echoing many of Judge Wolf’s concerns, and as the Boston Globe reported yesterday, Gov. Baker suggested he won’t extend the moratorium. Instead, he wants to devise a system that protects both renters and landlords. “We would really like to see if we can put a plan together to make sure that we can do, with the courts, what needs to be done to ensure that people are protected with respect to their housing,” Baker said. “But the longer this thing goes on, the deeper the hole gets, not just for tenants but also for landlords, especially small landlords…who . . . have in many cases already run out of rope.”

We would like to think that our lawsuits and Judge Wolf’s ruling will play a significant factor in Gov. Baker’s ultimate decision whether to allow the Moratorium to expire. We want to make clear that our clients, and housing providers across the state, do not want mass evictions during the Covid-19 pandemic. As we have said from the start, if the state had enacted a large rental assistance funding package from the start, we would likely not be in this situation where thousands of private landlords have been forced to subsidized housing for tenants impacted by the pandemic. We are ready, willing and able to work with the courts and tenant groups to put reasonable safeguards in place to assist tenants if the Moratorium is lifted. I cannot stress enough how important rental assistance funding is.

What is Next? CDC Eviction Moratorium In Place Until Dec. 31, Housing Stability Act

Even if the Massachusetts Moratorium expires on Oct. 17, the new CDC federal eviction moratorium will be in place through Dec. 31. However, the CDC order is far narrower than the Massachusetts moratorium. Tenants must affirmative certify under oath they are financially impacted by Covid-19, and it does not apply to expiration of leases, for cause situations (like bad behavior or criminal activity) and to many “no fault” situations. At a recent Bench-Bar conference, several Housing Court judges stated the court will likely allow service of notices to quit and accept eviction filings unless tenants affirmatively raise the CDC order as an affirmative defense to the eviction. Also, the National Apartment Association and a group of housing providers have challenged the CDC Order in Atlanta federal court. We will see how this will play out.

State legislators and tenant activists also continue to advocate for a 12 month extension of the moratorium through the Housing Stability Act, but again, without meaningful rental assistance funding. A few million dollars in RAFT funding will not cut it. We need upwards of $200 million dollars or more in state rental assistance funding, and unfortunately, that is nowhere to be found right now. Based on Judge Wolf’s ruling, I believe the Housing Stability Act’s 12 month eviction moratorium would likely be unconstitutional.

To all of our faithful supporters, donations to our Legal Fund would also be very much appreciated as we put our law practices on hold for several months now while spending hundreds of hours on this case:  Link: https://paypal.me/pools/c/8orbLzpxbY

Judge Mark Wolf Opinion Pre… by Richard Vetstein

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CDC Eviction Moratorium Pushes Boundaries of its Public Health Authority, Raises Other Serious Constitutional Problems

While we have been in federal court arguing the constitutionality of the Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium, the Trump administration’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just issued an emergency order (embedded below) imposing a nationwide residential eviction moratorium through December 31, 2020. The moratorium, issued under the CDC’s emergency authority to respond to public health crises and without the usual rule-making and public comment process, would cover millions of renters who are unable to pay their rent due to the Covid-19 crisis. The moratorium is scheduled to be effective as of September 4, 2020. Unfortunately, the moratorium does not provide for any rental assistance funding to landlords or tenants, so like the Massachusetts moratorium, private landlords will again shoulder the entire economic burden of rental losses.

Applicability to States With and Without Their Own Eviction Moratoriums

The CDC Eviction Moratorium only applies in states where they do not have an existing residential eviction moratorium, or if they do, where it is less strict than the CDC order. Thus, in Massachusetts, the CDC order would not apply while the current moratorium is in place through October 17, because the Massachusetts moratorium is far stricter than the CDC order. Governor Baker could extend our state moratorium for an additional 90 days, and of course, our challenge to it is still pending in federal court. If Gov. Baker does not extend the state moratorium past Oct. 17 or the federal court strikes it down, this new CDC moratorium would take its place through Dec. 31. The CDC retains the authority to extend the moratorium for any amount of time. Of course, by then there could be someone new in the White House.

Qualifying Process for Tenants

Unlike most other states’ eviction moratoriums, the CDC eviction moratorium requires that tenants take an affirmative step to qualify for protection. Tenants must send their landlord a CDC-approved form in which they certify under oath that they are:

  • Unable to pay rent due to a coronavirus-related job loss or income reduction, or qualified for a direct stimulus payment under the CARES Act or expect to earn less than $99,000 in 2020, or $198,000 if filing a joint tax return. 
  • Have made best efforts to obtain all available government assistance to cover rent;
  • Is unable to pay full rent due to a substantial loss of household income, loss of compensable hours of work or wages, a lay-off, or extraordinary out of pocket medical expenses;
  • Is using best efforts to make timely partial payments of rent that are as close to the full payment as the individual’s circumstances may permit, taking into account other non discretionary expenses; and
  • Eviction would likely render the tenant homeless or force him/her to move into and live in close quarters in a new congregate or shared living setting because the tenant has no other available housing options.
  • Unable to pay rent because of financial hardship due to Covid-19, that they have made your best efforts to make timely partial payments and that they would likely become homeless if evicted.

The order is unclear how all of these certifications will be confirmed for truthfulness. Most likely, state courts will have to establish a process where a landlord can challenge a tenant’s hardship declaration. The order does specifically say that tenants are not relieved of the obligation to pay rent, but the overall intent of the order is to ban evictions for renters who cannot pay their rent.

Scope of Eviction Protection

The CDC eviction moratorium only applies to non-payment of rent situations, as outlined above. It does not apply to the following situations where a tenant engages in:

  • Criminal activity on the premises
  • Threats to the health and safety of other residents
  • Damage or posing an immediate and significant risk of damage to property
  • Violations of building, sanitary and health codes
  • Violating any other lease provision, other than the payment of rent

The order, which is quite poorly drafted, applies to “any action by a landlord, owner of residential property, or other person with a legal right to pursue eviction or possessory action, to remove or cause the removal of a [tenant] from residential property.” Without further definition or clarification, we don’t know whether the CDC order would prohibit notices to quit/vacate, commencing an eviction case, prosecuting an existing eviction case, or just the final judicial act of issuing a move-out order.

Severe Penalties for Non-Compliance

The CDC eviction moratorium also provides for incredibly severe and punitive penalties and even criminal liability for landlords who violated it. Landlords can be fined up to $100,000, or up to $250,000 if the violation results in death. The Department of Justice is also authorized to bring civil and criminal charges against landlords.

Legal and Constitutional Problems

While I have not yet done a deep dive into the legality of the CDC eviction moratorium, having just fully briefed the federal court on the constitutionality of the Massachusetts eviction moratorium, many of the same problems are clearly present here. There would be an argument that the CDC moratorium constitutes a “taking” of rental owner’s property in violation of the Fifth Amendment, a substantial impairment of leases under the Contracts Clause, a violation of the right to petition and access courts under the First Amendment, and a ban on commercial speech under the First Amendment. There also appear to be substantial problems with the CDC’s authority to issue such a sweeping economic regulation under its public health authority, as well as its by-passing of the usual administrative rule making procedures under the federal Administrative Procedures Act.

As we told Judge Mark Wolf yesterday the CDC eviction moratorium has no impact whatsoever on our legal challenge to the Massachusetts eviction moratorium. However, we are looking into challenging the CDC order here in Massachusetts.

If you are a landlord and receive a hardship form from a tenant under the new CDC order, please contact me via email at [email protected].

CDC Eviction Moratorium Emergency Order Federal Register by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Federal Court Judge Mark Wolf (Boston Globe Staff photo by Ted Fitzgerald)

Suffolk Superior Court Justice Paul Wilson Leaves Moratorium In Place, But Federal Judge Mark Wolf To Hear Arguments on Federal Constitutionality Next Tuesday

For those following the state and federal lawsuits against the Eviction Moratorium (where I am lead counsel), it was a roller-coaster week. While we were arguing the case in federal court on Wednesday, Suffolk Superior Court Justice Paul Wilson released his ruling declining to issue an injunction against the Eviction Moratorium. (See below). We were of course disappointed in the decision, however, it will have no impact on the federal case. This is because we removed all of the federal constitutional claims (First Amendment, Right to Petition, Takings and Contracts Clause) to federal court earlier. The state court case only dealt with state constitutional issues. In any event, we are considering an appeal of Judge Wilson’s ruling as we feel he gave the state too much deference and there may have been some incorrect legal analysis.

