Housing Court

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

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

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

Registry of Deeds Impacts

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

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

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

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

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

COVID-19 Contingency Provision

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

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

Virtual and Remote Closings

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

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

Court Closings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appeals Court — Oral argument for March will be telephonic.

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

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

Lender/Financing Delays

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

Municipal Closings

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

25 Person Social Gathering Restriction

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

Social Distancing, School Closures and Possible Lockdown

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

-Rich

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Rent Escrow Orders Upheld by Supreme Judicial Court

by Rich Vetstein on September 16, 2019

Huge Victory for Landlords and Property Managers

Today, in Davis v. Comerford, Justice Scott Kafker of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued the first appellate decision confirming that Housing Court and District Court judges have the legal authority to issue rent escrow orders in favor of landlords while eviction cases are pending. The hard working folks at MassLandlords, who filed a friend of the court brief in the case, and I have been working very hard to get this much needed ruling and guidance from our appellate courts on rent escrow orders. It finally came today.

For those who don’t know, a rent escrow order is an order issue by a Housing or District Court judge in an eviction case requiring the tenant to continue to pay rent (also called use and occupancy) during the pendency of the case which can drag on for many months. It seems like common sense, and several housing court judges do issue them, but up until now, there has never been a formal ruling by a Massachusetts appellate court that rent escrow orders were legal. The district courts, however, in my experience, have traditionally been unwilling to grant these orders.

Davis v. Comerford: Seminal Ruling on Rent Escrow Orders

In the Davis v. Comerford, the Southeastern Housing Court in Brockton issued a rent escrow order in a case where the tenant also claimed various housing code violations and security deposit violations. Arguing that the judge did not properly consider tenant’s counterclaims, he appealed the rent escrow order.

The SJC took the unusual step of transferring the case to its full court panel, using it as an opportunity to consider the legality of rent escrow orders in general, and the various factors that lower court judges should consider in making these orders. First, the Court confirmed what we landlord attorneys have been arguing for years — that rent escrow orders are fully within the statutory umbra and equitable powers of the Housing and District Courts, and should be issued on a case-by-case basis. Second, the Appeals Court held that a tenant’s counterclaims for code violations, property conditions and other defenses are relevant in the calculation of any rent escrow order. Third and lastly, the Court set forth a framework for lower courts to use in considering rent escrow orders, which I will outline below.

Factors for Judges to Consider in Issuing Rent Escrow Orders

  • A landlord must file a written motion for rent escrow. A hearing must be held on the motion, and the judge should issue written findings supporting his/her ruling.
  • A judge should consider the time delay expected before trial or final resolution, noting that a request for a jury trial will typically delay the case substantially.
  • A judge should consider the amount of rent due, whether the landlord has received full or partial payments, and (critically) the amount of the landlord’s mortgage and property expenses and whether there is a threat of foreclosure to the landlord.
  • The tenant’s counterclaims and defenses (and the merits of each) should be considered, especially any code violation/property condition claims which would result in a reduced fair rental amount.
  • A judge should consider whether the tenant had to pay out of pocket for any repairs under the repair and deduct law.
  • The tenant’s own financial situation is also relevant, as well as whether they have a lawyer or are proceeding on their own (pro se).
  • Rent escrow payments may be placed into court, into the tenant’s attorneys account, into a landlord attorney’s account, or if warranted, paid directly to the landlord

This is a great ruling by the SJC, and will be very helpful to both the landlord and tenant bar as cases move forward in our Housing and District Courts. I was also able to discuss this case with Attorney Arthur Doubleday, who represented the tenant. He said: “I am happy with the decision because it gives clarity and a road map through which Judges can now deny or allow use and occupancy orders.  Whereas before, use and occupancy orders were Judge specific, hopefully soon we will begin to see uniformity and in how these orders are denied or allowed. The requirement for an evidentiary hearing and a written finding after such hearing will let both tenants and landlords give their reasons as to why a use and occupancy order should or should not be made. That said, I am fearful that landlords will prevail in their request for use and occupancy orders even when there are poor living conditions for the tenants who may not know how to advocate for themselves in court.” I do agree with much of what Attorney Doubleday says, however, I’m confident that our Housing Court judges are up to the task in considering all the various factors which go into a rent escrow request.

If you have any questions about this court ruling or rent escrow orders in general, please reach out to me at [email protected].

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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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Rent Escrow, Security Deposit Reform, and Elderly Housing Legislation Filed By Trade Group

Historically, Massachusetts rental property owners have struggled to overcome the coordinated and organized political lobbying of tenant rights and rent control groups at the State House. I remember just a few years ago I testified on Beacon Hill for the rent escrow bill against a small army of tenant advocates. That is now changing in a big way.

Previously splintered across many small groups, property owners have consolidated their lobbying efforts through a state-wide organization, MassLandlords.net. Created by Executive Director Doug Quattrochi, MassLandlords.net has hired a full time lobbyist, and has been instrumental in filing a record number of legal reform bills during the current legislative session. This is really important given that tenant rights groups have been very active recently in pushing just cause eviction, rent control and other socialist proposals.

