featured

After CDC Moratorium Struck Down by U.S. Supreme Court, Acting Mayor Janey Imposes Local Residential Eviction Moratorium Through Boston Public Health Commission

After the U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down the nationwide eviction moratorium imposed by the Centers for Disease Control, President Biden urged local cities and municipalities to impose eviction moratoriums at the local level. Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey wasted no time in following that call to arms, imposing a city-wide residential eviction moratorium effective August 31, 2021, which is in place indefinitely until the Boston Public Health Commission decides to terminate it, in its sole discretion.

The order (embedded below) provides that “no landlord and/or owner shall serve or cause the service of notice of levy upon an eviction, or otherwise enforce a residential eviction upon a resident of Boston while this order is in effect.” The order does not apply in cases involving “serious violations” of the terms of a tenancy that impair the health and safety of other building residents or immediately adjacent neighbors.”

As the title to this post indicates, my opinion is that this order is completely unlawful on several grounds. It is a clear violation of the Home Rule Amendment which prohibits local orders in direct conflict with state law (evictions). Boston would need full state legislative approval for such an eviction moratorium which it does not have. The order also appears to exceed the statutory authority of the Public Health Commission (similar to the reasoning of the Supreme Court in striking down the CDC moratorium). The order would also run afoul of several constitutional principles (5th Amendment, Contracts Clause, access to courts) which we raised in our previous challenge to the statewide eviction moratorium in federal court.

In discussions with the Eastern (Boston) Housing Court officials, they have indicated they are not bound by the order and that executions for possession (move out orders) will continue to be issued by the Clerk’s Office. Interestingly, the order itself does not specifically apply to the courts, only to a landlord or owner, and only targets the very last step in the eviction process, the levy of execution. The number of forced move outs in Boston remains very small — estimates are that only about 200 cases have reached this final stage during the pandemic. Formal guidance is expected within the next few days. We have had discussions with several landlords about filing a legal challenge to the new moratorium.

As reported in the Boston Globe, Boston housing chief Sheila Dillon said city officials began discussing a local moratorium on Friday after the Supreme Court’s ruling. The city has focused on helping struggling tenants obtain rent relief — some 12,500 households in Boston have received about $72 million in state and local aid, she said — but officials are also worried about an immediate spike in evictions now that the federal ban is gone. And despite the potential for lawsuits challenging the ban, Dillon said, they decided to do what they could now. “We anticipate that there may be some legal challenges to this,” Dillon said. “We felt it was really important to try. We do think evictions are a public health issue.”

{ 0 comments }

6-3 Ruling Puts End to Nationwide Residential Eviction Moratorium

In a late night “shadow docket” ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down the controversial nationwide CDC Eviction Moratorium which paused virtually all residential evictions in the country through October 3. The eviction moratorium, first put in place by the Trump administration in July 2020, expired at the end of July 2021. Previously, Justice Kavanaugh indicated that the Court would strike it down, but allowed it to expire on July 31. But with increasing Covid rates over the summer, the Biden administration’s Centers for Disease Control put a new moratorium in place tied to county Covid-19 transmission rates.

The challenger in the lawsuit, the Alabama Association of Realtors, petitioned the Supreme Court for the very rare immediate expedited review. The Court’s majority granted review, and found that the CDC’s limited public health statutory authority was not broad enough to shut down all evictions across the country, ruling that “the CDC has imposed a nationwide moratorium on evictions in reliance on a decades-old statute that authorizes it to implement measures like fumigation and pest extermination. It strains credulity to believe that this statute grants the CDC the sweeping authority that it asserts.”

Unless Congress passes legislation providing for eviction protections (which it unsuccessfully tried to pass earlier in the summer), the Supreme Court’s ruling clears the way for hundreds of thousands of evictions to resume across in the country. Looming overhead also are billions of rental aid funds which have yet to be distributed by federal agencies and state governments. This was noted by the Court’s three liberal dissenting justices, along with the Delta variant surge.

Here in Massachusetts, the Legislature previously enacted a quasi eviction moratorium which pauses all evictions where a tenant has applied for rental aid. Thus, the Supreme Court’s ruling may not have as much of an effect here in the Bay State as other parts of the country. However, we will likely see more move-out orders issued by the Housing Court for cases not involving rental aid applications or where landlords have rejected rental aid funding.