In the federal court case, Judge Wolf rejected the Attorney General’s argument that he abstain from hearing the case in light of the pending state court case, reasoning that a federal court is duty-bound to hear the constitutionality of the law. Judge Wolf also raised the possibility of the Attorney General engaging in settlement discussions with us or agreeing to mediation. My comment was of course we would consider that but the AG has always been fighting this tooth and nail and that hasn’t changed. The AG attorney confirmed that. Judge Wolf also made an interesting comment about the state’s successful pandemic response — essentially that while a Moratorium may have been reasonable back in April, it may not be so reasonable now since Massachusetts has done so well against the virus.

Interesting comments as we head into a week of hearings on whether the landlords are entitled to a preliminary injunction stopping enforcement of the Act, starting Tuesday, Sept. 1 at 130pm. Mark your calendars! It will be publicly available. Sign up form below:

Access to the hearing will be made available to the media and public. In order to gain access to the hearing, you must sign up at the following address: https://public.mad.uscourts.gov/seating-signup.html.

Anyways, this case has been quite the interesting ride. The good news is that we are still in this fight, and very much so! Thank you again for all your support. Funding link for donations to legal fees is here: https://paypal.me/pools/c/8orbLzpxbY

Matorin v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts Decision on Preliminary Injunction by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Over 30 Organizations and Individual Landlords Impacted by Eviction Moratorium File Friend of the Court (Amicus Curiae) Briefs In State Court Challenge

Our lawsuit challenging the Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium Act, which Gov. Baker just extended to Oct. 17, has received national attention in the form of friend of court briefs just filed by a slew of organizations representing the rental housing community, medical and public health profession, tenant advocacy groups, major municipalities, and even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The Suffolk Superior Court (Hon. Paul Wilson) has scheduled a hearing on Thursday, July 30 at 10AM to consider the Plaintiff Landlords request to issue an injunction stopping any further enforcement of the Moratorium. Below is a list of amicus submissions, and I have created a Dropbox link where anyone can read all of the briefs (which are quite interesting): Dropbox Link Amicus Briefs, Matorin v. Commonwealth of MA.

The small landlord stories are quite compelling. Here are a few excerpts:

  • Jon DaPonte, military vet, tenant owes him $7,000, told him to F-off, destroyed the apt. He cannot do anything about tenant due to Moratorium.
  • Carlos Baez: Small rental owner of multi-family. Tenant owes me $10k, damaging unit, I cannot bring eviction action under Moratorium. “We should all be in this together.”
  • Marie Baptiste: Nurse originally from Haiti. Tenants owe her $18k, won’t even communicate with her. Has limited means, stuck for foreseeable future.
  • Baris Berk: Tenant hasn’t paid since Jan. 1 (before Covid19), owes $14k+, I’m trapped, cannot even send a notice of termination to tenant under Moratorium.
  • Bruce Metcalf: father of special needs daughter, owns small rental property in Rockland. Tenant owes thousands in back rent, has to dip into his own 401k to stay afloat.
  • Mark Horn from Falmouth. Sec. 8 tenant was being evicted for damaging unit. Judge ruled for Mark, and Mark gave tenant 5 month extension to move. On eve of move out, Moratorium passed, and case suspended. “Any short term emergency halt on evictions should have immediately been followed up by a funded solution for how to pay those rents to the landlords providing the essential housing.”

Amicus Brief Submissions

  1. Charles Sachetta
  2. MassLandlords, Inc.
  3. National Institute of Rental Managers
  4. JMA Housing LLC (Jeff Abrams) and Small Landlords
  5. Small Property Owners Association, Cranberry Holdings LLC
  6. Health Law Associates
  7. Jewish Alliance for Law & Social Action
  8. National Housing Law Project/Metrowest Legal Services
  9. City Life/Vida Urbana, Chelsea Collaborative, Lynn United for Change, Springfield No One Leaves
  10. Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless
  11. ACLU, Harvard Professors
  12. Citizens Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), Mass. Public Health Ass’n, Massachusetts Ass’n of Community Dev. Corps.
  13. Cities of Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Cambridge, LA, Oakland, Seattle, Somerville, et al.
  14. Medical Legal Partnership

To all our supporters who are reading this, I would be remiss if I did not bring up the subject of legal fees and donations. At this point, Jordana Greenman and I are basically working for free, and we have many many hours of work going forward. All of our funding has come from generous folks like you, but we need to spread the word out again. Funding link here:  https://paypal.me/pools/c/8orbLzpxbY.  Thank you!!!

Also, please share this post. I have embedded the small landlord stories below, which are quite compelling.

Amicus Curiae Submissions o… by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Facing increasing pressure from state legislators, tenant groups, and the Attorney General, Governor Charlie Baker today extended the statewide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures for another 60 days until Oct. 17. The Moratorium was originally set to expire on August 18.

The Moratorium, originally enacted in April, will now be in place for a total of six months, while small rental property owners face additional financial hardship from tenants who cannot or refuse to pay rent. The Moratorium unfortunately does not provide for any rental assistance fund to offset losses for rental housing providers.

As posted on this Blog, I am lead counsel in a state and federal lawsuit challenging the Moratorium on several constitutional grounds. The lawsuits are proceeding quickly, with a hearing in Suffolk Superior Court on July 30, and a hearing in federal court on August 6.

If there’s any silver lining with this announcement, it is that the proposed bill extending the Moratorium for 12+ months *may* have a lower chance of passing, given that Baker went ahead and extended the original Moratorium. We will see.

With the two lawsuits, we are still fundraising and remain way short of our goal, with triple the work. At this point, my co-counsel, Jordana Greenman and I are essentially working for free. Feel free to donate again and pass the link around:  https://paypal.me/pools/c/8orbLzpxbY 

I will keep you posted on future developments.

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Federal Lawsuit Filed by Marie Baptiste, a Nurse Originally from Haiti Who Is Owed Nearly $19,000 in Back Rent

Updated (9/25/20): Judge Wolf Rules That Extension of Moratorium Past Oct. 17 Likely Unconstitutional; Gov. Baker Signals No Extension

As the Legislature and Gov. Baker consider extending the Eviction Moratorium Act, which expires Aug. 18, a new lawsuit challenging the Moratorium has been filed in Federal Court in Boston. I am lead counsel in the case, along with my colleague, Jordana Greenman, Esq. The case is Baptiste v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, United States District Court – Massachusetts, CA 1:20-CV-11335 (MLW).

Local Nurse Owed Nearly $19,000 from Tenants

The federal suit is filed by Marie Baptiste, a long time dedicated nurse originally from Haiti, who owns rental property in Randolph. Unfortunately Ms. Baptiste’s tenants owe her nearly $19,000 in back rent, and they refuse to even communicate with her. Under the current Eviction Moratorium, she cannot even send out a notice to quit or start a new eviction case. If the Act is extended, as new legislation provides, she will be forced to house these non-paying tenants potentially for another 12+ months, which will certainly result in financial ruin. The second plaintiff is Mitch Matorin, who owns rental property in Worcester and has a pending Housing Court eviction against his tenants who owe him $7,200 in back rent. Ms. Baptiste’s and Mr. Matorin’s stories are being replicated throughout the state as thousands of small rental housing providers struggle to keep afloat during the Covid-19 crisis.

Federal Constitutional Claims

In the new lawsuit, we are seeking to strike down and enjoin the Moratorium, as unconstitutional. The Moratorium has shut down virtually every pending and future eviction case statewide since April 20, 2020. Massachusetts has survived the Civil War, Great Depression, two World Wars, the 1917 Influenza pandemic, and numerous recessions, and until now has never implemented a wholesale moratorium on the exercise of the most basic right underlying the entire field of rental housing, the right to evict.  

We believe that the Act violates the following four separate constitutional rights of our clients:  (1) the right to petition the judiciary; (2) the right of free speech under the First Amendment; (3) the right to just compensation for an unlawful taking of their property under the Fifth Amendment; and (4) is an unconstitutional impairment of their leases under the Contracts Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Housing providers like Marie and Mitch remain obligated to pay their mortgages, real estate taxes, insurance, and water/sewer used by non-paying tenants, and to maintain their properties in compliance with the state sanitary code, while being deprived of the revenue required to do those things. With the Governor having the unfettered right to extend the Act for unlimited 90-day periods and ongoing legislative efforts to extend the moratorium for a full year or longer, this one-sided obligation and burden will continue indefinitely. Many small rental property owners, especially those on fixed income rely on rents to afford to live in their own homes. 

The case has been assigned to Judge Mark Wolf. The court will schedule a hearing on our request for an injunction, likely in early August.  

State Court Lawsuit Remains Pending, Hearing Scheduled for July 30

Our lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court is still pending. We have a major hearing on July 30 (with friend of the court briefs due July 24), and with this new federal case being filed, we are hopeful that two lawsuits in play will give pause to legislators and the Governor as they consider whether to extend the Moratorium and the new extension bill, H.D. 5166

Thank you all for your continued support. We would be remiss if we didn’t post the link to our fundraising Paypal https://paypal.me/pools/c/8orbLzpxbY.  We have spent many many hours and long nights on this case, as you can imagine. Our legal brief can be read below.