Here is a summary of some of the bills backed by MassLandlords filed in the current legislative session:

H.D. 1191 – Rent Escrow (sponsored by Rep. Boldyga) — Tenants must pay rent into court if they are invoking rent withholding due to code violations or necessary repairs

H.D. 1194 – Elderly Tenants (sponsored by Rep. Boldyga) — Creating rental voucher program for elderly tenants (age 75+), protections during evictions

H.D. 1205 – Equal Counsel (sponsored by Rep. Boldyga) — Allowing rental companies to represent themselves in court without an attorney

H.D. 1192 – Late Fees (sponsored by Rep. Boldyga) — Changing late fees on unpaid rent to 10 days overdue from 30 days

H.D. 1202 — Tenant Sale Disclosure (sponsored by Rep. Boldyga) — Requiring property owners to notify tenants upon advertising of property for sale

H.D. 1457 — Security and LMR Deposit Reform (sponsored by Rep. Barrows) — Eliminating triple damage penalty and streamlining payment of deposit interest

H.D. 1474 — Rent Escrow (sponsored by Rep. Barrows) — Requiring tenants to pay monthly rent into escrow during pendency of any eviction action unless it would cause undue hardship

S.D. 231 – Rent Escrow (sponsored by Sen. Tarr) — Requiring rent escrow where tenant is withholding rent due to code violations

Whether these bills will advance through committee hearings to actual vote and passage is unknown. But this is a great start for the up and coming MassLandlords group, and I’ll be monitoring the progress of the bills in the coming months.

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Bill Sent to Study Committee, Effectively Killing It

After intense lobbying on both sides by property owner groups and tenant rights activities, lawmakers sent the Jim Brooks Community Stabilization Act to study effectively killing it for this legislative session. The Act, a Home Rule Petition requiring full State House approval, would require that a landlord or foreclosing owner provide a city-approved “notice of basic rights” and a list of tenant assistance organizations simultaneously with the issuance of a notice to quit/termination or notice of lease renewal/expiration. It also provided that tenants of foreclosed properties could only be evicted for certain “just cause” reasons. The Boston City Council had originally approved the measure in November 2017, but state lawmakers had to approve it as well. Property owner groups were vehemently opposed to the measure, asserting that it was actually a return to Rent Control.

The reactions by proponents and opponents of the bill were naturally mixed on social media. Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, a supporter of the measure, said that the bill “was not supported by the Judiciary Committee…but where it stands now is not promising.” The bill was vehemently opposed by property owner groups, such as Masslandlords.com and the Small Property Owners Association, which mounted a strong coordinated campaign to lobby legislators.

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New Judges to Serve Expanded Statewide Jurisdiction

In the 2018 Fiscal Year budget, the jurisdiction of the Housing Court expanded to full state-wide coverage, and with it, the Legislature created five new judgeships. Earlier this week, Governor Charlie Baker nominated five attorneys as new Associate Justices to the Housing Court:

Donna T. Salvidio of Worcester nominated as a Circuit Justice
Neil K. Sherring of Westwood nominated as a Circuit Justice
Joseph L. Michaud of Dartmouth nominated to the Metro South Division
Irene Bagdoian of Westborough nominated to the Metro South Division
Gustavo A. del Puerto of Salem nominated to the Northeastern Division

Each judge must be approved by the Governor’s Council before stepping onto the bench. While I do not know all the nominees personally, this group appears to have very solid experience and background. I look forward to seeing them before the Governor’s Council and hopefully on the bench.

Donna Salvidio currently leads the Condominium Law Practice Group within the Real Estate department at Fletcher Tilton PC in Worcester. Click here for her Firm Biography. Her work covers a full spectrum of real estate related matters, with particular emphasis on residential housing law, condominium law, property management, commercial leasing and transactional work. She has over 27 years of experience in residential housing law including landlord-tenant law and the development of affordable housing. Attorney Salvidio served as Board President of Worcester Community Housing Resources, Inc., a non-profit which creates and preserves affordable housing opportunities for low to moderate income households, and is currently a member of its Property Development and Management Committee. She also served on the Housing Court Committee of the Worcester County Bar Association and was a Commissioner of the Worcester Civic Center Commission for 10 years. Attorney Salvidio received her Bachelor’s Degree cum laude in Psychology from the University of Vermont and her Juris Doctor cum laude from Suffolk University Law School where she served as an editor of the Suffolk University Law Review. She currently resides in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Neil Sherring has 25 years of experience practicing law. Since 2001, he has been a partner in his own law firm Dakoyannis & Sherring, LLC, where he concentrates on landlord tenant and real estate related cases, personal injury claims, insurance disputes, and employment discrimination claims. Previously, he was a trial attorney at Mintz, Levin. Attorney Sherring also has a wealth of experience representing the Commonwealth as an Assistant Attorney General, Assistant District Attorney for  the Northwestern District of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Superior Court Law Clerk and Hearing Officer for the Division of Insurance. He has served as the Deputy Commissioner of the State Athletic Commission and has been a frequent lecturer at Suffolk University and Curry College. Within his community, he is a current Board Member of the Westwood Community Chest, where he has also served as President and Vice President. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree from Curry College and his Juris Doctorate from Suffolk University Law School. He resides in Westwood with his family.

Joseph Michaud has been practicing law for 25 years. He is currently an attorney partner at his own practice, the Law Offices of Joseph L. Michaud, where he specializes in residential and commercial real estate transactions and landlord-tenant matters. Attorney Michaud is also a decorated member of the United States Army, having served on active duty intermittently for the last 30 years as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Judge Advocates General Corps. He first enlisted as a Tanker in 1986, and went on to serve in both Desert Storm and Operation Noble Eagle. Attorney Michaud has earned 3 Meritorious Service Medals, 6 Army Commendations, a Joint Service Achievement Medal, a National Defense Medal, a Global War on Terrorism Medal, and an Outstanding Volunteer Medal. Attorney Michaud continues to serve his local community as Chair of the South Coast Chamber of Commerce in New Bedford and as a Board Member of the Veterans’ Transition House. He graduated with his Bachelor’s Degree from University of Massachusetts in Amherst and received a Master’s of Arts from Sam Houston State University. He earned his Juris Doctorate from the Franklin Pierce Law Center at the University of New Hampshire. Attorney Michaud is a lifelong resident of Dartmouth, MA. In his spare time, you can find him playing bass guitar in a local band.