On a personal note, I feel quite vindicated right now. As most of you know, I was one of the first attorneys in the country (along with my co-counsel Jordana Greenman) to challenge an eviction moratorium in federal court. We made many of the same arguments as presented to SCOTUS. However, on the flip side, the federal and state governments have done a disastrous job in distributing the billions of available rental aid funds to tenants and landlords. I think we have done it right here in Massachusetts with Chapter 257 and its pause on evictions where a RAFT application is pending. Congress should pass similar legislation to prevent unnecessary evictions and displacements while ensuring that appropriated rental aid funds get into the hands of property owners and tenants. If Congress doesn’t act, then we will definitely see more displacements which is not what we want during the Delta surge. (This is coming from a pro-landlord attorney).

{ 1 comment }

First Reported Decision In Massachusetts On Private Nuisance and Para-Hang Gliding

Recently, I filed a very interesting and novel case involving private nuisance and paragliders which resulted in a favorable injunction ruling for my client. My clients have a beautiful home on Peaked Cliff in the Sagamore Highlands area of Plymouth/Bourne, overlooking Cape Cod Bay providing breathtaking views of ocean and cliffs. The home has a large back deck overlooking the ocean which the family uses frequently to enjoy the views and ocean.

With its high thermal wind activity, the area has become a hotbed for hang-gliders and para-gliders. Unfortunately, the gliders, most of whom are members of the New England Paragliding and Hang Gliding Club, have become increasingly reckless and belligerent. They have flown within feet of my clients’ home yelling and screaming obscenities and giving obscene finger gestures. On several instances, the gliders have crash landed on the grounds, and at least one glider crashed into the roof. One glider almost died when he crashed directly on the cliff, necessitating a complicated rescue operation. My clients daughters have complained that gliders have taken photographs of them through their bedroom windows and while lounging on the deck.

After many complaints and the issuance of no-trespass notices, the Club attempted to impose a “No-Fly” zone over my client’s home. However, it wasn’t enforced and the gliders kept harassing my clients, often starting flights at 6AM running through sunset. My client had enough, and asked me to file a lawsuit for private nuisance and trespass in Brockton Superior Court. We asked the Court to issue an injunction imposing a 150 foot no-fly zone around my client’s property.

A private nuisance occurs when someone “creates, permits or maintains a condition or activity on property that causes a substantial and unreasonable interference with the use and enjoyment of the property of another.” This is the first case that I am aware of in Massachusetts whether paragliding and hang-gliding may rise to the level of private nuisance. Judge Thomas F. McGuire, Jr. held an in-person evidentiary hearing, which was actually my first in-person hearing since Covid-19 hit. I put together a video montage of photographs and video footage of the offending glider activity and showed that to the Judge. I also cross-examined a representative of the Club who conceded that their no-fly zone would not substantially impede glider flights in the area.

The Court issued a well-reasoned written opinion (embedded below) granting an injunction prohibiting all paraglider and hang-glider flights over my client’s property and extending thirty feet outside their property line. Notably, the judge found that the Club itself had documented the gliders’ problematic activity in their internal meeting minutes (which we found online). The judge ruled that the gliding activity rose to the level of being a private nuisance, and that my clients would suffer irreparable harm if they were not enjoined from flying over and near their house. The judge imposed a 30 foot no-fly zone around my client’s property. We are hopeful that this will keep the peace, but the order is enforceable with contempt powers, as the judge made clear in his ruling.

As I said before, this ruling is notable because it’s the first reported decision involving gliders and private nuisance in Massachusetts. With the proliferation of drones and other low flying aircraft and devices, this ruling should provide some much needed legal precedent and guidance in this other situations where property rights conflict with airspace rights. The case reference is Kaplan v. New England Paragliding and Hang Gliding Club, et al., Plymouth Superior Court CA 2183CV0331.

{ 0 comments }

The Centers for Disease Control has just extended the national eviction moratorium through the end of June. “The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a historic threat to the nation’s public health,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. “Keeping people in their homes and out of crowded or congregate settings — like homeless shelters — by preventing evictions is a key step in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19.” The new order, entitled “CDC Temporary Halt In Residential Evictions to Prevent the Further Spread of Covid-19” is embedded below.

