Rental Housing

Richard Vetstein, Esq. and Jordana Greenman, Esq., the two attorneys who successfully challenged the Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium in federal court, led this Zoom webinar discussing the re-opening of the Housing Court next week after the Eviction Moratorium expires on Oct. 17. In anticipation of its re-opening during the Covid-19 pandemic and with a major backlog in pending cases, the Housing Court has issued major changes to its court rules, including a new two-Tiered case management system, virtual (Zoom) hearings, and application of the CDC Eviction Moratorium. Attorneys Vetstein and Greenman give an overview of the new procedures, talk about what they think Housing Court practice will look like going forward, and then take questions and answers. This is a can’t miss webinar from two highly experienced landlord-tenant attorneys with inside knowledge of the inner workings of the Housing Court. If you are a rental property owner affected by the Moratorium and desire to re-start a pending case or file a new case, this is for you. 

If you cannot view the embedded video, please click this LINK.

For more information about a pending or new eviction in Massachusetts, please contact Richard Vetstein at [email protected].

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$171 Million Funding Allocated for RAFT and HomeBase Rental Assistance, Legal Services, Mediation and Tenant Outreach

Governor Baker officially announced today that he will not extend the Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium, allowing the Housing Courts to start hearing eviction cases beginning on October 19. With this announcement came a major new program, called the Eviction Diversion Initiative, put together by the Baker administration, court leaders, and landlord/tenant groups. I don’t want to gloat too much here, but we have heard that our federal lawsuit challenging the Moratorium and our continued advocacy for housing providers played no small role in this decision.

New Funding For RAFT, HomeBase, Other Programs

The Baker Administration is making a $171 million total commitment this fiscal year, with $112 million of new funding to support new and expanded housing stability programs during the remainder of the fiscal year, including: 

  • $100 million commitment this fiscal year to expand the capacity of the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program to provide relief to renters and landlords impacted by COVID-19;
  • $48.7 million to HomeBASE and other rapid rehousing programs for when tenants are evicted and are at risk of homelessness;
  • $12.3 million to provide tenants and landlords with access to legal representation and related services prior to and during the eviction process, as well as community mediation to help tenants and landlords resolve cases outside of court;
  • $6.5 million for Housing Consumer Education Centers (HCECs), the “front door” for those facing a housing emergency; and
  • $3.8 million for the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP), to provide case management support and to act as a neutral party to help tenants and landlords come to agreement.

New investments will expand the capacity of the RAFT program and increase the maximum benefit available through RAFT from $4,000 to $10,000 per household, with a goal of helping more families stabilize their housing for six months, or until the end of June if there are school-age children in the household, on their path to recovery.

The Administration is also updating the RAFT program to improve turnaround time on applications, while maintaining program integrity, by allowing landlords who own fewer than 20 units to apply directly for RAFT and ERMA, with consent from tenants.

New Housing Court Procedures

Last week, as I wrote about here, the Housing Court announced a slew of new procedural changes to handle cases post-Moratorium. Under the new rules, cases will be processed under a new two-Tiered system with older cases getting priority, an even stronger push towards mediation, and the vast majority of cases heard through Zoom video-conferencing.

I will be holding a free Zoom webinar on the new Housing Court rules with Jordana Greenman, Esq. on Thursday, October 15 at 12:30pm. Zoom link here: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/2622828798.

CDC Moratorium

When the state moratorium expires, a moratorium established by the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) will become effective through Dec. 31. The CDC moratorium will effectively prevent evictions for non-payment for qualified tenants who submit a written declaration to their landlord. Gov. Baker’s press release states that “courts will accept filings and process cases, and may enter judgments but will not issue an order of execution (the court order that allows a landlord to evict a tenant) until after the expiration of the CDC order (Dec. 31, 2020).” The new Housing Court rules address cases where the CDC Moratorium may apply.

The Baker administration has created a new FAQ for new Eviction Diversion Initiative here.