Irene Bagdoian has practiced law in the Commonwealth for nearly thirty years. During the last decade, she has been a solo legal practitioner at her own law firm in Brockton, representing individuals and businesses in civil litigation matters related to housing, foreclosure, real estate, and consumer protection. She was one of the founders of the Brockton Housing Court Lawyer for the Day Program, which provides advice to unrepresented landlords and tenants, and has organized educational programming for volunteer lawyer programs in collaboration with the Southeastern Housing Court for the past nine years. Attorney Bagdoian is a member of the Steering Committee for the Tenancy Preservation Program and a Board Member of the Justice Center of Southeast MA. She graduated with her Bachelor’s Degree from Wheaton College in Norton, MA and received her Juris Doctorate from Boston University School of Law. She resides in Westborough with her husband, Paul Sangree.

Gustavo del Puerto has nearly 25 years practicing law in Massachusetts. He currently serves as Assistant Clerk Magistrate in the Northeast Housing Court. Prior to that, he practiced as a Senior Associate at Sassoon & Cymrot in Boston where he focused on commercial litigation, including the resolution of contract, business, and construction disputes, tort matters and the protection of creditors’ rights. Attorney del Puerto served as Counsel for the Chelsea Commission on Hispanic Affairs, Inc., where he also provided pro-bono work for immigration law. Attorney del Puerto earned his Bachelor of Arts from the College of the Holy Cross, and his Juris Doctorate from Northeastern University’s School of Law. He currently resides in Salem, MA.

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Landlord Attorneys Active In Court and In Legislature On Rent Escrow Issue

Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly Reporter Patrick Murphy just did a great write up of the current state of Rent Escrow in the Legislature and at the Housing Court. As reported by Mr. Murphy, attorneys representing residential landlords (like myself) are hopeful that this is the year the Legislature closes what is perceived to be a loophole that allows tenants to remain in possession of the premises rent-free during eviction proceedings. Bills moving through both the House and Senate would require judges to order tenants to pay rent into escrow during the pendency of a case upon motion by property owners. In the meantime, Housing Court judges including Marylou Muirhead (pictured below) are becoming more receptive to approving motions for rent escrow filed by landlord attorneys.

Free rent trickery?

As I’ve written on this Blog, the Massachusetts eviction system contains a loophole that allows tenants to avoid paying rent while a dispute is pending. Specifically, they point to G.L.c. 239, §8A, which authorizes tenants to raise defenses or counterclaims — such as those alleging the landlord’s breach of the terms of the lease or housing code violations — justifying the withholding of rent. In terms of the escrow of rent, the statute provides that the court, after hearing the case, “may” require the tenant to pay to the clerk of the court “the fair value of the use and occupation of the premises,” less any amount awarded on the tenant’s claims.

We call this the “Free Rent Trick” — where the tenant will stop paying rent and file a complaint with the local board of health over minor code violations, such as a broken window screen. Rent accrues as the landlord gets around to hiring a lawyer to file a 14-day notice to quit the premises and commence summary process. Three to five months of rent may have accrued before a case is typically heard, and tenants can extend the process another three to six months, depending on the court, by requesting a jury trial.

Rare win for landlords?

As Mr. Murphy highlighted in his article, I recently succeeded in obtaining a rare rent escrow order in Worcester Housing Court in a case in which months of back rent had accrued before I ever became involved in the matter. In Eda Ema, LLC v. Kirby, Judge MaryLou Muirhead (pictured right) ordered the tenant to begin making escrow payments of $975 a month, reflecting the terms of her lease. The tenant owed $12,675 in past due rent at the time the case was filed in January.

The case points to the plight of many landlords even if they are ultimately successful in obtaining a judgment against the tenant for back rent. Such judgments are often uncollectible. However, the escrow order I obtained in Eda Ema is a rarity in my experience, with several Housing Court judges and most District Court judges still resistant to ordering such relief.

Pending Rent Escrow Bills

Putting an end to the so-called “free rent trick” in Massachusetts is long overdue, according to my colleague Brighton landlord attorney Emil Ward who has drafted Senate Bill 778, calling for mandatory rent escrow.

Another bill, House rent escrow bill, H. 980, was filed in January 2017 by Middlesex Democrat Rep. Chris Walsh. The bill would amend G.L.c. 239, §8A, to provide that “the court after hearing shall require” the tenant to pay into escrow “the amounts due for use and occupancy, calculated according to the fair market value of the premises.”

Walsh said his bill is intended to help small landlords, many who have complained to him in the past about being victimized by the free rent ploy. He said he has heard complaints of tenants who knew how to “work the system,” invoking housing regulations to “essentially stop paying rent.”

While we haven’t been successful in getting a rent escrow bill passed, I’m hopeful that Legislators are finally listening to landlords’ legitimate concerns that the eviction playing deck is stacked against them.

As always, I will keep tabs on these developments.

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No Triple Damages Although Landlord Failed To Provided Sworn Statement of Itemized Damage at Move Out

When a tenant leaves damage to a rental unit at move out, the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law allows a landlord to deduct the cost of repairs from the security deposit, provided the landlord issues a sworn statement of itemized damage along with repair estimates within 30 days of the move out. I’ve seen many landlords attempt to comply with the law only to be on the receiving end of a Chapter 93A letter from a tenant attorney demanding triple damages for messing up this requirement. This is one of many reasons why I advise my landlord clients to decline taking a security deposit from tenants.