The eviction ban was scheduled to expire on March 31. While there have been several court rulings in other states overturning the eviction ban, it will remain in place here in Massachusetts in the absence of an adverse court ruling. The moratorium applies primarily to non-payment cases, however, at least one Housing Court judge has applied it to “no fault” cases where the landlord has also made a claim for unpaid rent. Notices to quit and new eviction cases can still be filed and advanced through the court system, however, the CDC moratorium will prevent executions, or move-out orders, to be issued against qualifying tenants.

The CDC eviction moratorium requires that tenants take an affirmative step to qualify for protection. Tenants must send their landlord a CDC-approved affidavit in which they certify under oath that they are:

  • Unable to pay rent due to a coronavirus-related job loss or income reduction, or qualified fora direct stimulus payment under the CARES Act or expect to earn less than $99,000, or $198,000 if filing a joint tax return. 
  • Have made best efforts to obtain all available government assistance to cover rent;
  • Is unable to pay full rent due to a substantial loss of household income, loss of compensable hours of work or wages, a lay-off, or extraordinary out of pocket medical expenses;
  • Is using best efforts to make timely partial payments of rent that are as close to the full payment as the individual’s circumstances may permit, taking into account other non discretionary expenses; and
  • Eviction would likely render the tenant homeless or force him/her to move into and live in close quarters in a new congregate or shared living setting because the tenant has no other available housing options. 

{ 0 comments }

One of the First Reported Court Rulings Addressing Whether Business Can Be Legally Excused From Paying Rent While Subject to Government Covid-19 Shutdown

As the Boston Globe reported this week, Suffolk Superior Court Business Litigation Session Judge Kenneth Salinger ruled that a Caffe Nero coffee shop on Newbury Street was legally excused from paying rent for the nearly three months last spring when indoor dining was halted under state orders to combat the spread of COVID-19. The ruling could give leverage to struggling restaurants dealing with lost business and unpaid rent bills. The 12-page court ruling is embedded below.

UMNV 205-207 Newbury LLC (UrbanMeritage) v. Caffe Nero Americas, Inc., Suffolk Superior Court CA 2084CV01493-BLS2

The dispute between Caffe Nero and UrbanMeritage, a prominent Back Bay landlord that owns a number of storefronts on Newbury Street, began not long after Governor Charlie Baker ordered indoor dining closed on March 24, 2020 — a massive blow for a European-style cafe whose business model hinges on people lingering over lattes and croissants. Caffe Nero promptly asked for a break on its roughly $13,000-a-month rent, but UrbanMeritage said no, and issued a default notice for nonpayment. By June, UrbanMeritage had launched eviction proceedings, ultimately filing a lawsuit seeking more than $300,000 in back rent, damages, and legal fees.

Frustration of Purpose Doctrine

Applying the doctrine of “frustration of purpose,” Judge Salinger ruled that rent payment is excused when performance becomes impossible through no fault of either party, such as a natural disaster or pandemic. Since Caffe Nero’s lease only allowed for restaurant use (and no other uses), and Gov. Baker’s Covid-19 shutdown order of indoor dining during the early days of the pandemic prevented that use, Judge Salinger found that the doctrine of frustration of purpose applied in this case.

Force Majeure Clause

Judge Salinger also side-stepped the parties’ “force majeure” lease clause, which could have been read to negate the frustration of purpose defense used by Caffe Nero. A force majeure provision is a common clause commercial leases which essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as a war, strike, riot, crime, epidemic, sudden legal changes or an event described by the legal term Act of God, prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract. The force majeure provision in the Caffe Nero lease, however, specifically stated that the payment of rent due to financial inability cannot be a reason to invoke the clause. In perhaps questionable reasoning, Judge Salinger ruled that “the force majeure provision addresses the risk that performance may become impossible but does not address the distinct risk that the performance could still be possible even while [the] main purpose of the Lease is frustrated by events not in the parties’ control.”

