Massachusetts Covid rent freeze

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]Joan.L[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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