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Housing Court Issues Major Change to Procedures To Tackle Backlog of Cases, and Address Covid-19 Safety Concerns

With the Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium set to expire on October 17, and barring an extension from Gov. Baker or the passage of a new moratorium, the Housing Court is preparing for arguably the most challenging period in its history. Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan has just released a set of new procedural rules to manage all pending and future cases in the “new normal” of a Covid-19 world. The new rules dramatically change how all cases will be heard in the Housing Courts, with the vast majority of hearings being conducted via video-conferencing technology instead of in-person. Facing a backlog of some 20,000 pending eviction cases and an unknown number to be filed once the Moratorium expires, the goals of these new procedures are to: (a) start moving pending eviction cases forward, (b) establish new procedures for the filing and case management of new cases, (c) encourage mediation and private agreements as much as possible to decrease the backlog of cases, and (d) above all, keep litigants and court personnel safe. The new rules also contain a new affidavit requirement under the federal eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control. The new rules can be found here: Housing Court Standing Order 6-20: Temporary modifications to court operations based on the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the expiration of chapter 65 of the acts of 2020 (eviction moratorium).

Housing Court Physically Open for Business, But Most Proceedings Will Be Virtual

The Housing Court will be physically open with limited staff and judges, but the preference will be for cases to be heard virtually. The court is presently using the Zoom platform quite effectively, and I assume it will continue to do so. For self-represented (pro se) parties who may have limited access to technology, the court will assist that person with the video-conferencing technology or offer a “suitable alternative.”

The old “call of the list” on Thursday morning hearing days with hundreds of people packed in hallways and courtrooms will now be a relic of the past, and is suspended indefinitely. Instead, going forward, the clerk’s office will schedule cases and hearings directly with the parties or their lawyers, with the vast majority being on Zoom. This includes mediations. Lawyers are required to continue to E-File new cases and all pleadings.

Rich’s Practice Pointer: However it plays out, it’s a safe bet to say that evicting anyone in Massachusetts going forward could take anywhere from 6-18 months. This makes mediation and private settlement agreements all the more attractive and cost effective for landlords.

Procedures for Pending Summary Process (Eviction) Cases: Two Tiered System

Pending cases will be scheduled for hearing in the order in which they were filed, i.e, earlier filed cases get priority. All tenant motions to vacate a dismissal or default for failure to appear between March 1, 2020 and the expiration of the Moratorium (Oct. 17, 2020) will be automatically granted by the court.

The rules established a new two-tiered system to move cases forward. In Tier I, a housing specialist (who is typically a trained mediator) will schedule the first court event by video conference or telephone call. The purpose of the first event will be to determine the status of the case, whether the CDC federal moratorium applies to the tenant, attempt to mediate/resolve the case, and explore the availability of any housing assistance. If the case does not settle, the housing specialists and the clerk will hold a case management conference to determine the next steps in the case and/or schedule the case for trial. For Tier 2, the clerk will schedule the next court event by written notice. While the rule provides that trials should be held as soon as practical but no sooner than 14 days after the first tier event, I would have to assume that getting a trial date will be several months away, given the huge backlog of cases caused by the Moratorium. The new rules provide that trials will be held by video-conference, with a “small sub-set being held in person,” as determined by the Clerk Magistrate and First Justice.

Procedure for New Summary Process (Eviction) Cases

In a major change from existing practice, new cases will not be automatically scheduled for a trial on the typical Thursday morning schedule. (The rules provide that lawyers should now put “TDB by court” in the Summary Process Complaint where the the trial date would typically be listed.) Instead, the clerk’s office will send out a notice of the first event, but the rules do not say when that will actually be. The clerk will also send out an information sheet with a resources available to assist the parties in resolving the case. Cases will then proceed based on the two-tiered system outlined above.

CDC Eviction Moratorium Affidavit Requirement

The rules provide that all new eviction cases for non-payment of rent must be accompanied by a new affidavit indicating whether the landlord has received a hardship declaration under the CDC Eviction Moratorium. For pending eviction cases, the plaintiff must file the CDC affidavit before the first tier court event. The court is coming up with the new affidavit form which will be available on the court website. I believe that this new requirement will be controversial because it may prejudice landlords since the burden of claiming a Covid-19 related hardship remains with the tenant under the CDC Order.

Executions (Move-Out Orders)

For those housing providers holding an execution for possession (move-out order) which has now expired, they may file a written request or motion for a new execution to issue, but they must file the CDC affidavit with it. These new executions will be issued administratively without a hearing. I would expect that tenants will be filing numerous motions to stay execution based on the Covid-19 pandemic, so we will have to see how the judges handle these.

Emergency and Injunction Proceedings

As it has done throughout the pandemic and Eviction Moratorium, the court will continue scheduling all emergency matters including those for injunctive relief (lockouts, condemnation, no heat, no water/utilties, access) or a motion for stay of execution. These proceedings will be scheduled virtually to the extent possible.