Memo re. Preliminary Injunc… by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Justice Paul Wilson, Mass. Superior Court

Superior Court Justice Paul Wilson Sets Preliminary Injunction Hearing for July 30, Asks For Amicus Curiae Briefs Filed by July 24

After the Supreme Judicial Court sent our legal challenge to the recently enacted Eviction Moratorium Act back down to the Suffolk Superior Court, the case is now moving quickly. Justice Paul Wilson, who was specially assigned to preside over the case, has issued briefing and scheduling orders, and has invited affected property owners (and tenants) to file friend-of-the-court (amicus curiae) briefs by July 24, 2020. He has scheduled a hearing on the plaintiff rental property owners’ motion for a preliminary injunction to enjoin the Act, for July 30, 2020. Judge Wilson’s order inviting amicus briefs is embedded below.

If you are a rental property owner and have an interest in submitting a friend of the court brief detailing how you have been impacted by the Moratorium (and the possibility of it being extended further), please contact me ([email protected]) or my co-counsel, Jordana Greenman ([email protected]), and we can coordinate with you.

The hearing on July 30 will most likely be on Zoom, and we are not sure yet of whether it will be open to the general public. We’ll keep you posted!

Superior Court Amicus Invitation, Matorin v. Commonwealth by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Rental Housing Providers Strongly Opposed to 12+ Month Proposed Eviction Moratorium Extension, Rent Freezes Without Adequate Financial Relief

State Rep. Mike Connolly (D-Cambridge) and Rep. Kevin Honan (D-Allston), the lead sponsors of the Eviction Moratorium Act, have filed a wide-ranging tenant protection bill as the COVID-19 crisis wears on into the summer months. “The COVID-19 Housing Stability Act” (H.D. 5166) would extend the Eviction Moratorium for at least 12 months, as well as freeze rents statewide for a one year period after the COVID-19 emergency lifts. The bill also provides for “just cause” tenant protections, foreclosure relief, and establishes a Housing Stability and Recovery Fund, but without any specific funding source.

As I will outline below, the bill is extremely problematic for, and one-sided against, rental property owners in a number of respects:

12+ Month Extension of Eviction Moratorium

The bill would prohibit any eviction for non-payment of rent until 12 months has expired from whenever Gov. Baker lifts the COVID-19 State of Emergency. Thus, all non-payment evictions would likely be prohibited statewide until 2022, because Gov. Baker will keep the Emergency Declaration in place for as long as possible. The measure also allows any city/town to unilaterally extend the ban on evictions *forever* by an act of the city/town council.  

The bill also prohibits recovery of unpaid rent in any pending eviction, if the non-payment was caused “in any way, directly or indirectly” by COVID-19. The bill then creates a rebuttable presumption that the tenant falls within that category, shifting the burden of proof to the property owner who must prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that failure to pay was not based “in whole or in part” on Covid-19. Running a 4 minute mile is easier than satisfying this standard, and virtually guarantees that landlords will be unable to evict based on non-payment even if tenants are simply refusing to pay, and also guarantees that owners will be unable to ever recover any unpaid rent. Combine this with a later provision which prohibits any credit reporting for non-payment of rent, there is little financial incentive pay rent.

Just Cause Eviction Provisions

The bill also provides for certain “just cause” eviction protections to tenants. Just cause (the Jim Brooks Rent Stabilization bill) has been on tenant group’s wish list for some time now, and has been rejected across the board for the last several years. Under the bill, landlords can only evict for “just cause” if:

  • The tenant has materially violated an obligation or covenant of the tenancy or occupancy, other than the obligation to surrender possession upon proper notice, and has failed to cure such violation within 30 days after having received written notice thereof from the owner;
  • The tenant is committing a nuisance in the unit, is permitting a nuisance to exist in the unit, is causing substantial damage to the unit or is creating a substantial interference with the quiet enjoyment of other occupants;
  • The tenant is using or permitting the unit to be used for any illegal purpose.
  • Non-payment of rent unrelated to financial hardship due to COVID-19

With the just cause protections in place, rental property owners would be effectively prohibited from evicting tenants on a “no-fault” basis, such as holding over past the lease term or refusing a rental increase.

Rental Increase Freeze

The bill effectively imposes an across the board rent increase freeze for the duration of the COVID-19 Emergency plus 12 months after it is lifted. So there can be no rent increase whatsoever on *any* tenant regardless of whether they are affected by COVID-19. This will effectively stop landlords from agreeing to defer rent as an accommodation to financial hardship and enter into a payment plan that recovers the deferred rent through a new lease with a higher payment. And as noted above, there is no other mechanism for a landlord to have an enforceable agreement to recover any unpaid rent. This is true even if the tenant is completely amenable to it, because any such agreement is declared to be contrary to public policy and unenforceable. So the existing Moratorium, which purportedly required continued payment of rent and encouraged payment plans, is now meaningless – any such payment plan is now null and void.

Housing Stability and Recovery Fund

The bill sets up a Housing Stability and Recovery Fund, but provides no specific funding for it whatsoever. This Fund is to provide assistance to owners who were “unable to pay housing and housing-related costs” due to COVID-19. It is unclear what “housing and housing-related costs” mean, but it clearly does not mean that the money (if any) can be used to reimburse landlords for unpaid rent. At best, it might allow some payments to landlords if they were “unable” to pay taxes, insurance, maintenance, mortgage because of COVID. 

The bill also requires an Oversight Board that comprises “members of the Legislature’s coronavirus working groups” – not clear who that is — who then select 8 people from communities hardest hit, considering race/ethnic/income impacts. I must have missed rental property owners from this list.

Foreclosure Relief

Similar to the existing Moratorium Act, the bill provides for foreclosure relief. However it does contain a poison pill of sorts. While the bill extends mortgage forbearance to non-owner-occupied if owned by a non-profit or a small landlord (15 or fewer residential “apartments”), it requires anyone who obtains mortgage forbearance, whether owner-occupied or small landlord, “must forever waive and hold harmless tenants from the obligation to pay that month’s rent for each rental unit located on the property In other words, if you need mortgage forbearance because *some* tenants are not paying and you can’t cover the mortgage, you must *waive all rent from all of the other tenants in that property* as well. Seems rather draconian.

Impact to Rental Property Owners

While we all realize that the Covid-19 crisis has caused unprecedented financial hardship for many tenants, it has also created unprecedented financial hardship for small landlords as well. The fundamental problem with the first Moratorium and this new bill is that it does not FUND what it seeks to accomplish. Without adequate funding, this bill simply shifts the economic devastation from tenants to small rental property owners who are in no better position to undertake millions of dollars in losses. Moreover, a 12+ month long Moratorium would raise significant constitutional problems, as has been raised in the recently filed legal challenge to the original Moratorium. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this bill would be a total and complete disaster to the rental housing market, and ultimately would hurt both tenants and small rental housing providers.

I will continue to update you with developments on this bill.

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HUD Director Dr. Ben Carson

Federal COVID-19 CARES Act Eviction and Foreclosure Moratorium Extended Another Two Months

HUD Secretary Ben Carson announced yesterday that federal housing agencies have extended the CARES Act eviction and foreclosure moratoriums through August 31 for tenants and homeowners with Fannie Mae, FHA, VA, USDA-insured single-family mortgages. The current moratorium was set to expire on June 30.  “While the economic recovery is already underway, many American families still need more time and assistance to regain their financial footing,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson. “Our foreclosure and eviction extension means that these families will not have to worry about losing their home as they work to recover from the financial impacts of COVID-19.”

The CARES Act eviction moratorium applies to approximately 28% of all rental properties in the United States. It prohibits the eviction of tenants residing in any single-family or multifamily property financed by federally backed mortgages (Fannie Mae, Freddie, FHA, VA, USDA loans) and renters living in federally assisted housing (Section 8).

Overlap With Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium Act

For Massachusetts rental property owners, the state already has a statewide eviction and foreclosure moratorium in place until August 19, 2020 which covers virtually every residential rental eviction situation. The Massachusetts Moratorium does not have any distinctions between federal insured or non-insured mortgages; rather, it covers the type of eviction, i.e, “non-essential” vs. “essential” evictions. Gov. Baker may extend the state Moratorium for unlimited 90 day increments. The general consensus in the rental housing community is that Baker will extend the Moratorium through the end of 2020. However, led by yours truly, two landlords have filed a legal challenge to the Moratorium with the Supreme Judicial Court, which is pending. If the Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium is struck down, the CARES Act Moratorium will still be in place, at least through Aug. 31. That could be extended as well, however.