Take-Aways

I have several Covid-19 related lawsuits pending where businesses and restaurants could not pay their rent during the pandemic, and I’ve pled the same defense as Caffe Nero did in this case. (I don’t yet have a formal ruling in my cases). I think it’s inevitable that we will see more of the same rulings by judges who are sympathetic to businesses who were shut down completely due to Gov. Baker’s orders. Certainly, this ruling will cause landlords to reevaluate whether they will be able to collect all unpaid rent from a Covid-impacted business. Of course, the usual considerations will also apply — financial ability to pay, assets, timing of payments, etc. We will see….as always, if you are dealing with a commercial lease dispute or know someone who is, feel free to contact me at [email protected].

{ 1 comment }

Extension of Eviction and Foreclosure Moratorium Part of Flurry of Executive Orders Signed by Biden In First 48 Hours Of Presidency

On January 20, 2021, President Joseph Biden signed an executive order mandating that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) extend the current CDC federal eviction moratorium until March 31, 2021. While the extension is not yet published in the Federal Register, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the CDC, has already agreed to implement the eviction moratorium extension. As is the practice under the current moratorium, a tenant must provide the necessary CDC declaration to the landlord and/or court to secure protection of the moratorium. 

While signing the new Executive Order, President Biden also stated that he wants to work with Congress to extend the moratorium even further through September 2021. So we will be monitoring how that plays out.

The Executive Order similarly calls on federal housing agencies such as the Federal Housing Finance Authority (FHFA), the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to extend their existing foreclosure and eviction moratoriums through March 31, 2021.

While the Biden administration has presented its American Rescue Plan (ARP), which includes an additional $25 billion in rent and utility aid to households in need, much of the rental and utility relief set forth in the ARP requires approval from Congress, similar to the year-end pandemic relief bill that was signed into law on December 27, 2020.

Temporary Eviction Moratorium for Tenants Applying for Short Term Emergency Rental Assistance (RAFT)

As I wrote about earlier, at the very end of 2020, Gov. Baker signed into law Chapter Chapter 257 of the Acts of 2020 which provides for a mandatory pause on any eviction where a tenant has applied for rental assistance. The Housing Court has issues a new Standing Order which provides as follows:

  1. If the parties do not agree to a continuance, a party may request a continuance by motion.  Notwithstanding its equitable authority, pursuant to Section 2(b) of St. 2020, c. 257, the court “shall grant a continuance for a period as the court may deem just and reasonable if” the court determines that the criteria enumerated in the statute are met.
  2. Pursuant to Section 2(b) of St. 2020, c. 257, no judgment may enter, nor may any execution issue, in a summary process action for nonpayment of rent if there is a pending application for rental assistance.  While parties may enter into an agreement for judgment in such an action, the agreement shall include language that entry of judgment and enforcement of the agreement is subject to St. 2020, c. 257 and the CDC Order.

We are seeing a big increase in tenants applying for, and being accepted for, RAFT aid, which is now increased to a maximum of $10,000, plus stipends available to cover future rent. So this is a good thing.

My general advice to landlords now is that if your tenant owes $10,000 or less, you really should seriously consider going the RAFT route, otherwise you aren’t going to get your tenant out until the summer at the earliest, and you’ll be owed even more in unpaid rent. If you are owed over $10,000, it’s a different calculation. You may want to consider offering a move-out agreement with rent waiver and/or cash for keys, in order to cut your losses. Otherwise, prepare for a long wait for your trial date. You can theoretically file a motion for rent escrow but you’ll have to wait for your hearing date, etc.

{ 0 comments }

Changes Include New Attestation Form For Landlords Regarding Applicability of CDC Eviction Moratorium and CARES Act, Submission to State Database, Moratorium of Eviction Cases Where Tenant Applies for RAFT Assistance

While the Massachusetts Legislature was busy passing a massive year-end budget and Covid-19 relief bill, included in the new measure were major changes to notices to quit for residential non-payment of rent evictions, as well as an eviction moratorium in cases where the tenant applies for short term rental assistance funding. Gov. Baker signed the bill into law as Chapter 257 of the Acts of 2020. This new law is in effect until the termination of the Covid-19 State of Emergency (whenever that may be).