Last week, the Supreme Judicial Court had the opportunity to clarify this particular provision of the law in the class action case of Phillips v. Equity Residential Management LLC. In this case, Equity Residential, attempted to deduct $968.08 in carpet and other cleaning charges from a tenant’s security deposit. However, Equity failed to provide the required itemized statement sworn under the pains and penalties of perjury. The tenant filed a class action seeking return of the deposit, triple damages, and attorneys’ fees under the statute.

I won’t bore you with all the technicalities of the Court’s ruling, but the SJC came down on the landlord’s side on this case, holding that while the landlord mistakenly failed to provide the sworn statement the law was clear that this is not one of the situations where triple damages is the proper remedy. (Equity did have to return the tenant’s security deposit in full). Yes, I know a rare victory for property owners in Massachusetts…

Again, while this case came out on the landlord’s side, it demonstrates the risks involved in failing to comply strictly with the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law. As a reminder, if a landlord is claiming that a tenant caused damage at the end of the tenancy and wants to deduct it from the deposit, it must provide within thirty days “an itemized list of damages, sworn to by the lessor or his agent under pains and penalties of perjury, itemizing in precise detail the nature of the damage and of the repairs necessary to correct such damage, and written evidence, such as estimates, bills, invoices or receipts, indicating the actual or estimated cost thereof.” The law also requires that landlord provide a “statement of condition” at the beginning of the tenancy, so that damage can be verified. Only then will a landlord be allowed to deduct repair costs from a security deposit.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts residential landlord – tenant attorney. You can contact him at [email protected].

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DPH Proposes Changes To State Sanitary Code

by Rich Vetstein on October 26, 2017

Changes Catching Landlords By Surprise

Without much publicity or property owner input, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has rolled out proposed revisions to the State Sanitary Code which provides minimum standards of habitability for all rental housing units across the state. There are some significant changes which will definitely impact both small and large property owners/landlords.

Integrated Pest Management Plan
The proposed rules requires that any rental property with 4 or more units implement an Integrated Pest Management Plan with pest inspections conducted at least every 4 months. Owners are required to maintain a record documenting the following activities conducted within the residence including inspection results, complaints filed by occupants, the date, location, product name, and name of any person applying pesticides, and modifications to the original IPM plan, all of which should be available upon request by the board of health.

Mold, Mold, Mold
DPH is on a mission to eradicate mold in rental housing. The new rules place landlords responsible to remove all possible signs of mold in apartments as well as any areas of “chronic dampness.” As every landlords knows, tenants are often the ones who cause mold growth by not using proper ventilation or having poor hygiene. Boards of health are now authorized to conduct mold-specific inspections and conduct air quality tests.

Bathroom Exhaust Fans

The new rules require exhaust fans in every bathroom whether or not there is a window. Previously, landlords did not have to install a fan if there was a bathroom window.

Central Heating Systems

Property owners are required to provide a “central heating system” for all units. Fireplaces, woodstoves, pellet stoves, portable electric space heaters and unvented propane or natural gas-fired space heaters will not meet the requirements of this new standard. This will impact rental housing in the outer counties. Also prohibited from use in any residence are (1) any portable space heater, parlor heater, cabinet heater, or room heater that has a barometric fed fuel control and a fuel supply tank located less than 42 inches from the center of the burner, (2) heating appliances adapted for burning propane, kerosene, range oil or number one fuel oil, and (3) Portable wick type space heaters.

Code Violations/Tenant Remedies

Of course, any violations of the State Sanitary Code entitles tenants to withhold rent under state law. There can also be Chapter 93A/Consumer Protection liability which carries the prospect of triple damages and payment of tenant attorneys’ fees. Code violations can severely de-rail any eviction action so landlords must ensure that any code violations are quickly and properly addressed. Without the passage of a rent escrow law, landlords remain at risk of tenant abuses of the rent withholding statute.

The proposed revisions to the State Sanitary Code, 105 CMR 410 can be downloaded here.

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Updated 11/10/17

Proposal Heads To State House Next

Once thought to be dead, the Boston City Council yesterday approved the first ever “just cause” eviction act in Massachusetts, known as the Jim Brooks Community Stabilization Act. The Act, which opponents dubbed a return to rent control, requires landlords owning 6 or more units to file a notice to quit/termination with the newly formed Office of Housing Stability, prior to starting an eviction. However, after intense lobbying by property owner groups, the council passed a watered-down just cause eviction provision which only applies to foreclosing owners/lenders. The vote was 10-3 in favor of the Act, with City Councilors Bill Linehan, Sal LaMattina, and Timothy McCarthy voted no.

City Rights Notice

The Act requires that a landlord or foreclosing owner provide a city-approved “notice of basic rights” and a list of tenant assistance organizations simultaneously with the issuance of a notice to quit/termination or notice of lease renewal/expiration. In the case of a lease non-renewal or expiration, landlords and foreclosing owners must provide another “City Termination Notice” to the tenant and the City, at least 30 days prior to starting a summary process (eviction) action. All of these notices must be filed with the summary process case, and the failure to provide these notices will result in eviction cases being dismissed. As with any notice to quit, the best practice is to have such notices served by licensed constable or deputy sheriff.

“Just Cause” Grounds for Eviction

The original version of provided that landlords could only evict tenants for nine (9) specified just cause reasons. However, the final version passed only applies to foreclosing owners/lenders, not to ordinary landlords. Some of the just cause reasons include

  • Nuisance/damage to unit
  • Illegal activity such as drug use
  • Refusal to pay reasonable rent
  • Failure to provide access.
  • Owner requires premises for housing for family member

What’s Next?