There are several databases and search websites to see if your rental property has a federally backed mortgage subject to the CARES Act —

NHLP has created a searchable database of multifamily projects subject to federal eviction moratoriums, https://nlihc.org/federal-moratoriums?ct=t%28update_041720%29

Foreclosure Protections Under CARES Act

The CARES Act provides foreclosure protections for borrowers with property secured by federally backed mortgage loans. Borrowers who affirm they are experiencing a COVID-19 related hardship can request a forbearance from their loan servicer of up to 180 days, which can be extended for an additional period of up to 180 days. Except with respect to a vacant or abandoned property, servicers may not initiate a foreclosure, move for judgment, or order a sale, or execute a foreclosure-related eviction or foreclosure sale until August 30, 2020.

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State Rep. Mike Connolly (D-Cambridge)

Self-Proclaimed “Socialist” State Rep. Sponsors Rent Control and Tenant Protection Bills; Measures Pass Important Committee

After passing the nation’s strongest COVID-19 Eviction Moratorium, a group of far left legislators are now using the Coronavirus public health crisis to push many more controversial measures, including Rent Control and Just Cause Evictions. The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing voted last week to recommend passage of two measures that would let cities and towns impose rent control and other tenant protections, effectively undoing a 1994 ballot measure that banned rent control in Massachusetts.

One bill (H.B. 3924), sponsored by self-proclaimed socialist Rep. Mike Connolly of Cambridge (pictured left), would establish a new “Tenant Protection Act,” enabling towns and cities to restore local rent control boards. However, this measure goes much further, seeking to adopt a radical wish list of tenant protection proposals previously rejected over the last several years. These include new “anti-displacement zones,” stricter condominium conversion rules with mandatory tenant relocation payments, a broad just-cause eviction statute (which the Legislature previously rejected a year ago), mandatory rent deposit installment plans, and other tenant-favorable provisions.

The other bill (H.B. 1319) would cap rent increases at the annual change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) or 5%, whichever is less. The only exception to this would be for owner-occupied units of three-family homes or less with a Sec. 8 or other federal/state subsidized tenant.

As I’ve written here before, Rent Control is an experiment tried and failed many times before, and universally rejected by economists. The great thing about the 1994 vote banning rent control is we now have empirical data and a reliable study from prominent economists which has compared the Cambridge housing market during rent control vs. after rent control. We also have data and a similar study out of San Francisco. Both studies (and others from the past) have found that rent control did not work at all, and actually had the exact opposite effect — contributing to gentrification, displacement of tenants and income inequality.

The bills’ fate is far from clear. Lawmakers have a host of issues on the agenda before their formal session ends in July, and have been voting remotely, which has slowed the legislative process. Baker signaled his opposition to the bill when it was first filed last year, saying it would hinder construction of new housing, though he has said little about it lately.

Rental property owners should email their representatives to reject House Bill 3924 and House Bill 1319.

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Rental Property Owners File Emergency Petition with Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Asserting COVID-19 Eviction Moratorium Act Is Unconstitutional

Attorney Richard D. Vetstein and his colleague, Jordana Roubicek Greenman, Esq., have filed an Emergency Petition with the Supreme Judicial Court on behalf of two local rental property owners challenging the constitutionality of the recently passed, Act Providing For a Moratorium On Evictions and Foreclosures During the COVID-19 Emergency and the its regulations. A copy of the Petition can be viewed below.

One of the plaintiffs is a elderly woman on a fixed income whose tenant owes her over $6,000 in back rent and told her “The Governor says I don’t have to pay my rent anymore.” She risks bankruptcy and foreclosure if something isn’t done. The other plaintiff has a non-payment eviction in progress in Worcester Housing Court, and is owed several months of rent with no likelihood of any payment while the Act suspends his case.

As outlined in the Petition, the Eviction Moratorium Act imposes an unprecedented and indefinite shutdown of virtually every future and pending eviction case in the state, as well as prohibiting landlords from even issuing notices to quit.  The Petitioners, two local rental property owners saddled with non-paying tenants whom they cannot evict, claim irreparable harm on behalf of themselves and all other similarly situated rental property owners across the state.  The Petitioners assert the Act is an unconstitutional infringement on their constitutional right to access the courts and right to petition. They also claim the Act is an unconstitutional interference by the Legislature on the core functions of the courts.  Further, the Act operates as a “taking” without just compensation because it forces rental property owners to house non-paying tenants without any recourse.  Lastly, the Petitioners argue the Act violates the U.S. Constitution’s Contracts Clause as it unconstitutionally impairs their lease agreements.

 The operation of the Act obligates rental property owners to pay their own mortgages, real estate taxes, insurance, and water/sewer used by non-paying tenants, and to maintain their properties and comply with the state sanitary code, while being effectively deprived of the revenue required to do those things.  Given the unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, this one-sided obligation and burden will continue indefinitely and quite possibly into 2021.  Many small rental property owners, especially those on fixed income, rely on rents to afford to live in their own homes.

The Supreme Judicial Court is expected to take up the case next week, and will hopefully schedule it for hearing. I will provide you with updates of course.

We are also still seeking donations to the cause. To contribute please click our secure Paypal link: https://paypal.me/pools/c/8orbLzpxbY.

Matorin v Chief Justice, SJ… by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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New Mandatory Forms and Regulations Released in Wake of Eviction Moratorium ActOn April 20, 2020, Gov. Baker signed into law An Act Providing for a Moratorium on Evictions and Foreclosures During the COVID-19 Emergency (the “Act”), which puts in place a moratorium on “non-essential evictions” of residential and small business tenants during the COVID-19 state of emergency. The Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development (EOHED) has released follow up regulations to ensure compliance with the Act. Several mandatory notices and forms have also been released which will be discussed and linked to below. The Regulations expire 120 days after the effective date of the Act, or 45 days after the state of emergency has been lifted, whichever is sooner, unless further extended by the secretary of EOHED. A link to the new regulations is here: 400 Code of Mass. Regulations 5.0: COVID-19 Emergency Regulations

New Required Form: “Notice of Rent Arrearage”

Under the Moratorium and the new regulations, landlords are prohibited from issuing a notice to quit for non-payment of rent, may not impose late fees for non-payment, or notify a credit reporting agency of the non-payment of rent if the tenant provides a notice and documentation of a financial impact from COVID-19. Instead, the new regulations allow landlords to send a new type of notice for a late or missing rent payment, called a “Notice of Rent Arrearage” which must contain the following special language:

“THIS IS NOT A NOTICE TO QUIT.  YOU ARE NOT BEING EVICTED, AND YOU DO NOT HAVE TO LEAVE YOUR HOME. An emergency law temporarily protects tenants from eviction during the COVID-19 emergency. The purpose of this notice is to make sure you understand the amount of rent you owe to your landlord.”

“For information about resources that may help you pay your rent, you can contact your regional Housing Consumer Education Center. For a list of agencies, see https://www.masshousinginfo.org/regional-agencies.  Additional information about resources for tenants is available at https://www.mhp.net/news/2020/resources-for-tenants-during-covid-19-pandemic.”

“You will not be subject to late fees or a negative report to a credit bureau if you certify to your landlord in writing within 30 days from the missed payment that your non-payment of rent is due to a financial impact from COVID-19. If possible, you should use the approved form at: https://www.mass.gov/lists/moratorium-on-evictions-and-foreclosures-forms-and-other-resources. If you cannot access the form on this website, you can ask your landlord to provide the form to you. You may also send a letter or email so long as it contains a detailed explanation of your household loss in income or increase in expenses due to COVID-19.”

The notice may also include other information that will promote the prompt and non-judicial resolution of such matters, such as the total balance due, the months remaining and the total of lease payments expected to be made on a lease for a term of years, information on how to contact the landlord to work out a revised payment arrangement, and a reminder that after the state of emergency ends the tenant may face eviction if rent remains unpaid. The notice should also also have language informing the tenant of the importance of having it translated to their native language.

My friends over at MassLandlords have created a sample Notice of Missed Payment form if you desire to download it.

Late Fees and Credit Reporting; Notice of Tenant Financial Hardship

Under the Moratorium Act, tenants are allowed to provide notice and documentation of a Covid-19 related financial hardship to their landlords, in order to avoid negative credit reporting. EOHED has issued forms so residential and commercial tenants can provide notice and documentation of a COVID-19 related financial hardship. Those forms can be found here (click on link):

Notice and Certification of Financial Hardship From Residential Tenant Related to COVID-19

Form of Notice -COVID-19 Hardship – Small Business Tenant 

Documentation of Financial Hardship – Small Business Tenant 

Under the new regulations, a tenant who misses multiple rent payments due to a financial impact from COVID-19 is required to provide a separate notice to the landlord for each such missed payment. The use of an alternative written form of notice by a residential tenant shall be deemed effective and timely if it includes a statement that the tenant has experienced a financial impact from COVID-19, and states in reasonable detail the cause of such financial impact.

