Landlord Tenant Law

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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Legislators Freeze Landlords Out of Rent Control Debate

by Rich Vetstein on January 21, 2020

Hearing Rigged Against Small Landlords

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

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

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

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

This is outrageous.

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

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Rent 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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Rent Control Rears Its Ugly Head Once Again

by Rich Vetstein on March 29, 2019

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

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

I’m all for a robust, healthy debate, so allow me to weigh in. The great thing about the 1994 vote banning rent control is we now have empirical data and a reliable study from prominent economists which has compared the Cambridge housing market during rent control vs. after rent control. We also have data and a similar study out of San Francisco. Both studies (and others from the past) have found that rent control did not work at all, and actually had the exact opposite effect — contributing to gentrification, displacement of tenants and income inequality.

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

Study of Effect of Rent Control In Cambridge Market

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

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

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

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

San Francisco: Another Failed Experiment

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

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

Rent Control Just Doesn’t Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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New Occupancy Tax, Statewide Registry, Insurance Requirements, and Inspections

At the very end of 2018 without much fanfare, Governor Baker signed into law a bill regulating and taxing short-term rentals. The new law provides for new taxes, a statewide registry, insurance requirements, and inspections varying by town/city. It becomes effective on July 1, 2019.

Overview of Requirements
The new law expands the state’s hotel and motel tax to include the short-term rental of homes (condominiums, single family, multifamily, etc.). This applies to Airbnb, VRBO, and all other short term rental platforms. The tax applies to all rentals for a period of 31 days or less, regardless of whether the rental is for recreational, vacation, personal, or business use. The burden is on the owner to collect and remit the taxes to their local town/city and the Mass. Dept. of Revenue, which is expected to issue guidance later in the year.

Tax Structure
The short-term rental rate varies by locality and is the total of the following rates:

  • State: 5.7%
  • Local: up to 6% (Boston 6.5%)
  • Cape Cod & Islands: includes additional 2.75% to fund Cape Cod and Islands Water Protection Fund
  • A community impact fee of up to 3% may be assessed locally on professionally managed properties (Owners of two or more units in one town).

The law requires regulations to minimize the administrative burden on tax filings for those who only rent their unit five (5) months or less each year.

Are there any exemptions in the law?
The tax imposed by the new law does not apply to properties rented for fewer than fourteen (14) days per calendar year. It is important to note that these properties are still subject to the other requirements of the law, such as insurance and registration.

When will this law take effect? 
July 1, 2019

What about the 2019 rentals I already booked? 
The law exempts from tax any 2019 rental that is booked on or before December 31, 2018. Rentals booked on or after January 1, 2019 for stays on or after July 1, 2019 will be subject to the tax. We anticipate that the Department of Revenue will issue guidance on how to handle the tax on bookings made on or after January 1, 2019.

Does this apply to the units I rent? 
As stated above, the new law applies to all rentals for a period of 31 days or less. Ordinary rentals, such as an annual lease or a tenancy-at-will are not covered. The new law applies regardless of whether the owner rents the property themselves, hires a rental agent to rent the property, or uses an online platform to facilitate the rental.

Do I need to collect the tax? 
Most likely, yes. The law requires intermediaries (which includes rental agents who post the property for rent online) who enter into a written agreement with the owner or operator to collect rent or facilitate the collection or payment of rent on behalf of the operator to collect and remit the tax. The Department of Revenue will issue regulations to clarify how often the tax should be remitted to the Department. This also means that an agent who does not collect or facilitate the collection of rent on behalf of the owner or operator does not need to collect and remit the tax.

Do I need to carry insurance for the listed properties?
Yes. Owners are required to maintain $1 million dollars in liability insurance to cover each short-term rental. The coverage is required to defend and indemnify the owner or operator and any tenants in the building for bodily injury and property damage. Realtors may elect to offer insurance coverage as part of their services but are not required to.

Before offering a property for short-term rentals, a hosting platform (including Realtors) must provide notice to the owner or operator that standard homeowners or renters insurance may not cover property damage or bodily injury to a third-party arising from the short-term rental.

Do the properties need to be registered with the state or city/town? 
Each rental unit will need to be listed with the state short-term rental registry. Additionally, each city and town is permitted to create a registration requirement for short term rentals. Check with your municipal government office for details.