It’s not all bad news for property owners, however. The bill faces more hurdles before becoming law. It is a Home Rule Petition, so it must be approved by the entire State Legislature before it becomes law. That may prove to be quite difficult for proponents. The bill may also face court challenges because, as opponents argue, it’s an unlawful return to rent control, which was outlawed in the 1980’s, and fundamentally alters existing private contracts and the very nature of a tenancy at will relationship.

The Act is also somewhat of a compromise between property owners and tenant groups. Tenants wanted to require landlords to submit to mediation for rent hikes of more than 5%, but were not able to get support for it among city council members. Tenant groups also pushed for prohibitions on evicting elderly or disabled tenants and long term renters with children in the school system. The Mayor rejected those ideas as well.

Additionally, small landlords owning 6 or fewer units are exempt from coverage as are owner-occupants of multi-family dwellings and Section 8/federally subsidized housing providers.

The final text of the Act can be read here.

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Housing Court Expansion Bill Gets Funding

by Rich Vetstein on July 19, 2017

State-Wide Housing Court Coverage a “Done Deal”

Governor Baker has earmarked $750,000 in the new state budget towards the Housing Court Expansion plan, clearing the way for state-wide coverage for the Housing Court.

Senator Karen Spilka (D-Ashland), a sponsor of the Senate Bill for the expansion, confirmed to me directly that it is a “done deal.”

Likewise, Chris Walsh (D-Framingham) commented in the Framingham Source that “recognizing that one-third of the residents in the Commonwealth currently do not have access to a Housing Court, working with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and other groups, we crafted legislation to expand the Housing Court across the entire state, that has been supported both by the entire Framingham legislative delegation and more than 50 legislators.”

Expansion proponents asked for $1 Million in new funding, but Gov. Baker cut that down to $750,000. The Housing Court will likely need more funding for the additional judges and staff to implement state-wide coverage. The initial funding, however, should allow the Housing Court to start rolling out new sessions in Middlesex County and other unserved areas.

For more information on the Housing Court expansion proposal, please see my other posts here.

Photo credit: Mass. Bar Ass’n.

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Massachusetts Housing Court Expansion Update

by Rich Vetstein on May 20, 2017

Proposal Moving Through State House, But Funding Remains a Question

The Housing Court expansion plan to have statewide coverage has been gaining political momentum, but whether the plan will receive the long-term funding it needs to make it a reality remains a question mark. Legislators have filed two bills in the House and Senate which are co-sponsored by over 75 legislators. The bills were before the Joint Judiciary Committee on May 2, and are reportedly moving through the State House. Housing Court Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan hopes that the expansion will be in place by January 2019.

The expansion would provide currently unserved Middlesex County with Housing Court jurisdiction and reorganize the remainder of the system into 6 new geographic divisions. A new Central Division would serve Framingham, Marlboro, and other Middlesex county towns plus all of Worcester County. A new Northeastern Division would serve all of Essex county plus several towns along the Route 128 corridor including Waltham, Burlington, Lexington, Watertown, and Woburn. The new Eastern Division would be the largest, serving all of Suffolk County plus Somerville, Brookline, Cambridge, Newton, Medford, Arlington, and Belmont. A new Metro South Division would serve Norfolk county towns plus the Brockton area. The new Southeastern Division would serve the Bristol-Plymouth County/South Coast area (Taunton, Fall River, New Bedford), the Cape and Islands. The Western Division would serve the 4 western counties. The new sessions would be “mobile” and travel to existing district courthouses in addition to holding sessions in present facilities such as the Worcester County Courthouse and Edward Brooke Courthouse in Boston.

Landlords would still have right to file an eviction case in district court, but tenants would have right to transfer to Housing Court. So effectively the vast majority of eviction cases would wind up in the Housing Court.

The expansion bill increases the total number of judges to 15, up from 9. Of course, each new justice would cost $185,000/year under the controversial pay increase recently approved by House Leader Stan Rosenfeld, over Gov. Baker’s veto. The total cost of the expansion proposal could reach $2.4 Million or more. It appears that funding remains the primary obstacle to getting this expansion passed.

I would support the Housing Court expansion if the Legislature finally approves the long-awaited Rent Escrow bill requested by landlords to level the playing field in notoriously tenant-friendly Massachusetts. I believe that would be a fair trade-off for both landlords and tenants.

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Just a quick note about yet another recent case demonstrating the backwards nature of Massachusetts landlord-tenant law. In CMJ Management Company v. Wilkerson, the Appeals Court ruled that a tenant could be evicted from Section 8 housing because her grandson shot and injured a neighbor child with a BB gun. Sort of reminds me of the movie the Christmas Story — you’ll shoot your eye out kid!

But — hold on — the court ruled the tenant would not be evicted because the housing court judge made a legal error by striking the tenant’s jury trial because she (not being represented by a lawyer) did not file a pre-trial memorandum. The net result is that the landlord is back to the starting line — the case goes back to the Boston Housing Court for a retrial, some 3 years after the eviction case was originally filed. Only in Massachusetts!

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Foreclosure2.jpgQuestionable Ruling Goes Against Established Law That Foreclosed Owner Not Entitled to Notice to Quit

In a recent post-foreclosure eviction case before the Southeast Housing Court, Justice Anne Kenney Chaplin issued a head-scratching ruling that a third party purchaser at foreclosure was required to issue a 90 day notice to quit to the former owner. The ruling goes against the generally accepted rule of law that a foreclosed owner still in occupation of the mortgage premises is merely a tenant at sufferance, not entitled to any notice prior to an eviction. The case is Lenders Commercial Finance LLC v. Pestilli, 16-SP-03779, embedded below. This is a very troubling ruling which has the landlord-tenant legal community buzzing.