Jury Trials

All parties have a right to a jury trial in the Housing Court. Indeed, this is often used as a weapon by tenant attorneys to delay cases. The new rules provide that in-person jury trials with 6 jurors may resume on October 23, 2020, but I don’t see how this is achievable. I think getting a jury trial date will be many months down the road for most cases.

My Thoughts

Like any major change to court procedures, it will take some time for litigants and court personnel to adapt to these new rules. Over the course of the pandemic, I have participated in several Zoom hearings as well as mediations in the Housing Court, and they have worked out just fine. For the mediations, the housing specialists have used the breakout room feature so parties can discuss matters in private. Trials conducted via Zoom will be a different animal, and lawyers will need to come up with some best practices for them.

Another thing I’m certain of is that it will take longer to move an eviction case through a post-Eviction Moratorium Housing Court. Perhaps many months longer, especially where there’s a jury trial demand. The Court is facing an unprecedented backlog and situation with the pandemic plus the Moratorium, and it will take quite a long time for the court to make a dent in the backlog of cases — plus we don’t know how many new cases are on route. Whatever the actual number, it’s been 6 months since new cases were allowed to be filed. However, I vigorously dispute the narrative put forth by the CityLife/Urbana Vida folks that 100,000 evictions are imminent. That’s just unsubstantiated nonsense. At minimum, the CDC Moratorium may well delay a large number of non-payment cases until it expires on Dec. 31.

If you have any questions concerning an eviction or the Housing Court, please feel free to email me at [email protected].

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Lengthy Extension of Eviction Moratorium Likely Unconstitutional; Calls for Adequate Rental Assistance Funding Go Unheeded

With Gov. Baker signaling he won’t extend the current Eviction Moratorium past Oct. 17, and Federal Judge Mark Wolf’s ruling that an extended moratorium would likely be unconstitutional, state legislators and tenant rights activists are frantically pushing an even more draconian 12+ month extension of the moratorium along with a rent freeze. The wide-ranging proposal branded as the “Housing Stability Act,” is on the fast track to passage, just clearing the Joint Committee on Housing. The new bill coming out of the Joint Committee is H. 5018, and is causing alarm within the real estate community, with the Mass. Association of Realtors and Greater Boston Real Estate Board coming out strongly in opposition to the bill.

12-36 Month Extension of Eviction Moratorium

The new bill would impose a new extended statewide moratorium on all “non-essential” evictions for at least 12 months after the Covid-19 State of Emergency is lifted by the Governor. This will cover 95% of all evictions, with the only exceptions being for serious criminal activity which threatens the safety of others. The State of Emergency, which is tied to federal disaster funding, will surely be in place until an effective Covid vaccine is available and infection levels are close to zero — which could be years away. Thus, the proposed eviction moratorium could be in place for the 18-36+ months or even longer, on top of the existing moratorium which has been in place since April. The new moratorium, unlike other states’ moratoriums, does not require a tenant to demonstrate a Covid-19 hardship.

The new eviction moratorium would be constitutionally suspect based on the 102-page ruling issued in late September by Federal Judge Mark Wolf considering housing providers’ challenge to the original Moratorium. (I am lead counsel in that case). Judge Wolf called into question the constitutionality of a moratorium which extended further past Oct. 17, ruling 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.” If this new bill is enacted, rest assured it will face a swift and vigorous legal challenge.

Rental Increase Freeze

The bill imposes an across the board rent increase freeze for the next 12-36 months, regardless of whether a tenant is actually impacted by Covid-19. The bill prohibits housing providers from increasing rent payments in excess of the rental amount in place as of March 10, 2020. The rent freeze will be in place for 12 months after the Covid-19 State of Emergency is lifted. Thus, like the new eviction moratorium, the rent freeze could likely be in place for the next 12-36+ months. 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. This provision would also face legal challenge because it substantially impairs existing leases under the federal Contracts Clause.

Just Cause Eviction Protections

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

  • Tenant fails to pay rent (but no requirement to show Covid-19 hardship)
  • 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.
  • Owner intends to make personal use of the unit within 180 days, including personal use or use by family member.

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

Housing Court Exclusive Jurisdiction For Collection of Unpaid Rent

In a first-of-its-kind proposal, the new bill gives the Housing Court exclusive jurisdiction to hear claims to recover unpaid rent. This is clearly intended to frustrate the collection of unpaid rent by housing providers who are able to file small claims in district courts across the state. The Housing Court will already be incredibly backlogged with pending and new eviction cases after the moratorium, and they have little interest in wasting their scarce judicial resources with small collection cases. This provision will essentially make it nearly impossible to collect unpaid rent balances.