Are there any inspections required? 
Cities and towns may implement a health and safety inspection requirement and set the frequency of inspections. Short-term rental operators are required to cover the cost of inspections and will likely face a fee to cover registration costs as well.

What are some best practices I can apply as the new law gets implemented? 

  • Owners and rental agents should disclose to prospective renters that any booking made on or after January 1, 2019 may be subject to a tax and that the tax rate may change before the rental period.
  • Develop a policy to verify the number of units owned by each client in a municipality and that those units are properly insured.

The Mass. Association of Realtors has provided the following documents to help manage short-term rentals: an updated Short-Term Rental Lease, a Community Impact Fee Form, a 14-day Exemption Form, and a required Insurance Disclosure Form. These documents can be found at marealtor.com/ShortTermRentals

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Land Court Considers Local Ban On Airbnb Rentals in Lynnfield

Over Memorial Day in 2016, a contemporary mansion in Lynnfield was the scene of a raucous Airbnb house party where neighbors described bikini clad college women prancing around to hip-hop music reverberating through the bucolic neighborhood. At 3AM, however, the party turned into a crime scene when 33-year-old Keivan Heath was shot several times and died.

The owner of the 6 bedroom, 5,545 square foot European style residence, Alexander Styller, rented the home to a group of old college roommates at over $2,000/night through the controversial short term rental platform, Airbnb. In the aftermath of the murder, the Lynnfield building inspector and Zoning Board of Appeals issued an order prohibiting the owner from using the premises for short term rentals. The case went up to the Land Court where Judge Keith Long just issued his ruling, upholding the ZBA’s interpretation of the zoning by-law prohibiting short term rentals in a residential zoning district. The decision is one of the first to consider the legality of local prohibitions against short term rentals in a residential zoning district.

Judge Long Rules In Favor of Town

Judge Long ruled that local municipalities have the power under zoning law to regulate (or prohibit) short term rental platforms like Airbnb in a residential single family zoning district, and that the local zoning board has the authority to consider it a non-“grandfathered” use. Demonstrating a solid grasp of the burgeoning technology that is Airbnb, Judge Long ruled that AirBnB-type rental arrangements are not such grandfathered uses. Rather, he reasoned “they are ever-changing technologies that produce materially-different uses as the technology changes, and AirBnB and the other platforms have reserved the right, at their sole discretion, at any time, for any reason, to change that technology and the types of rentals they make available.” The judge further noted that “zoning was created, and is justified, by the degree of certainty it provides to its various designated districts. When that certainty no longer exists, the protections of zoning no longer exist.” Nor could Airbnb be considered an allowed “accessory use” to the home like an in-law suite. “Homes are expected to be used as residences, not for profit,” Judge Long reasoned. “Continuous rentals of a primary residence are contrary to the fundamental use of the home, as it leaves its primary residents without a place to stay. For those same reasons, Mr. Styller’s rentals have become, “in effect, a conversion of the principal use of the premises to one not permitted.”

Judge Long also had some interesting comments about the very nature of Airbnb and its effect on the surrounding neighborhood —

“From the neighbors’ perspective, however, it is all downside. The owner may not be there to experience the external effects of frequent short-term rentals — a constantly-changing cast of strangers in the building or neighborhood, unknown cars on the street, and the traffic and noise from parties (a not-infrequent purpose of AirBnB-type rentals, as evidenced by the incident that led to this case). But the neighbors are there to experience those effects, and may not be pleased. These effects are likely worse in non-owner occupied properties where the owner never lives there but instead rents it out in a continuous series of short term arrangements, calculating that the rental income will be higher than that received from longer-term tenants. This has a community-wide effect as well as effects on the immediate neighbors. Short-term AirBnB-style rentals may be good for tourists, but they decrease the number of properties available for long-term rental by residents and thus, if the practice is widespread, drive up the overall cost of rentals.”

The effect of this ruling will be that towns and cities will be on stronger legal footing if they seek to regulate or even prohibit Airbnb and other short term rental platforms under their local zoning codes. Also, the state legislature has taken up the debate, with a comprehensive bill passed this summer, only to be rejected by Gov. Baker. The Airbnb issue will be receiving plenty of legal attention in the months and years to come. This case will be appealable to the Appeals Court or SJC, so check back for more updates.