Foreclosed Owner Squats For 6 Years

In 2011, Bank of America foreclosed upon Bruce Pestilli’s home in Whitman, but Mr. Pestilli remained in occupation of the premises. As a side note, Mr. Pestilli filed a federal lawsuit challenging the foreclosure which was ultimately dismissed. Several years later in 2016, Lenders Commercial Finance LLC purchased the property from Bank of America and issued Pestilli a standard 30 day notice to quit, although such is not typically required in a post-foreclosure eviction. Lenders Commercial then filed an eviction action in Southeast Housing Court.

Pestilli’s lawyer again challenged the validity of the foreclosure during the eviction case. Lenders Commercial filed sworn affidavits and certified documents demonstrating that the foreclosure was conducted lawfully. Judge Anne Kenney Chaplin heard the matter on a motion for summary judgment.

Judge Rules 90 Day Notice to Quit Required

Although the legal arguments were centered around the foreclosure title issues, Judge Chaplin raised the issue concerning the notice to quit on her own even though the tenant’s attorney did not even make that argument during the case. Judge Chaplin held that a 90 day notice to quit was required under M.G.L. c. 186, § 12 because there was no evidence that there was any agreement between Lenders Commercial and Pestilli to pay rent. Well, that’s not surprising because the vast majority of post-foreclosure occupants have not made any payments to anyone for a long time! Indeed, in this case, Mr. Pestilli has not made any mortgage or rent payments for some six years.

Did Judge Make Major Legal Error?

The ruling goes against long-standing Massachusetts case law concerning the rights of third party purchasers of foreclosed properties. Massachusetts courts have universally held that after default and foreclosure, a former mortgagor is a tenant-at-sufferance, i.e., an occupant who has lost his or her title to the premises with no further right to possession. Further, courts have held that tenant-at-sufferance are not generally entitled to a notice to quit.

If this ruling is followed by other judges, it could give foreclosed owners another tactic to delay post-foreclosure evictions. Landlords and their attorneys should be aware of this ruling and prepared to push back that former owners are tenants at sufferance and not entitled to a 90 day notice to quit.

Lenders Commercial Finance LLC v. Pestilli, Mass. Southeast Housing Court by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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A Step Back To Rent Control Or Solution To The Affordable Housing Crisis?

Citing skyrocketing rents and lack of affordable housing — and over the vociferous objections of property owners — Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has sided with pro-tenant groups and has formally submitted a home-rule petition to the Boston City Council to create wide-ranging “just cause” eviction protections for all Boston tenants. Harking back to the days of rent control, the petition, named the Jim Brooks Community Stabilization Act after a recently deceased Roxbury housing advocate, prohibits virtually all no-fault evictions in favor of evictions only for certain enumerated “just cause” grounds. The law also requires landlords to file a notice of termination with the newly formed Office of Housing Stability prior to starting an eviction. In a state which is already extremely pro-tenant, this new law will make evicting tenants even more difficult and cost prohibitive, and may also affect owners’ rights to raise rents and sell rental property in the City of Boston.

“Just Cause” Grounds for Eviction

The petition (embedded below) provides that landlords may only evict tenants for nine (9) specified reasons:

  • Non-payment of rent.
  • Violations of lease provisions
  • Nuisance/damage to unit
  • Illegal activity such as drug use
  • Refusal to agree to lease extension or renewal
  • Failure to provide access.
  • Subtenant not approved by landlord
  • Landlord requires premises for housing for family member
  • Post-foreclosure and occupant refuses to pay fair market rent

Middle Ground?

It’s not all bad news for property owners, however. The Walsh bill is a compromise from what tenant groups had pressed for. They wanted to require landlords to submit to mediation for rent hikes of more than 5%, but were not able to get support for it among city council members. Tenant groups also pushed for prohibitions on evicting elderly or disabled tenants and long term renters with children in the school system. The Mayor rejected those ideas as well.

Additionally, not all landlords are covered by the new law. Exempt are owners of 6 or fewer residential rental units, owner-occupants of multi-family dwellings, and Section 8/federally subsidized housing.

Landlord groups, meanwhile, remain skeptical of Walsh’s proposal. State law already has strong tenant protections, Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board told the Boston Globe. Adding more will only subject building owners to even-more-drawn-out legal fights with tenants, he said. And, Vasil added, Walsh’s restrictions may deter developers from building more apartments in Boston, which has been a top priority for the mayor, who has pledged to add 53,000 units by 2030 and combat high housing costs. “This would make it more difficult to develop housing for the middle of the market,” Vasil said. “We’ve been making good progress and I’d hate to see anything happen to that.”

Because the bill is a Home Rule Petition, it must be approved by the City Council then the entire State Legislature. The bill may also face court challenges because it fundamentally alters existing private contracts and the very nature of a tenancy at will relationship. If the petition becomes law, evictions in Boston will become even harder and more expensive.

Readers, what are your thoughts on this important development? Post below in the comments.

Boston Just Cause Eviction Home Rule Petition by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Landlords Cry Foul Over Ruling

In a ruling which reaffirms Massachusetts’ place as one of the most landlord-unfriendly jurisdictions in the country, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled yesterday that a landlord’s minor security deposit law violation over failing to pay $3.26 in interest can be a complete defense to an eviction case even where the tenant owed thousands in rent. After this ruling, tenants will have another powerful tool to avoid eviction in both no-fault and non-payment cases. A change in this ruling would only come about through legislative action — which is usually a non-starter on Beacon Hill.