Landlord Use of Last Month’s Rent Deposit

Under the Moratorium, a landlord who has a last month’s rent deposit may use it to pay for mortgage payments, utility costs, maintenance costs and other operating expenses incurred by the landlord for the leased premises. The last month’s deposit, however, must be accounted for and paid back if necessary, with accrued interest, at the end of the lease or tenancy. This is one of the reasons why I do not recommend that landlords utilize this remedy. If the landlord uses a last month’s deposit it must provide the following form to the tenant:

Notice to Tenant – Use of Advance Rent Payment 

Conclusion

We will keep you updated with further development on the Eviction Moratorium and any further regulations or guidance issued by the state.

I still believe that the Act is unconstitutional on several grounds, and myself along with several other lawyers are getting ready to file a legal challenge to the Act. If you are interested in donating or participating in the case, please contact me at [email protected]. We have set up a secure Paypal funding link for any donations here:  https://paypal.me/pools/c/8orbLzpxbY.

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New Laws Allow Video-Conferencing Technology For Notarization of Legal Documents during COVID-19 Crisis

Update 4/28/20: Gov. Baker has signed the bill. Remote virtual notarizations are now allowed during the COVID-19 State of Emergency!

After what seemed like an eternity during this unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, the Legislature has finally passed a bill providing for the remote virtual notarization of legal documents through video-conferencing technology. The measure will be in place temporarily during Gov. Baker’s declared COVID-19 State of Emergency, and will dispense with the legal requirement for in-person notarizations of real estate, probate and other legal documents requiring a notary public stamp. After over a month of intense lobbying by attorneys and the banking industry, and several revisions to the original bill, the House and Senate finally agreed on a final language today. The measure now goes to Gov. Baker’s desk where he is expected to sign it shortly. This is great news for everyone in the real estate industry as the new law will allow attorneys, paralegals, buyers, and sellers to sign important legal documents safely in their homes during the COVID-19 crisis.

The new law, An Act Providing for Virtual Notarization to Address Challenges Related to COVID-19, provides for a series of requirements and steps to effectuate a valid remote virtual notarization —

  • Remote notarizations may be conducted through video-conferencing technology such as Zoom or FaceTime. No specific type of technology is spelled out, but we are hearing that title insurance companies and lenders will require real estate closing attorneys to use approved virtual notary software. Some may not however.
  • All remote notarizations must take place with both the notary and the signatory within Massachusetts state lines. For example, a Massachusetts notary cannot notarize a document of a person signing in New York.
  • The signatory must show the notary a government issued photographic form of identification (a state issued driver’s license is OK). Non-US citizens must show a valid passport or government I.D. A copy of the front and back of the I.D. must be sent to the notary which must be retained for 10 years.
  • The notarization must otherwise be conducted in the usual manner over video-conference with the notary observing the actual signing of the legal document and taking the required affirmation, i.e., “this is your free act and deed.”
  • The original notarized documents must then be sent back to the notary, and for real estate closings, a second video conference must be conducted where the signatory authenticates the signed documents.
  • Once the above process is complete, the notary or attorney can stamp the documents as notarized, and must also complete and sign an affidavit attesting that all requirements have been met. The affidavit must be kept on file for 10 years.
  • Each video-conference conducted under the law must be recorded and retained for 10 years.
  • For real estate transactions and certain probate documents (will, trust nomination of guardian or conservator, durable power of attorney, health care proxy or caregiver authorization, only licensed attorneys (or a paralegal under their supervision) may conduct a remote notarization. For real estate closings, a second form of I.D. may be required.

The new law expires 3 days after Gov. Baker lifts the COVID-19 State of Emergency, at which time, only standard in-person notarizations will be allowed. The text of the bill is embedded below.

Massachusetts Virtual Remot… by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Unprecedented, Sweeping Prohibition on Residential and Commercial Evictions Enacted Without Corresponding Mortgage and Tax Relief to Property Owners

Updated (5/31/20): Legal Challenge Against Eviction Moratorium Filed In SJC

In an unprecedented, sweeping, and likely unconstitutional move, the Massachusetts Legislature has passed, and Governor Charlie Baker has just signed into law An Act Providing For a Moratorium On Evictions and Foreclosures During the COVID-19 Emergency (House Bill 4647), a statewide moratorium on the vast majority all evictions and foreclosures in Massachusetts during the COVID-19 Emergency — and possibly well beyond. The new law is in effect until 45 days after the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Emergency is lifted by Gov. Baker, or four (4) months, whichever is earliest, however, Gov. Baker is permitted to extend the law for 90 day increments.

Sweeping Eviction (Summary Process) Emergency Coronavirus (COVID-19) Relief

The Eviction Moratorium covers 90% of all evictions (summary process), including non-payment and no-fault evictions, both residential and commercial. The only exception is if a tenant is engaged in criminal activity or a lease violation which impacts the health and safety of other residents or first responders. Under the Act, Housing and District Courts will not even accept new eviction filings. Eviction cases which are already pending in court are effectively suspended until the law expires. (Under previous Housing Court orders, all evictions have been stayed until May 4). Eviction move-out orders are also suspended. All court deadlines and statutes of limitations are suspended.

Further, Landlords are prohibited from issuing notices to quit or terminating a lease. Late fees for unpaid rent are also banned. Landlords are also barred from reporting delinquencies to credit reporting agencies if the tenant provides documentation of financial hardship related to the COVID-19 crisis. Throwing a bone to landlords, the Act allows them to use last month deposits to pay for mortgage and property expenses, but they must account for the deposit at the end of the tenancy. (I don’t see any benefit there at all). The Act does not suspend the obligation to pay one’s rent.

Small Business Impacts

As stated above, the eviction moratorium also applies to certain “small business” commercial spaces. Small businesses are defined as any in-state for-profit and non-profit business with less than 150 full-time equivalent employees. It does not apply to chains or businesses operating multi-state, multi-nationally, or publicly traded companies. Commercial landlords may, however, issue payment default notices and notices to quit.

Foreclosure Relief

Under the Act, all residential property foreclosure proceedings are prohibited and suspended. The Act appears not to give foreclosure relief to investment or rental property owners, and that is one of the glaring inequities as discussed below. Lenders are banned from sending foreclosure notices, filing Land Court Servicemembers proceedings, conducting foreclosure auctions, or otherwise engaging in any foreclosure related action under state law. The Act also requires banks to grant up to 180 days of mortgage forbearance to homeowners who have been hurt by the coronavirus crisis. However, the forebearance will be added to the end of the term of the loan. The foreclosure relief part of the law expires 45 days after the Covid Emergency is lifted, or 4 months, whichever is sooner, but the Governor may issue 90 day extensions. The Act does not suspend the obligation to pay one’s mortgage.

Analysis: Potentially Devastating Impact to Small Property Owners, Potential Unconstitutionality of Law

Let me just say that I have compassion for everyone suffering through this pandemic. I have friends who are Covid-19 positive. My business is down, as are my colleagues and friends. I’m actually in favor of widespread financial relief for anyone who has been financially impacted by this crisis.

However, as I have pointed out from the very beginning of this debate on evictions, the flaw with this bill is that it does not provide for corresponding meaningful mortgage, foreclosure and real estate tax relief to rental property owners. It only goes one way. There’s no doubt that many tenants are in dire financial straights, but without providing similar relief to small landlords, they will be bearing the financial brunt of this crisis. And that’s simply unfair.

This Act will likely result in widespread suspension of rent payments by tenants because there is now no enforcement mechanisms for landlords and very little if any financial repercussions. Activists are already calling for rent strikes. As Gregory Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, correctly stated to Bisnow, “the bottom line is, if you are an owner on the commercial or residential side, you likely won’t be getting rent until sometime in the third quarter or fourth quarter of 2020. If you end up in legal proceedings against a tenant, you very likely aren’t going to be getting rent until sometime in 2021.”

Aside from the financial considerations, there are also a number of constitutional and legal flaws with the law under the Massachusetts State Constitution, including violating the right to access courts, the Equal Protection Clause, usurping the exclusive role of the judiciary, violating the Takings Clause, and other major problems. We have not seen this type of sweeping restriction on property owner rights since the days of rent control. State legislators are essentially telling Housing Court judges how to do their job. Judges are already well-equipped to deal with this crisis, and have been doing so admirably. Shutting down the courthouse doors to only landlords and lenders while keeping it open to everyone else smacks of unfair and unequal treatment. I think this Act has a high chance of being struck down by the Supreme Judicial Court.