Link:  Styller v. Lynnfield Board of Appeals 

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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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Property Owners Vehemently Opposed to “Right of First Refusal” Proposals Giving Tenants Up to 240 Days to Purchase Rental Properties For Sale

In an effort to stem the affordable housing problem, cities like Cambridge and Somerville are exploring giving tenants a legal right to purchase the homes and apartments they are renting when owners go to sell them on the open market. The concept is a “right of first refusal” which would be triggered when the owner lists the property for sale and gets a bona fide offer from a third party buyer. Under the Cambridge proposal embedded below, a tenant would have up to 240 days to put down a deposit, obtain financing and close on the purchase, and would also have the right to assign the contract to a non-profit housing trust for affordable housing. The proposed law would apply to all rented single family homes, condominium units, multifamily and apartment buildings except owner two-family residences fully owner occupied or with one of the units occupied by the owner’s immediate family. (These definitions are somewhat unclear).  

Somerville State Senator Denise Provost originally filed a Tenant Right to Purchase Bill with the Legislature, but it did not move past committee. Now, Cambridge and Somerville are considering Home Rule Petitions to pass their own Right of First Refusal laws. If these proposals gain traction, they could spread to other cities and towns like Boston.

Property owner groups vehemently oppose these proposals. A similar proposal was passed in Washington, D.C, and the Huffington Post has exposed how it’s been an abysmal failure and abused by tenants. As the HuffPost, writes, “some tenants are using [the Act] to extract money from landlords, should a landlord decide to sell a building. At present, TOPA is holding up or blocking real estate transactions, causing grief for developers and homeowners and victimizing low-income residents stuck living in buildings owners are unable to sell but forced to maintain at a financial loss.”

I agree that this would be a terrible idea and extremely unfair to Massachusetts property owners. No, it’s not just terrible. It’s crazy and socialist. First, any sale of rental property is always subject to an existing tenancy or lease. That’s been the law in Massachusetts for centuries. So renters are already protected from displacement. Second, the proposal would wreck havoc on the local real estate market and skew free market dynamics. The Cambridge law would give tenants with no skin in the game 8 months to purchase a property. That’s 3 real estate cycles! Knowing that any offer would be subject to a tenant right of first refusal, investors would avoid making offers for occupied properties for sale, or would reduce offering prices, thus chilling sales. Tenants would be able to “flip” their right of first refusal to local nonprofits for affordable housing, walking away with a tidy profit. There are much better ways to create affordable housing than this idea.

Update (3/6/18): After Owner Outcry, Cambridge City Council Votes Down Proposal

Cambridge MA Tenant Right of First Refusal Home Rule Petition by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Property Owners — Shovel Early and Often!

As I sit here working from home watching the “Bomb Cyclone” storm make its way up the East Coast, the clicks on my blog searching for “Massachusetts snow removal law” are going as rapidly upward as the barometric pressure of this “Bombogensis” storm system. Massachusetts law underwent a monumental change back in 2010 with a Supreme Judicial Court decision overruling the 125 year old “Massachusetts Rule” which allowed property owners to leave “natural” accumulations of snow and avoid liability. Now, all Massachusetts property owners are under a legal duty to keep their property free from dangerous snow and ice. Moreover, cities and towns have been passing all types of new snow removal ordinances and by-laws regulating whether owners must shovel public/private sidewalks, and how long they have to clear snow. So let’s do a quick Frequently Asked Question post.

I own a rental property with a driveway and one common walkway and entrance. Am I responsible for shoveling snow on the driveway and/or walkway?

My opinion is the answer is yes. Under the previously referenced 2010 Supreme Judicial Court ruling, all property owners (rental or owner occupied) can be held liable for failing to remove snow and ice from their property. The old rule was that owners didn’t have to remove “natural accumulations” of snow and ice, but the court overruled that in favor of a general obligation to keep property safe for all visitors and guests. There are also many local town and city ordinances which likewise obligate property owners to keep snow and ice off their property and sidewalks. I will discuss some of those below.

Can I use a lease which provides that the tenant is responsible for snow removal. Is that legal and will that protect me from liability?