Rich’s Legal Advice: I have long advocated to my landlord clients that they NOT take security deposits. This ruling should be the nail in the coffin on that issue.

Garth Meikle v. Patricia Nurse

The Massachusetts Security Deposit Law provides a three month penalty, including payment of the tenant’s legal fees, against landlords who don’t follow its strict requirements. One of the requirements of the Security Deposit Law is that annually the landlord must pay the tenant any accrued interest on the deposit. That’s what got landlord Garth Meikle in trouble with his tenant who was three months behind in rent. Meikle brought a no-fault eviction case in the Housing Court, but the tenant raised the counterclaim and defense that she did not receive interest on the security deposit. Ruling that the landlord’s minor violation of the security deposit was not a complete defense to the eviction, the Housing Court Judge Marylou Muirhead allowed the eviction to proceed, ordering the tenant to pay the past due rent, but deducting the security deposit plus the $3.26 in unpaid interest. However, the tenant, represented by Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, appealed her case all the way up to the Supreme Judicial Court.

Statutory Interpretation

The issue on appeal was the distinction between a counterclaim and a defense for a security deposit violation. Everyone agrees that the tenant can raise a security deposit violation as a counterclaim (entitling the tenant to up to triple damages), but the question was whether such a violation could be a complete defense to an eviction, preventing the landlord from regaining possession of the rental unit. Landlords and yours truly argued that a security deposit is a separate financial matter between the landlord and tenant which has nothing to do about whether the tenant owes rent or the condition of the property.

Justice Geraldine Hines, writing for SJC, disagreed and found that a security deposit violation was within the list of defenses to an eviction. Despite quite unclear and murky statutory language, the justice was persuaded that the Legislature’s historical tightening of penalties and sanctions against landlords was indicative of the legislative intent to include a deposit violation among the list of available defenses to eviction.

So we’ll have to thank the SJC and the Legislature for sticking it to Massachusetts landlords once again. With tenant activist groups pushing “Just Cause Eviction” i.e, rent control and the Legislature’s continual failure to enact any sensible landlord-tenant reform, no wonder Massachusetts has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most tenant-friendly states in the union.

I’ve embedded the opinion below.

Garth Meikle v. Patricia Nurse by Richard Vetstein

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Housing Court Expansion Plan Gains Political Traction

by Rich Vetstein on April 5, 2016

Judge-Timothy-SullivanGov. Baker Earmarks $1M for Expansion

The Housing Court expansion plan to have statewide coverage has been gaining political momentum, but whether the plan will receive the long-term funding it needs to make it a reality remains a question mark. The Governor’s fiscal 2017 budget proposal earmarks $1 million for the court’s expansion, which calls for its jurisdiction to be widened with the addition of a sixth division and its bench increased from 10 to 15 judges.

While supporters are pleased with the language in Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget, which authorizes the Housing Court’s structural changes through a so-called outside section, Trial Court officials estimate that the annual cost of the proposal would be more than double the earmarked sum, reaching up to $2.4 million. “The $1 million will allow us to ramp up over a period of time,” Housing Court Chief Justice Timothy F. Sullivan (shown right) told Mass. Lawyers Weekly last week. “We don’t expect it will happen overnight. We’ll have to grow into our new roles.” Meanwhile, House and Senate bills are pending that seek a larger statewide court as well, providing access to those who currently do not fall within the court’s jurisdiction — about one-third of the state’s population.

The budget and legislative proposals call for adding a Metro South Division that would encompass all of Norfolk County (Dedham) — except Brookline — plus Abington, Bridgewater, Brockton, East Bridgewater, West Bridgewater and Whitman. Four of the five existing divisions would absorb additional communities, which includes the highly populated MetroWest area including Framingham, Newton, Cambridge and the rest of Middlesex County.

Of the five new judges that would be added, two would be assigned to the Metro South Division; the circuit judge pool would grow from one to three; and the Northeastern Division would take on an additional judge.

Guarded Support

As I told Mass. Lawyers Weekly, I am a “guarded supporter” of the expansion. Most landlord groups do not consider the Housing Court a level playing field and prefer to have their cases heard in District Court. While the Housing Court’s housing specialists and mediators can help matters move quickly, the volume of cases at some courts can be a bottleneck. “You have to look at the number of cases versus the number of judges available to handle the cases. That’s going to be an important consideration,” I told MLW.

We also need to look at the pro bono legal support available to both sides of the dispute. In Boston Housing Court, for example, there is a small army of Harvard law students ready to assist tenants free of charge. There is no comparable service for small unrepresented landlords, and that’s not fair.

Doug Quattrochi, executive director of the MassLandlords.net trade group, agreed. Though the Housing Court has a process — not available in District Court — that allows landlords and tenants to mediate first and then move directly to trial if an agreement cannot be reached, his trade group would like to see some of the “lopsided, tenant-centric” laws corrected if the Housing Court is expanded, he said. “The laws build in procedural delays that tenants become more aware of in Housing Court. Let’s look at changing these laws,” Quattrochi suggested.

I would fully support the Housing Court expansion if the legislation were linked to the passing of the rent escrow bill and other reforms to make landlord-tenant laws fairer to landlords.

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Landlords, Don’t Get Into Hot Water With Your Tenant!

by Rich Vetstein on March 23, 2016

meter-reader-660x370Massachusetts Water/Sewer Sub-Metering Law 

Many Massachusetts landlords are unaware that before charging tenants for hot water and sewer service, they must comply with the numerous and onerous requirements of the Massachusetts Water Sewer Sub-Metering Law, General Laws chapter 186, chapter 22. These requirements include having separate water meters for each unit, installation of low flow faucets and toilets by a licensed plumber, and certification with the local health board, among other requirements outlined below. Non-compliance with this law may result in a three month rent penalty to the landlord plus payment of the tenant’s attorneys fees.