With the backing of MassLandlords, our statewide trade association, a group of talented attorneys including myself are exploring a legal challenge to the Act. If you are interested in donating or participating in the case, please contact me at [email protected]. We have set up a secure Paypal funding link for any donations here: https://paypal.me/pools/c/8orbLzpxbY.

The Act is embedded below (House Bill 4647).

Massachusetts Act Providing… by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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I’m posting the YouTube video of our fantastic Zoom call on COVID-19 with Dr. George Seage, Director of Infectious Disease Program at Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. Seage is the Harvard faculty advisor to the Massachusetts COVID-19 Tracing Program.

Some quick take-aways:

✅ Worst virus outbreak since 1918 Influenza Pandemic (could be worse actually)
✅ Massachusetts is actually not in good shape. We may run out of ICU units and ventilators. 
✅ We won’t be back to “normal” until July-August. 
✅ It will take longer to get back to normal because government leadership won’t take stricter mitigation – he recommends 2 week national shelter in place
✅ Masks and gloves in public but strict social distancing (stay at home) & frequent hand washing remains best
✅ Even when we get back to work and school, there will be flare-ups over 12 months until we get a vaccine. Some cities/areas could go back to lockdown status  
✅ Real estate agents: DO NOT HOLD OPEN HOUSES OR SHOWINGS. STAY AT HOME. If you do so, wear full protective gear and make visitors wear also. 
✅ Attorneys: It’s unreal that you don’t have remote notarization yet. What are these legislators thinking!? If you need to interface with clients, wear full protective gear (mask, gloves). Stay at least 6 ft. away. Wash and disinfect everything after.

Link to video is here: https://youtu.be/huATzARYffs

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COVID-19 Impacts: Eviction Moratorium Proposals, Tenant Payment Issues, Housing Court Delays, Stay at Home Order, and Move-In Delays

I’ve written two posts here and here about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Global Pandemic, both focused primarily on impacts to real estate transactions and closings. Along with my colleague and fellow landlord-tenant attorney, Jordana Greenman, Esq., we want to now discuss the impact on rental housing, evictions and landlord-tenant relationships.

The number of reported cases are exploding and events are changing daily, even hourly. I first wrote about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic on March 10, about two weeks ago. As of that writing (data as of March 9), there were 729 reported cases in the US, with 27 deaths. As of today March 27, Johns Hopkins is reporting that the United States has surpassed China with over 86,000 confirmed cases and over 1,300 deaths. With the well publicized testing delays, the real number of cases is likely far higher. Unfortunately, Massachusetts has not been spared, with over 2,400 reported cases, including over 140 Boston city hospital workers.

Gov. Baker has ordered the shutdown of all schools and day-cares through May 6, closed down restaurants and bars, and banned gatherings over 25 people. Last week, all Trial Courthouses were shut down for two full days. They have re-opened, but not to the public and with very limited availability for hearing cases (other than true emergencies). On Monday March 23, Gov. Baker issued a “stay at home” advisory, essentially closing down all “non-essential” businesses.

Of course, the big problem for the rental housing industry is the economy has gone into the tank. Experts predict that unemployment will rise to Great Depression levels. The stock market has lost some 30% of its value. When people have lost their jobs and lost their savings, they can’t pay the mortgage or the rent.

Legislation for Eviction Moratorium

In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh has announced a voluntary eviction moratorium agreement with the city’s largest landlords including Trinity Financial, Winn Residential and the Community Builders, which manage hundreds of apartments in Boston. On Beacon Hill, legislators have filed a bill calling for a state-wide moratorium on evictions during the pendency of the COVID-19 State of Emergency. At the federal level, HUD has suspended all evictions for FHA insured single family residences. It’s unclear whether this also applies to HUD Section 8 rental subsidy participants. Lastly, Attorney General Maura Healy just implemented new regulations prohibiting consumer debt collection activities for a 90 day period, however, landlord-tenant payments are excluded from the regulation.

The problem with these legislative efforts, of course, is that there needs to be a corresponding moratorium on the payment of mortgages, real estate taxes and property expenses for rental property owners, otherwise small landlords will shoulder an enormous amount of the financial burden during this crisis. “If renters don’t have money to pay rent, landlords don’t have money, either,” Doug Quattrochi, executive director of the group MassLandlords told the Boston Globe recently. “That’s money that pays plumbers and electricians and mortgage bills. If they’re a senior on a fixed income, it might be how they buy food.”

Gov. Charlie Baker indicated during his last press conference that he was not at a point where he would impose such a moratorium. Thus, as of now, a moratorium on rental payments in Massachusetts is unlikely, but of course, that could change, and such change would disproportionately affect the small landlords.

Housing Court COVID-19 Response

Practically speaking however, there exists a de facto moratorium on evictions because the statewide Housing Court has deferred hearing eviction cases through April 21. Under two new Standing Orders, all Housing Courts are closed to the public through at least until April 6, 2020, and are hearing only emergency matters. All evictions (summary process) are impacted by the order, and are currently on hold until April 21, 2020. A party may seek to advance their case upon a showing of “good cause,” but my feeling is that those will be quite rare. “Emergency matters” include the following circumstances: applications for injunctive relief, temporary restraining orders where a complaint involves a lockout, condemnation, no heat, no water, and/or no utilities; conduct and or conditions endangering the health safety and welfare of residential occupants and others; stay of levy on an execution; or where access is required to address an emergency (e.g., burst water pipe, gas fumes, etc.).

We want to highlight the likely scenario that once this crisis (hopefully) ends, the Housing Court will be swamped with cases in Spring/Summer 2020. On average, the Boston Housing Court itself receives hundreds of new eviction cases weekly. The COVID-19 postponement is sure to result in a huge backlog of eviction cases for many months to come and even more crowding in the courthouses.

Legal Guidance: Advice to landlords dealing with tenants who cannot pay rent — You have to take a wait and see approach. Legally, you are still allowed to issue a 14 day notice to quit for non-payment of rent. You are also allowed to file an eviction complaint in the Housing Court. But you will likely not get in front of a judge until sometime in May, and possibly longer. So, it’s a good idea to go ahead and have an attorney send out the notice to quit and get the summary process complaint filed, and then you’ll have to wait in line and see what happens. We do not yet know the order in which cases will be scheduled or if those filed during this time will be given priority.

Stay At Home Order: Impact on Rental Agent Activities

Gov. Baker’s Stay at Home guidance/order appears to apply to real estate and rental agent activities. They are not specifically mentioned as one of the enumerated “essential” businesses, and their activities do involve much inter-personal contact in the ordinary course of business. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has issued a formal letter advising rental agents not to hold showings of occupied rental units. He also issued guidance that any prospective tenants who are sick should not be allowed to view a unit in person, and added that open houses should not be used to market properties that are for rent or for sale. Anecdotally, I’m hearing that some (but not all) rental agencies are shutting down operations and many are simply working remotely.

Legal Guidance: showing rental properties live in person is a violation of the Stay At Home Order, and incongruent with the public health policy behind it. Rental agents should instead use virtual showing technology, FaceTime and Zoom to replicate in person showings. Moreover, holding in person showings could lead to someone getting infected with COVID-19, then a big lawsuit against the rental agent. We don’t want to see that either.

Move-in Delays

Many tenants are scheduled to move in the coming months and, while moving companies have been deemed “essential” under the Stay at Home Order, many people may feel safer staying in place than moving to an unknown locations. Landlords and tenants should be encouraged to work together in the event of delays.

We have created a COVID-19 Lease Rider addressing the issue of move-in delays during this crisis. While it may be tempting for a landlord to keep a prepaid first month’s rent, last month’s rent and security deposit in the event a tenant either cannot move or feels unsafe doing so, this may open landlords up to liability and legal claims are sure to ensue. We encourage the parties to work together and be flexible. 

For current occupancies, landlords should remind their tenants to keep the apartments clean and sanitary. Most importantly, during tenant turnovers, landlords should hire a sanitization company (e.g., Service Master) to clean and disinfect units prior to a new occupancy.

Conclusion

Our collective appreciation goes out to the many health care and public service employees working to help combat this epidemic. The Massachusetts’s official COVID-19 website contains the most up-to-date information. We are also available to consult regarding your current or pending landlord-tenant needs.

Feel free to email Rich at [email protected] or Jordana at [email protected].

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Legislation Would Temporarily Allow Video-Conferencing Technology For Attorney Notaries

Update: 4/23/20 — The bill (now Senate Bill 2645), has passed both Senate and the House, and will soon be on the way to the Governor’s desk where he is expected to sign the bill. Click here for my new post: Legislature Passes Remote Virtual Notarization Act for COVID-19 Emergency.