It depends on your particular property. Landlords have the primary responsibility for snow removal at a rental property. Under the State Sanitary Code, property owners/landlords must keep all means of egress free from obstruction — that cannot be negotiated away. As for the removal of snow and ice, the Code provides that the landlord shall maintain all means of egress at all times in a safe, operable condition and shall keep all exterior stairways, fire escapes, egress balconies and bridges free of snow and ice. Again, those obligations cannot be negotiated away.

A landlord may require the tenant be responsible for snow and ice remove in a lease provision only where a dwelling has an independent means of egress, not shared with other occupants, and a written lease provides for same. On its face, this exception only applies to entrance-ways and not driveways or parking areas. I am not aware of a court ruling on this particular Code provision, but if I were a landlord I would not risk being on the wrong side of a “test case” where someone is injured badly.

So, in the example above with an owner occupied two family with one common entrance and driveway, that lease provision would be illegal.

Even if the tenant is responsible for snow removal under a legal lease provision, the landlord could still face personal injury liability for slip and falls on snow and ice under the SJC ruling.  A guest or visitor who is injured due to untreated snow or ice will likely sue both the property owner and the tenant. The property owner must ultimately ensure that the property is safe for visitors.

How soon do I have to shovel the snow before I get in legal trouble?

The City of Boston’s policy is to give businesses 3 hours to clean snow, and 6 hours to residents. In Worcester, it’s 10 hours to clear snow. Those are the minimums. As with any dangerous condition, my advice is to shovel and treat snow and ice early and often. Even a thin coating of black ice can cause someone to slip and fall and seriously hurt themselves. (Admit it if you’ve dumped on your rear end like I have!). If you are an out-of-town landlord, you must hire someone to shovel your snow.

Am I required to shovel the public sidewalk in front of my house/business after a storm?

In most Massachusetts towns and cities, the answer is yes. Check your local town ordinances for guidance. The cities of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington, Belmont, Newton, Lynn, and Worcester (among others) all require property owners and businesses to clear municipal sidewalks in front of their residences or businesses. Fines are assessed against non-compliance. In Somerville, for example, if snow ceases to fall after sunrise (during daylight hours), property owners must shovel sidewalks by 10 p.m, and if snow ceases to fall after sunset (overnight), property owners must shovel sidewalks by 10 a.m. You can also be fined for shoveling snow onto the street, blocking a curb cut or putting snow on municipal owned property.

In some more residential towns, the local DPW will clear the sidewalks, but the default rule is that property owners are generally responsible for clearing their own sidewalks and driveways.

Will my homeowner’s or CGL insurance policy cover any injuries from slip and fall on snow/ice?

Yes, usually. The standard Massachusetts homeowners insurance policy and commercial general liability insurance policy (CGL) will have liability coverage for slip and falls on property. Make sure you have ample liability coverage of at least $500,000 to 1 Million. (You can never have enough insurance!). As with any insurance question, it’s best to contact your personal insurance agent.

I’m just a regular homeowner. What if the mailman or delivery person slips on my walkway?

You may be liable if you left dangerous snow and ice on your walkway. The new law applies to every property owner in Massachusetts, not just landlords. Get some Ice-melt and sand and spread on your walkway. If it re-freezes overnight into black ice, you will remain liable.

Helpful Links

City of Boston Snow Removal Notice

City of Worcester Snow Removal

City of Newton Snow Removal

City of Framingham Snow Removal

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Tax Reform Act Not Nearly As Bad As Feared For Massachusetts Homeowners

With Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and their minions burning the midnight legislative oil, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 is set to pass with President Trump’s signature before Christmas. (Updated: President Trump signed the bill into law on Dec. 22).  Everyone is asking me the same question. How will the biggest change in US tax policy in 30 years affect the Massachusetts real estate market and homeowners? There’s been a ton of commentary that the Act is the second coming of the Apocalypse for the real estate market, but I’m not convinced. While I do have many concerns with the overall bill (bloating the deficit, etc.), my opinion is that it will be a small net positive for the real estate industry.

(Disclaimer: I am neither a tax attorney nor a CPA, and I don’t play one on TV, so consult your own tax professional for any tax advice).