A landlord can only charge a tenant for water/sewer service under the following conditions:

1. The tenant’s unit must be separately submetered by a separate water meter installed by a licensed plumber. A separate water meter measures the amount of water supplied to a particular unit, and enables the landlord to charge the tenant for the tenant’s own water usage. So, for example, if a building contains 4 dwelling units and a basement where water is utilized for the entire building, a landlord would need to have 5 submeters installed in addition to the primary meter that measures the building’s water use in its entirety. If the building does not have separate meters for each unit, the tenant may not be charged for water service.

2. The tenant’s obligation to pay for water usage must be contained in a signed lease, in an obvious place, and not in the fine print. Each bill for submetered water usage must clearly set forth all charges and all other relevant information, including the current and immediately preceding submeter readings and the date of each such reading, the amount of water consumed since the last reading, the charge per unit of water, the total charge and the payment due date. If the landlord bills the tenant on a monthly basis, payment of the bill by the tenant must be due 15 days after the date the bill is mailed to the tenant, but if the landlord bills the tenant at intervals greater than 1 month, payment of the bill by the tenant is due 30 days after the date the bill is mailed to the tenant.

3. A landlord may not charge the tenant for water supplied through a submeter unless the a licensed plumber has installed fully functional water conservation devices for all faucets, showerheads and water closets/bathrooms in the unit (low-flow shower heads and faucets and low-flush toilets)

4. The landlord must provide a certification under the penalties of perjury, with the board of health or health department, that the appropriate submeters and water conservation devices were installed by a licensed plumber.

5. A landlord cannot charge a tenant for water/sewer service mid-way through a tenancy or lease. A landlord can only charge a tenant for water/sewer upon the start of a new tenancy in the unit; and only if the unit is being occupied for the first time, or if the previous tenant left voluntarily, or was evicted for non-payment of rent or other breach of the lease.

6.  A landlord who engages in self-help by willfully failing to furnish water or directly or indirectly interfering with the furnishing by another of water, or transferring responsibility for payment for water to the tenant without their knowledge or consent, is punishable by a fine of not less than $25.00 nor more than $300.00 , or by imprisonment for not more than 6 months and is liable for actual and consequential damages or 3 month’s rent, whichever is greater, and the costs of the action, including a reasonable attorney’s fee.

Given these onerous requirements, my advice to landlords is to never charge the tenant for water/sewer! Just pay the bill and make it “hot water included” in the rent.

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Owens_Pinto-780x439Hundreds Cram Into City Council To Debate Controversial Petition

Hundreds of tenant activists, small property owners and landlords packed City Hall and poured over into overflow rooms last night as the Boston City Council held its first public hearing on the need for “just cause” eviction legislation, to stem the city’s skyrocketing rents. Harking back to the days of rent control, the proposal would prohibit a landlord from evicting any tenant except for certain “just cause” grounds. These grounds and their related procedural impediments to eviction, would in my opinion, make it nearly impossible (or cost prohibitive) to evict tenants, raise rents and sell occupied rental property in the City of Boston. For more specifics of the proposal, please see my prior post, Boston Tenant Activists Pushing Just Cause Eviction Proposal.

The City Council, led by Councilor Josh Zakim, heard four hours of impassioned testimony from both sides of the issue. Renters say it would create safeguards against eviction; landlords say it would slap them with thinly disguised rent controls.

“Any way you look at it, this is rent control,” Skip Schloming, of the Small Properties Owners Association, said in an interview just before the hearing started.

Lisa Owens Pinto, executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana, for the tenant side told news outlets that “this proposal would just require property owners to provide a good reason to evict someone.” Ms. Owens Pinto said her organization’s measure has three central provisions – landlords must provide a reason for an eviction; if a rent increase is sought, a landlord must first notify the city; once notified, the city must use its resources to contact and advise the affected tenant.

Gilbert Winn, chief executive of Boston-based developer Winn Companies, told the council that a new set of regulations isn’t needed and warned that any changes may have an adverse effect on housing. “You can’t attack the very thing you are trying to protect, which is the rental economy,” Winn said. His company is a major developer of affordable housing projects. Winn, the son of Winn founder Arthur Winn, also claimed the proposal would provide tenants with a potential avenue to avoid living up to their rental agreements. “If a contract between a willing renter and a willing owner cannot be adhered to, and only one party has to adhere to it, then the whole system falls apart,” Winn said.

The proposal has been a moving target. A revised draft of the group’s proposal, originally submitted as a home-rule petition, wasn’t available at the hearing, leaving several councilors perplexed as to why it hadn’t been officially filed. “We’re talking about a specific proposal and I’m finding it hard to follow because we don’t have the draft in front of us,” City Councilor Josh Zakim said about halfway through the four-hour hearing.

Prior to the hearing, tenant advocates agreed to drop one of their most controversial requests: a mandate that rent increases of 5 percent or more be subject to nonbinding mediation. Instead, they are pushing for a rule that would require landlords to notify the city of rent hikes that result in eviction, known as a no-fault notice to quit.

Mayor Marty Walsh had initially signaled support for the measure, but wanted to see how the details would be fleshed out. As they say, the devil is in the details and it’s quite possible this proposal will get significantly watered down during the legislative process, if it survives at all.

The hearing was videotaped and can be viewed on the City’s website here.

Photo credit: New Boston Post photo by Evan Lips

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