Update: 4/22/20 — The Senate has passed a new revised version of the Bill, now it moves on to the House where it is expected to pass.

The real estate legal community, including yours truly, have been working and lobbying tirelessly to address the various impacts of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Crisis on real estate transactions and closings. One of the first solutions we proposed is legislation allowing for remote or virtual notarizations of deeds, mortgages and other closing documents so that buyers and sellers can sign documents in the safety of their own homes on their computers. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, many folks are subject to the Governor’s Stay At Home Order or don’t feel safe traveling outside to an attorneys’ office for a real estate closing. Meanwhile, while the economy heads towards a recession, real estate is one of the few assets with available equity for consumers.

Under our proposed legislation, An Act Relative To Remote Notarization During COVID-19 State of Emergency (S.D. 2882), a licensed Massachusetts attorney may notarize legal documents using video-conferencing technology. There is a two-step process laid out in the legislation to complete the notarization process where the signer shows the attorney his/her state issued identification, sends the original signed documents back to the attorney, and then verifies the authenticity of the signed documents. Once that process is complete, the attorney can stamp the documents as notarized and must also complete and sign an affidavit attesting that all requirements have been met. Those notarized documents may then be recorded with the Registry of Deeds as valid, legal and binding recordable instruments. Additionally, the two video-conferences must be recorded and kept on file for 10 years. The bill would only be in effect during the COVID-19 State of Emergency.

The bill has widespread industry support from the Real Estate Bar Association (including the Probate Section), the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors and Greater Boston Real Estate Board. Twenty three (23) states have now passed remote notarization bills, including just recently due to the COVID19 crisis, including New York State, Vermont, Connecticut, Florida, Virginia, Texas, and Nevada. Moreover, a nationwide bill has been proposed by the American Land Title Association.

There are a number of technology companies that offer end-to-end remote notarization systems and are approved by national title insurance companies and lenders. They include:

To our real estate partners and colleagues, WE NEED YOUR HELP NOW! We need you to email or call your State Rep. and Senator and tell them you support our proposed legislation, An Act Relative To Remote Notarization During COVID-19 State of Emergency (S.D. 2882). To search for your state legislator, please click here.

Thank you! I will keep you posted as to developments and hopefully passage of the bill. Also many thanks to Attorneys Kosta and Nik Ligris on spearheading the bill!

Massachusetts Act relative to remote notarization during COVID-19 state of emergency. by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Closings May Proceed Forward Without Smoke Detector Inspection Certifications

Due to the Coronavirus Crisis, many local fire departments have been ceasing state mandated smoke detector inspections, which are required for real estate transactions to close. I’m happy to report that on March 20, 2020, after intense lobbying from the real estate industry, Gov. Baker issued an Emergency Order allowing for the deferral of inspections by local fire departments until the Coronavirus (COVID-19) State of Emergency is lifted. The Order is embedded below and can be found here: COVID-19 Order Permitting the Temporary Conditional Deferral of Certain Inspections of Residential Real Estate.

Inspections may be deferred only if the following requirements have been met:

  • The parties agree in writing that the buyer, not the seller, shall be responsible for installing approved smoke/CO detectors in the premises;
  • The buyer agrees as a condition of taking title to equip the premises with approved detectors immediately after the closing
  • The state required smoke/CO detector inspection must be conducted no less than 90 days after the Mass. COVID-19 State of Emergency is lifted.

We (real estate attorneys) are drafting up new compliance agreements and language for Offers and Purchase and Sale Agreement to comply with this new Order. Please email me at [email protected] for assistance.

Massachusetts Gov. Baker CO… by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Significant Impacts Hitting: Registry and Court Closures, Closing and Financing Delays, Social Distancing, School Closings, Quarantine Potential

As I was writing this post tonight, Gov. Baker ordered the shutdown of all schools through April 6, closed down restaurants and bars, and is banning gatherings over 25 people. Also announced tonight is the shut down of all Trial Court facilities on March 16 and March 17, which includes the Cambridge and Suffolk (Boston) Registries of Deeds. We are now hitting the tipping point, and going forward there will be substantial impacts on the real estate and legal industry.

I first wrote about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic five days ago. Seems like an eternity ago. As of that writing (data as of March 9), there were 729 reported cases in the US, with 27 deaths. As of tonight March 15, cases have over quintupled with Johns Hopkins reporting 3,722 confirmed cases and 61 deaths. With the well publicized testing delays, the real number of cases are likely far higher.

Registry of Deeds Impacts

As mentioned above, Gov. Baker just ordered the closure of all Trial Court facilities for Monday March 16 and Tuesday March 17. Both Cambridge and Suffolk (Boston) Registries are housed in Trial Court facilities so they will be closed for those two days. I spoke to Maria Curtatone, Registrar of Deeds for Cambridge Middlesex South, and she indicated that this may well be the precursor to widespread shutdown of all registries of deeds and courts throughout the state. We will await further announcements on that.

Update (3/17/20) — Suffolk and Cambridge are closed to the public until at least April 6. Currently, they are both still processing electronic recordings for recorded land. All Land Court recordings and plans must be sent in by overnight or regular mail.

We have just received a chart below showing current Registry status:

I remain concerned, however, that all Registries will be forced to shut down and will not offer in person, mail or electronic recordings. If that occurs, we will see a potentially catastrophic impact to real estate in Massachusetts. Title insurance companies have assured its attorney agents that they will offer “gap coverage” in case recordings are delayed. This coverage offers insurance coverage between the time of the physical closing and the time of actual recording of documents at the registry. However, it remains to be seen how this will play out. Will mortgage payoffs still be processed even though deeds will not be recorded? Will sellers allow buyers to get keys and move into homes if deeds aren’t recorded and their sale proceeds are held in escrow? We will need to work through these issues.

I am also concerned if COVID-19 starts hitting closing attorney offices. If a lawyer or staff member is infected, it could result in the quarantine of their entire office, essentially shutting it down for some time.

COVID-19 Contingency Provision

In my previous post, I discussed a new COVID-19 Impact Clause for Offers Purchase and Sale Agreements. (Sample language below). It is imperative that these clauses are used in both Offers and PSA’s. It’s also very important that all parties and their attorneys work together cooperatively throughout this crisis, acknowledging that there will likely be substantial impacts and delays. The goal, as always, is to get to the closing and complete the deal, by any means necessary.

COVID-19 Impact Provision. The Time for Performance may be extended by either Party by written notice for an Excused Delay which materially affects the Party’s ability to close or obtain financing. As used herein an Excused Delay shall mean a delay caused by an Act of God, declared state of emergency or public health emergency, pandemic (specifically including Covid-19), government mandated quarantine, war, acts of terrorism, and/or order of government or civil or military authorities. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this Agreement, if the Time for Performance is extended, and if BUYER’S mortgage commitment or rate lock would expire prior to the expiration of said extension, then such extension shall continue, at BUYER’S option, only until the date of expiration of BUYER’S mortgage commitment or rate lock.  BUYER may elect, at its sole option, to obtain an extension of its mortgage commitment or rate lock. Notwithstanding the foregoing, said Extension shall not exceed [insert number of days].

Virtual and Remote Closings

Another impact that we are already seeing is that parties to the real estate transaction are afraid of traveling outside their homes right now (or even being visited at home) and being in contact with other people, especially those who are high risk. My colleagues and I are working on an emergency executive order for Gov. Baker to sign which would temporarily authorize remote or virtual closings using such technology as Zoom and Docusign.

For more information on this please read my new post, Massachusetts Remote Notarization Bill Filed in Legislature

Court Closings

Update (3/17/20): The Supreme Judicial Court today ordered that, because of the public health emergency arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, beginning tomorrow (March 18, 2020) and until at least April 6, 2020, the only matters that will be heard in-person in Massachusetts state courthouses are emergency matters that cannot be held by videoconference or telephone. Each of the seven Trial Court departments, in new standing orders to be issued today, will define emergency matters for their departments.  As a result of the SJC order, courthouses will be closed to the public except to conduct emergency hearings that cannot be resolved through a videoconference or telephonic hearing.  Clerk’s offices shall remain open to the public to accept pleadings and other documents in emergency matters only.  All trials in both criminal and civil cases scheduled to commence in Massachusetts state courts between today and April 17, 2020, are continued to a date no earlier than April 21, 2020, unless the trial is a civil case where the parties and the court agree that the case can be decided without the need for in-person appearance in court. Where a jury trial has commenced, the trial will end based on the manifest necessity arising from the pandemic and a new trial may commence after the public health emergency ends. Courts, to the best of their ability, will attempt to address matters that can be resolved or advanced without in-person proceedings through communication by telephone, videoconferencing, email, or other comparable means.