Capital Gain Exclusion on Sale of Primary Residence – No Change 

Excellent news here. The long-standing rule has been that the gain (increase in value) of the sale of a primary residence is non-taxable up to $250,000 for a single person and up to $500,000 for a married couple, if you occupied the home for 2 out of the last 5 years. This provision has been a huge incentive for home sales for many years. In prior GOP tax reform bill drafts, the exemption was increased so that owners needed to reside in the home for 5 out of the 8 years preceding the sale. The National Association of Realtors argued that this change would have resulted in a 10% drop in home sales. In response to the NAR’s intense lobbying, the final bill does not include any changes to the capital gains exclusion.

So the current rule stays in place – you can exclude up to $250,000 as a single filer and $500,000 for joint married filer in capital gain on the sale of your primary residence if you lived there for 2 out of the last 5 years. This is really great news for the Massachusetts real estate market.

SALT – Real Estate Taxes and State Income Taxes — $10,000 Cap

This change is a “loss” to homeowners, especially those with high value properties and in wealthy towns. Currently, all real estate taxes paid in Massachusetts are 100% tax deductible if you itemize your deductions. In Massachusetts, those real estate tax bills can be quite large.

Under the Act, there is now a deductibility cap of $10,000 — which includes not only local real estate taxes but all state and local income taxes. This will be a huge hit to taxpayers in wealthy towns with high real estate tax bills. Going forward, taxpayers will only be allowed to deduct $10,000 of all real estate taxes and state/local income taxes. This is definitely a major “loss” for Massachusetts homeowners, especially those in towns with high real estate taxes. This change, however, may be offset by the increase in the standard deduction ($12,000 for single, $24,000 for married) and the boost in child tax credits, but if you live in Weston or Boston, for example, this is likely going to hurt.

Tax Tip:  If your real estate tax bill is over $10,000, consider pre-paying your real estate tax bill before 12/31/17, so you can still deduct it. According to the Boston Globe, most town assessors around the state are accepting such payments. Update (12/28/17): The IRS has issued a Formal Advisory on Real Estate Tax Pre-Payments. Click to read my full review here.

Mortgage Interest Deduction – Deductible Up to $750,000. No Deductions For HELOC/Vacation Homes 

Again, due to the NAR’s strong lobbying efforts, the GOP kept the mortgage interest deduction intact for the most part, but with caps, and equity lines and second mortgages losing their deductibility. I would say this is a net “win” for homeowners. Starting in 2018, homeowners can keep the mortgage interest deduction on a loan of up to $750,000, down from the current law’s limit of $1 million.

Individuals who take out home equity (HELOC) loans, however, will no longer be able to deduct that interest under the new bill. The same is true for second mortgages and vacation homes. No more interest deductions for those. So this change may impact the vacation home market, particular down the Cape and Islands. However, a rental property owner could offset this loss by renting out the home for a few weeks, per the new benefits for rental housing discussed below.

Importantly, these new rules only apply to new mortgages applied for after Jan. 1, 2018. Existing mortgages incurred on or before Dec. 15, 2017 will remain fully tax deductible. There is some IRS guidance on these new rules, so consult your CPA.

Rental Property Owners/Landlords — Thumbs Up! 

As Bloomberg News reports, the Tax Reform Act will be very good for rental property owners and landlords if they do business via pass-through entities — real estate investment trusts, partnerships, limited liability companies, and S corporations — all of which are set to get big tax breaks in the Act. Under the new rules, all pass through income for qualified entities will enjoy a 20% deduction on the owner’s individual 1040 return. For landlords who have greater than $157,500 (single) or $315,000 (married filing jointly) in qualified taxable income, they can select an alternative deduction of (i) the greater of 50% of all W–2 wages, or (ii) the sum of 25% of the W–2 wages plus 2.5% of the unadjusted basis immediately after acquisition of all qualified property.

Attorney’s Advice: I’ve always counseled clients to set up an LLC to hold title to rental property, both from a liability and tax planning standpoint. With the Tax Reform Act giving even greater benefit to pass-through entities, it makes even more sense to set up that LLC. If you need assistance setting up an LLC, please email me at [email protected].