Lack of Adequate Rental Assistance Funding and State Tax Credits

As I have been screaming from the rooftops since the first moratorium was passed, the fatal flaw with all of these proposals is that they remain unfunded. By my calculations, we need at least $300 Million in rental assistance funding. (Taking 100,000 renters at risk of eviction per tenant groups x $3,000 per tenant). The new bill purports to establish a new “Covid-19 Housing Stability and Recovery Fund” but it does not appropriate ANY funds for it. Proponents of the bill simply say that the federal government must fund rental losses. Without adequate rental assistance funding, the burden of Covid-19 impact will unfairly flow down from tenants to small housing providers who are equally unable to sustain those losses.

The new bill also provides for certain state tax credits for rental losses. However, there is a cumbersome application and approval procedure that housing providers must use to obtain these credits, rather than being able to simply claim the credit on personal tax returns. Landlords who claim tax credits cannot proceed with an eviction. Also, state credits are typically quite low (based on 5% state income) so it would not amount to much benefit to owners.

What’s Next?

This bill now moves to the Joint Committee on Rules where it may be amended. Tenant groups are planning a week long push next week to pass this bill. With over 80 co-sponors, it appears the bill has a strong chance of passing on Beacon Hill. The question will be whether Gov. Baker will sign or veto, and whether the State House can obtain a veto-proof 66% vote.

If you are opposed to this bill, I urge you to email the members of the Rules Committee below, as well as your own state rep and senators.

Email addresses for the Governor and all members of the Rules Committee where HD5018 is now under consideration (copy and paste into your email “TO” line):[email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected]Donald H. Wong

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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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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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Legislators Freeze Landlords Out of Rent Control Debate

by Rich Vetstein on January 21, 2020

Hearing Rigged Against Small Landlords

After voters statewide strongly rejected rent control in 1994, tenant groups have been pushing hard for its resurrection, getting far enough to have a major hearing on several bills on Beacon Hill last week. As I’ve written here before, economists have universally concluded that rent control does not work, and in many cases, it has actually resulted in higher rents overall. But that has not stopped tenant groups like City Life/Vida Urbana from pushing this failed policy and using their clout to get lawmakers to jump on the rent control bandwagon.

The best evidence of how lawmakers are kowtowing to these groups is the travesty which transpired at the State House hearing on Jan. 14. The hearing lasted for 6.5 hours at which landlords were given only 15 minutes of speaking time. That’s not even 4% of the total hearing time. While representatives from the GBREB spoke first for about 10 minutes, the remaining six plus hours was a cattle call of tenant groups, paid housing lobbyists, affordable housing advocates, and public housing reps, advocating rent control and increased transfer and property taxes to subsidized their rents.

According to Doug Quattrochi, the Executive Director of MassLandlords, the largest statewide property owner trade association, the hearing was essentially rigged in favor of tenants. He said that legislators intentionally controlled the order of speakers to freeze out small landlords and property owners. There was a small army of small landlords who showed up early at 9AM, but were not allowed to speak at all, even though the hearing went until 6PM.

The implementation of rent control would cost Massachusetts rental property owners literally billions of dollars, and the best that Legislature can do is give them 15 minutes of speaking time?

This is outrageous.

If you feel so inclined, please email the members of the Joint Committee on Housing.

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Rent Control Rears Its Ugly Head Once Again

by Rich Vetstein on March 29, 2019

Recent Studies of Cambridge and San Francisco Prove It Not Only Doesn’t Work But Results In Gentrification, Displacement and Higher Rents

Rent control. Like a diseased zombie rising again from the dead after 25 years. Banned statewide by a voter referendum in 1994 and widely proven ineffective and counter-productive by economists, the debate over rental control is back in Massachusetts. As reported in the Boston Globe, a group of liberal urban lawmakers are readying legislation which would effectively override the 1994 voter ballot question, and allow cities and towns to impose rent control as a mechanism to curb rent increases and encourage affordable housing.

I’m all for a robust, healthy debate, so allow me to weigh in. 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.

Are rent control advocates and politicians aware of all this economic literature? I don’t know, but I do know that human beings are emotional creatures, and the debate over rent control has become very emotional. In fact, it reminds me of the climate change debate, but this time rent control advocates are behaving like climate change deniers. Faced with overwhelming evidence that rent control doesn’t work, these advocates continue to push the idea in a knee-jerk emotional reaction to the affordable housing crisis and high rent prices.

