Massachusetts challenge eviction moratorium

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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