Also for depreciation rules, the depreciable life term has been reduced — from 27.5 years to 25 years for residential property and from 39 years to 25 years for nonresidential property. In addition, while most other businesses will find their interest deduction limited under the Senate bill, that limitation doesn’t apply to landlords, who can continue to deduct their mortgage interest in full.

There are other rules also favoring rental property owners, so definitely consult your CPA to prepare for 2018.

Thoughts and Comments?

As an attorney who has handled thousands of residential purchases and refinance loans, I’ve never been one to ascribe to the notion that the tax code has a ultimate determinative effect on whether a buyer is going to purchase a home or not. I’ve always believed that tax implications are one factor out of many in the home buying and selling equation. In my opinion, income, job security and consumer confidence play a larger role. I would doubt that the young couple searching for a starter home in Medway is going to say “geez, now that the SALT deduction is limited to $10k, let’s scrap this whole home buying idea.” If people have decided they want to buy a house, they will usually do so.

Overall, I think the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 will have a net positive effect on the national and Massachusetts real estate market, despite the SALT cap and changes to HELOC/second mortgage deductibility. I’m hopeful that the increase in standard deductions and child tax credits will offset the mortgage deductibility and real estate tax changes. The no-change to the capital gain rules was critical and we have the NAR to thank for that. That was a game changer. And lastly, the rental and investment property market will get a big boost.

Rick Moore, Senior Mortgage Advisor with Zenith Mortgage Advisors in Holliston, is one local loan officer who is happy with the Tax Reform Act, both personally and professionally. “I think it’s a historic day, and I’m happy to have the extra money for some home improvement projects. Overall, if the economy will get a boost as expected by the administration, then that’s good for me as a loan officer. I’m looking forward to a very prosperous 2018!”

I do, however, worry about the addition of some 1.5 Trillion to the federal deficit as a result of the tax reform act. This is never good for long term stability of the economy and the housing market. It’s probably a safe bet to say that interest rates are going to rise to keep inflation at bay. I’m concerned that in exchange for some short term gain, we may be setting ourselves up for some long term pain. Only time will tell, but I hope Rick is right!

Feel free to post your comments below and on Facebook.

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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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Rent Escrow Bill Heads Back Up To State House

by Rich Vetstein on September 25, 2017

Public Hearing Scheduled For September 26, 1pm

Small property owner groups are saying that this may finally be the year when state legislators pass a Rent Escrow bill on Beacon Hill. The bill is designed to reform tenant abuses of the rent withholding law and level the playing field with landlords.

Under current law, if a tenant is being evicted, she may report the landlord to the health department and withhold paying rent if an inspection reveals any sanitary or building code violation  — even if very minor. Evictions often last for months, and therefore, the rent withholding gives tenants incredible financial leverage to gain advantage during the process.

Unlike most other states, there is no requirement in Massachusetts that a tenant post the withheld rent into some form of escrow account. There have been many instances where tenants have intentionally inflicted property damage to claim code violations or just made them up altogether.

A rent escrow bill would simply require any tenant who withholds rent to pay ongoing monthly rent into a court ordered escrow account until the eviction case is heard on the merits by a judge. Fairly, the bill has a carve out giving judges discretion to not require an escrow deposit if it would result in “undue hardship” to the tenant. This way, the tenant has some “skin in the game,” and is less likely to financially cripple the landlord over a minor code issue.

The leading bill is House Bill 980, sponsored by Rep. Chris Walsh. The text of the bill is as follows:

Notwithstanding the foregoing, in the event that the originally scheduled trial date is continued for any reason, and upon motion of any party, the court after hearing shall require the tenant or occupant claiming under this section to deposit with the clerk of the court, the plaintiff’s attorney, or other secure depository each month (or at such other intervals as the court deems just) the amounts due for use and occupancy, calculated according to the fair market value of the premises, which amounts shall be held in escrow pending final disposition, unless the court determines that such requirement would result in undue hardship to the tenant or occupant. In the event that a tenant or occupant fails to comply with an order requiring deposit, the court upon motion shall order the matter to be scheduled for bench trial at the earliest date available and make such further orders as the court deems just.

The bill, along with several other rental housing bills, will be heard on September 26, 2017 at 1pm in Hearing Room B-2 at the State House. All members of the public are welcome to testify in support or against the bill.

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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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