Study of Effect of Rent Control In Cambridge Market

Economists Autor, Palmer, and Pathak (2014), studied the effect of rent control on the Cambridge market. From December 1970 through 1994, all rental units in Cambridge built prior to 1969 were regulated by a rent control ordinance that placed strict caps on rent increases and tightly restricted the removal of units from the rental stock. The legislative intent of the rent control ordinance was to provide affordable rental housing, and at the eve of rent control’s elimination in 1994, controlled units typically rented at 40-plus percent below the price of nearby non-controlled properties. 

The economists found that newly decontrolled properties’ market values increased by 45%. In addition to these direct effects of rent decontrol, the economists concluded that removing rent control had substantial beneficial indirect effects on neighboring properties, boosting their values too. Post-decontrol price appreciation was significantly greater at properties that had a larger fraction of formerly controlled neighbors: residential properties at the 75th percentile of rent control exposure gained approximately 13% more in property value following decontrol than did properties at the 25th percentile of exposure. This differential appreciation of properties in rent control–intensive locations was equally pronounced among decontrolled and never-controlled units, suggesting that the effect of rent control had been to reduce the whole neighborhood’s desirability.

The economic magnitude of the effect of rent control removal on the value of Cambridge’s housing stock was large, boosting property values by $2.0 billion between 1994 and 2004. (And of course, that huge increase in property value translated to massive real estate tax revenue for the city). Of this total effect, only $300 million is accounted for by the direct effect of decontrol on formerly controlled units, while $1.7 billion is due to the indirect effect. These estimates imply that more than half of the capitalized cost of rent control was borne by owners of never-controlled properties. The economists ultimately concluded that rent controlled properties create substantial negative externalities on the nearby housing market, lowering the amenity value of these neighborhoods and making them less desirable places to live. In short, the policy imposed $2.0 billion in costs to local property owners, but only $300 million of that cost was transferred to renters in rent-controlled apartments.

To summarize in plain English, the economists concluded that rent control is a really bad idea, both in concept and in actual practice.

San Francisco: Another Failed Experiment

Economists came to the same conclusions when studying rent control in San Francisco. Its rent control law was different than Massachusetts’. It applied to buildings with five or more apartments and regulated rent increases, linked to the CPI, within a tenancy, but no price regulation between tenants. New construction was also exempt.

Economists Diamond, McQuade, and Qian (2018), concluded that San Francisco’s rent control ordinance encouraged condo conversions resulting in more owner occupied units (and less rental units) while encouraging rent controlled owners to defer maintenance and upkeep. As the economists found “it appears rent control has actually contributed to the gentrification of San Francisco, the exact opposite of the policy’s intended goal. Indeed, by simultaneously bringing in higher income residents and preventing displacement of minorities, rent control has contributed to widening income inequality of the city.”

Rent Control Just Doesn’t Work

In addition to the Cambridge and SF studies, there are many other articles by economists critical of rent control. The Urban Institute concluded that [g]iven the current research, there seems to be little one can say in favor of rent control.” Lisa Sturtevant, Ph.D. recently surveyed 30 different peer reviewed rent control studies, concluding that rent control decreased the supply of available rental housing, does a poor job in targeting benefits and generally leads to higher rents in the uncontrolled market.

As these studies show, rent control in the long-run decreases affordability, fuels gentrification, and creates negative externalities on the surrounding neighborhood. When the government forces landlords to provide insurance to tenants against rent increases, it will ultimately be counterproductive. There are better ideas to address the affordable housing problem than rent control. We can do much better than this outdated, tired idea.

For a good summary of why rent control doesn’t work, check out the Masslandlords.net page on Rent Control.

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Accurate Court Data Shows The “Eviction Crisis” Is A Fallacy

You may have noticed the featured article in Sunday’s Boston Globe Magazine on the supposed “eviction crisis” in Massachusetts. Titled “As rents soar in Boston, low-income tenants try to stave off eviction,” investigative reporter Jenifer McKim cited inaccurate court statistics to create the false narrative that thousands of innocent tenants are being thrown out on the street by greedy landlords. Using this fallacy, McKim then advocates for a new legislative proposal giving all tenants (but not landlords) a “Right to Counsel” i.e, free legal representation courtesy of the Massachusetts taxpayer. I’m not a fan of the term “fake news,” but it is really justified here. Where do I begin?

