Massachusetts eviction moratorium

For those keeping track of our legal challenge to the Eviction Moratorium Act, tomorrow July 30, 2020 at 10am, the Suffolk Superior Court will be live streaming on Youtube the hearing on our motion to enjoin and strike down the Moratorium. I’ve embedded and linked to the stream below.

The Boston Globe did a good piece today on how the case is receiving national attention, with friend of the court briefs filed by major rental property groups, the ACLU, and 30 U.S. big cities.

We have an uphill battle, but we’re going to give it our very best shot!

Update: The live stream is no longer available, but I have the audio only below:

{ 0 comments }

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

{ 0 comments }

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.

{ 0 comments }

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

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

{ 1 comment }

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

{ 3 comments }

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.

{ 2 comments }

SJC Punts On Challenge to Eviction Moratorium Act

by Rich Vetstein on June 25, 2020

Mass. Supreme Judicial Court Justices

SJC Sends Case Down to Suffolk Superior Court; Rental Property Owners Gear Up For Federal Court Fight

As many of you know, I am lead counsel in the legal challenge to overturn the COVID-19 Eviction Moratorium Act, which was filed with the Supreme Judicial Court at the end of May. The case is Matorin v. Chief Justice of the Housing Court, SJC-2020-0442. The Attorney General’s Office agreed with us that the SJC should take up the case. However, yesterday, Justice David Lowy ordered the case sent down to the Suffolk Superior Court for consideration of all the issues raised by the petition. Suffice to say, we are very disappointed that the SJC has declined to take up the constitutionality of the Eviction Moratorium, which is causing widespread financial and personal harm to rental housing providers across the state. Perhaps the Act is simply too much of a political “hot potato” for the SJC to weigh in during this global pandemic. Justice Lowy provided no reasoning or rationale for taking such action. See Order below.

Nevertheless, the case will still proceed in Suffolk Superior Court and we have lost nothing except for some time. The merits of our claims have not yet been addressed and will be considered by the Superior Court in due course. We will do everything we can to fast-track the case. The case has been specially assigned to the very well respected Justice Paul D. Wilson, appointed by Gov. Patrick and formerly a partner at Mintz, Levin.

Despite this, we are not going down without a fight. We have decided to file our federal constitutional claims in Federal Court in Boston, seeking to strike down the Moratorium. We are hopeful that the federal court will give us a fair shot. I’ll keep you posted on that front as well. 

It seems like we are fighting everyone on these important issues for the rental property community. Meanwhile, state Cambridge Rep. Mike Connolly and Congresswoman Pressley just held a virtual town hall on Facebook, and said they are filing a bill to extend the Moratorium for 12 MONTHS. They are also filing a bill to FREEZE rents, as well as RENT CONTROL. Obviously, this would be devastating to rental housing providers. We could use some positive PR and stories about small landlords being really hurt by this Moratorium. 

This fight will go on — to the end. I’ll keep you posted. Also, with more litigation, comes more legal fees and expenses. We are still seeking donations to the cause. To contribute please click our secure Paypal link: https://paypal.me/pools/c/8orbLzpxbY.

Single Justice Order of Transfer Matorin v. Chief Justice by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

{ 1 comment }

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

{ 4 comments }

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.

{ 0 comments }

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Business Impacts

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

Foreclosure Relief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Act is embedded below (House Bill 4647).

Massachusetts Act Providing… by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

{ 6 comments }

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].

{ 2 comments }