A link to the SJC Order OE-144 is here.

In addition to the closings on March 16-17, the Massachusetts Court System announced over the weekend major “triage” changes reducing the number of persons entering state courthouses. These rules are effective Wednesday March 18, 2020. A link to all of the new changes can be found here — Court System Response to COVID-19. A summary of each court and respective changes are as follows:

Superior Court — All jury trials postponed until April 22. Motions handled by individual judges with preference for telephonic hearing and postponement where necessary to limit number of people entering courtroom. Emergency matters may proceed normally. The new Standing Order 2-20 can be found here.

Housing Court — All cases including evictions (except emergencies) postponed until after April 22. Matters may be heard earlier upon a showing of good cause. New Housing Court Standing Order is here.

Probate and Family Court — Trials postponed until May 1. Motions and pre-trials heard telephonically or postponed until after May 1. Modification complaints won’t be heard until after May 1. New Probate and Family Court Standing Order 1-20 is here.

District Court — No jury trials until after April 21. All criminal appearances rescheduled for 60 days, and no earlier than May 4. Arraignments and Bench trials may proceed. The new District Court Standing Order is here.

Land Court — All trials postponed until after April 21. All other motions and proceedings shall be held telephonically at judge’s discretion. Registration of title documents should not be done in person. Mail or email is now preferred. (Not sure how that will work). New Land Court Standing Order 2-20 is here.

Appeals Court — Oral argument for March will be telephonic.

Supreme Judicial Court — Please see the Court’s website.

As you can glean from the changes, virtually all trials are being pushed out through the end of April. Motion hearings are court specific with telephonic hearings being substituted for in-person hearings. Of course, if the courts are all shut down, all bets are off. With no staff, the courts will not even be able to handle new filings. The system would just stop in its tracks, except for the most emergency of matters.

Lender/Financing Delays

This week we will see if there are any major disruptions to lenders’ ability to provide financing. I am seeing some smaller mortgage companies moving to remote employee staffing. I’m also hearing about appraisal delays. If there are government employee impacts such as at the IRS for processing tax transcripts, there could be delays with underwriting. I think it’s inevitable that we will be seeing lender delays moving forward.

Municipal Closings

I am also hearing of closings of municipal departments, which may affect the availability of final water/sewer readings and possibly smoke detector certificates. Title 5 inspections could also be impacted.

25 Person Social Gathering Restriction

New restrictions on crowd sizes that Gov. Charlie Baker issued on Sunday, March 15, could upend open houses. The restrictions banned gatherings of 25 or more people. Brokers seemed to anticipate a possible drop-off in attendance, even before Baker’s restrictions and despite strong numbers the past couple of weeks. “Next week may be a different story,” Jason Gell, a Keller Williams broker and president of the Greater Boston Association of Realtors, said on March 12. “Unfortunately, any decline in open houses or listings is likely to make the conditions for buyers even more difficult.”

Social Distancing, School Closures and Possible Lockdown

The impacts of COVID-19 are manifesting not necessarily in the actual infection and sickness of patients (which I’m not discounting at all) but all the measures we are taking to “flatten the curve.” I want to urge all my readers that COVID-19 could wind up being the worst global pandemic since the Spanish Flu and should be taken as seriously as life and death. If you can work from home, do that and don’t go into the office. If you can arrange for remote employee access, please do that. Take advantage of technologies like Zoom, Docusign and Dotloop. Please keep your kids at home. No playdates, family gatherings or hang-outs. They say we are only 2 weeks behind Italy and you see what’s going on there. Stay safe! More updates to follow as I get them.

-Rich

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Potential Impacts: Registry of Deeds Closings, Financing Delays, New Covid-19 PSA Clause, Housing Market Slow Down?

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a highly infectious respiratory virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, and has spread across the globe, wreaking havoc on financial markets, public health systems, schools, universities, and daily lives. As of March 9, there are 729 reported cases in the US, with 27 deaths. Here in Massachusetts, as of March 9, there are 41 cases with no reported deaths. Infectious disease experts predict that the virus will continue spreading across the United States, affecting just about every aspect of our lives.

Update (3/17/20): Registry and Court Closings

Update (3/27/20): Impact on Rental Housing

Update (3/26/20): Remote Notarization Legislation

Here in Massachusetts, we are beginning to see significant impacts. Harvard University just cancelled all classes in favor of online instructions. Mayor Walsh has cancelled the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Some schools are closing temporarily and cancelling events. Companies are cancelling conferences and restricting travel. And of course, the stock market has dropped precipitously.

Likewise, in the real estate industry we are starting to see impacts as well. Despite the COVID fear factor, most agents are still reporting robust attendance at open houses and market activity, as confirmed by Curbed Boston. However, that may soon change as the virus gets increasingly widespread and the impacts to the financial markets begin to set in. I’m going to outline some potential impacts going forward, and I’ll update this post as developments emerge.

Registry of Deeds and Court Closings

Update (3/13/20): Suffolk and Salem Registry have shut down public closings. Only title examiners and attorneys are allowed access. They are still recording documents.

We are starting to see court and government building closings in other states. Federal courts in New York’s Southern District, including Manhattan, are restricting entry. No one will be allowed in who traveled within the past 14 days to China, South Korea, Japan, Italy or Iran, or who had close contact with someone who has. Trials have been postponed in Seattle and Tacoma courts.

No closings have been announced here in Massachusetts, but it’s a possibility. Virus impacts may result in Registries of Deeds and the Land Court being forced to closed or operate with a skeleton staff.

Fortunately, we have electronic recording capabilities here in Massachusetts. If the registries are closed, hopefully they will still allow for e-recording which should enable closings to keep on track. However, registry staff must still examine each electronically recorded document so there still could be impacts. We don’t know the fully extent of the impacts, if any.

Lender/Financing Delays

I have not yet heard of any major disruptions to lenders’ ability to provide financing. However, it’s not out of the realm of reason if companies are requiring their employees to work from home, etc. Further, if there are government employee impacts such as at the IRS for processing tax transcripts, there could be delays with underwriting. The same is true if appraisers cannot get out into the field and do their reports. I’ve already heard of at least one lender asking an attorney for a COVID-19 delay provision in a purchase and sale agreement, which brings me to the next topic…

COVID-19 Delay Clause In Purchase and Sales Agreement

Due to the various impacts and possibilities for delays as outlined above, we are already seeing requests for language dealing with the Coronavirus in purchase and sales agreements. As just mentioned, there may be lender delays affecting a buyer’s ability to obtain timely financing due to virus impacts. Buyers and sellers may be subject to quarantines, or if they are traveling, they may be stuck in a public health purgatory like the Princess Cruise ship. If Registries are closed and no e-recording is allowed, then closings will need to be cancelled or rescheduled. My colleagues and I are working on a new COVID-19 clause that will balance all of these concerns.

Our draft provision (subject to change) is as follows:

COVID-19 Impacts. The Time for Performance may be extended by either Party by written notice for an Excused Delay which materially affects the Party’s ability to close or obtain financing. As used herein an Excused Delay shall mean a delay caused by an Act of God, declared state of emergency or public health emergency, pandemic (specifically including Covid-19), government mandated quarantine, war, acts of terrorism, and/or order of government or civil or military authorities. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this Agreement, if the Time for Performance is extended, and if BUYER’S mortgage commitment or rate lock would expire prior to the expiration of said extension, then such extension shall continue, at BUYER’S option, only until the date of expiration of BUYER’S mortgage commitment or rate lock.  BUYER may elect, at its sole option, to obtain an extension of its mortgage commitment or rate lock. Notwithstanding the foregoing, said Extension shall not exceed [insert number of days].

Impact On The Real Estate Market

If you’re in the market for a house, all this uncertainty might have you worried about the housing market. Will it suffer a swoon similar to Wall Street? There are a few ways the virus could affect the housing market that you should be aware of. However, I think we can breath a sigh of relief, because a housing catastrophe on the scale of the 2008 financial crisis is almost certainly not going to happen.

The good news is that mortgage interest rates are still at historic lows. However, I’m also hearing that a lot of lenders are at full capacity with demand for both refinances and purchases so rates may be heading up in the very near future.

I think as we are heading towards a global recession and the continuing daily life impacts of the virus, we are going to see a slowing down of the real estate market in general. Uncertainty is the hobgoblin of the home buyer. Indeed, this is exactly what Lawrence Yun, Chief Economist at the National Assoc. of Realtors is saying:

I hope I’m wrong. Comment below or shoot me a line ([email protected]) and tell me what you’re seeing out there. I’ll keep you posted with any developments.

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