McKim first claims that “eviction initiations in Massachusetts spiked in 2008, following the Great Recession. Each year since then, landlords have sued about 40,000 heads of household across the state seeking to evict them, according to data gathered by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.”

Well, she’s totally wrong and does not know how to read court statistics. Take Fiscal Year 2018 for example. Housing Court publicly available data shows 29,684 summary process cases filed. Summary process is how Massachusetts defines an eviction case. There were about 10,000 other types of cases filed in Housing Court (code violations, search warrants, small claims and civil money actions) but those are not evictions. So she’s already off by 10,000 cases or 25% of her cited data. To the extent she’s using district court filings, one would have to determine whether those were residential or commercial. Commercial evictions are always filed in the district court. Making that important distinction would entail physically reviewing each case file which she didn’t do. So you can’t reasonably rely on that data either.

Second, one would also have to account for Housing Court’s recent expansion to statewide jurisdiction which has increased its filings while district court filings are down. Actually as you can see from the PDF linked above, summary process filings in Housing Court were trending down and level from ’14 to ’15, to ’16 and to ’17, but then slightly up for ’18 (by only 6% or so) because of the statewide jurisdiction enactment. Eviction filings in District Court were down about 10% in 2018. So McKim is being intellectually dishonest if she’s attributing the slight bump in Housing Court filings in ’18 as some sort of trend of increased evictions. The overall trend has been down and level, as you can see below in the chart I quickly created. Sure doesn’t look like a crisis to me…

Then McKim makes the most egregious inaccurate statement: “The state doesn’t track how many of these have resulted in actual evictions, but the Eviction Lab at Princeton University found that in 2016, there were roughly 15,708 forced removals in Massachusetts — an average of nearly 43 a day. That’s about double the number of evictions in 2005, before the housing bubble burst…”

This is another totally bogus statistic. She’s right, the state does not track the number forced removals (accurately called a levy on an execution for possession). Researching that would entail physically reviewing every single eviction case in the state — 6 separate Housing Court divisions and in our roughly 80 district courts. Did Princeton University send a small army of interns checking every case file for 2016? That’s the only way they could accurately conclude that there were 15,708 “forced removals,” however they are defining that. So I was curious and did some research. After some digging I found the Princeton Eviction Lab’s Report on Methodology, and no surprise, their researchers relied on online available statistics, and as McKim acknowledged, you cannot see if there was a forced move out from the basic online data. I can tell you that in my 20 years of experience handling thousands of evictions, forced move outs are around 1-2% of all cases. It is the rare exception indeed because it costs landlords no less than $3,000 for movers and storage costs. The vast majority of cases are either default no-shows or negotiated move out agreements.

So the truth is that there is nowhere near 43 forced removals per day in Massachusetts, as McKim claims. Not. Even. Close.

Also, the number of evictions has not “doubled” since 2005, as McKim states. In 2005, there were approximately 30,000 total eviction cases filed (and this includes commercial cases which cannot be carved out without reviewing the case files). In 2018, there were about 40,000 total cases filed (again, this includes commercial cases). So McKim is off by 20,000 cases. And of course, the vast majority of all eviction cases are resolved amicably between the parties, without the need for a forced move out. I find it incredulous that highly regarded Boston Globe investigative reporters would be so sloppy with these critical statistics which are publicly available online.

Lastly, Ms. McKim interviewed me for a solid hour on this story, but only used a small snippet of my extensive commentary on the issue, pertaining to how I’ve been physically threatened by tenants in Housing Court. Yes unfortunately this is true. But I’ve been practicing in the Housing Courts for 20 years now and I gave her a small treatise of information which she ignored for her article. Ms. McKim also extensively interviewed Doug Quattroci, the Executive Director of the largest trade association for landlords, MassLandlords.net. Mr. Quattroci has led our lobbying efforts to level the playing field for landlords and offered extensive data on the topics Ms. McKim was writing about. None of Mr. Quatrocci’s comments made it into the article. Contrast that with paragraph upon paragraph dedicated to the tenant side of the story. I e-mailed Ms. McKim about all of these inaccuracies and her response was “feel free to write a letter to the editor.” I gave her an “LOL” on that one!

Ms. McKim’s article was certainly not fair and balanced, in my humble opinion. I guess we can’t expect that from the Boston Globe these days, can we? How sad.

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