New Attestation Form for Notices to Quit for Nonpayment of Rent

Any landlord serving a tenant with a notice to quit for non-payment of rent must now include a state-required form with various certifications, including:

  • Whether the tenant has submitted a CDC Eviction Moratorium Hardship Declaration Form;
  • Whether the leased premises is covered as a “dwelling unit” under the federal CARES Act. (If the unit is covered under the CARES Act, then a 30 day notice is most likely required).
  • Whether there is an existing agreement between the parties concerning the repayment of rent.

You can download the new Massachusetts Notice to Quit Attestation Form here. The state has also created a special webpage and an Instruction Sheet to help landlords comply. Housing Courts will not accept summary process cases for filing without the new attestation form. Screenshot of the new Attestation Form is shown below.

The new Attestation Form also provides tenants with a list of available rental assistance programs, information on the federal CDC eviction moratorium, and court rules on evictions. See below.

Required Upload of Notice to Quit to Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development

The new law also requires that any notice to quit for non-payment of rent covered by the new law be uploaded electronically to the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. The states has created a new Portal to enable these uploads.

Temporary Eviction Moratorium for Tenants Applying for Short Term Emergency Rental Assistance

The new law also authorizes housing court judges to impose a temporary stay or moratorium on eviction cases and move-out orders where tenants have applied for short term emergency rental assistance like RAFT. The law is drafted in the mandatory that judges “shall” grant a continuance, a stay of execution, or refrain from entering judgment, “for a period as the court may deem just and reasonable” if the tenant is financially impacted by Covid-19 and has applied for any form of federal, state, or local rental assistance. With the influx of new applications due to the pandemic and expiration of the original eviction moratorium, rental assistance applications have been plagued with substantial delays, as the Boston Globe has reported, with reports of applications pending many months. As such, this provision will operate to significantly delay pending evictions where tenants have simply applied for rental assistance. Also I should note that under the RAFT program, if a landlord accept the rental assistance funds, they must agree to forbear on any eviction for up to 6 months (or longer if kids are present).

Problems and Concerns

These new provisions came as somewhat of a surprise to the rental property industry and indeed the court system, as I received some last minute guidance from a clerk-magistrate just yesterday. The new Attestation Form is quite onerous and will be very difficult for small, unrepresented landlords to complete accurately. It also arguably makes landlords provide legal advice to tenants which could be against the landlord’s interests, a potential violation of the First Amendment, as Judge Mark Wolf ruled in the legal challenge to the Eviction Moratorium (in which I was lead counsel).

In the Attestation Form, it basically makes all landlords provide a defense against their own case by advising tenants about the CDC federal moratorium and telling them they should provide a CDC hardship form to a tenant if they “believe” the tenant is eligible for its protections. How is a landlord suppose to make a determination whether a tenant is eligible for financial hardship without having access to the tenant’s personal financial information?

The Attestation Form then requires that landlords make a legal determination as to whether the leased premises qualifies as a “covered dwelling” under the CARES Act. See below.

As you can see, the legal determination of applicability under the CARES Act is very complex, necessitates research of whether a mortgage is federally backed, and typically requires the assistance of an attorney. Landlord attorneys have been struggling with making these determinations since the CARES Act was first passed.

Next, the new Attestation Form requires landlords to make another legal determination — whether the notice is in compliance with the CARES Act, which requires at least a 30 day notice (as opposed to the standard 14 day notice for non-payment under Mass. law). See below. Again, landlords are forced to read and interpret a section of a federal statute when they’re not a lawyer.  And why should landlords have to certify that it complies – it either does comply, or it doesn’t comply — that’s a judge’s job. 

Well, there’s a lot to unpack with these new requirements. It just reinforces the sage advice that landlords should always have an experienced landlord-tenant attorney representing them in all eviction cases. There are now so many new rules and traps for the unwary. As always, please contact me with any questions via email: [email protected] or phone at 508-620-5352.

{ 3 comments }

$25 Billion In Rental Assistance Approved; Biden Administration Expected to Extend CDC Eviction Moratorium Further Once In Office

After sitting on the Covid-19 Stimulus Package passed by Congress, President Trump finally signed the measure on Sunday night, extending the federal CDC eviction moratorium through January 31, 2021 and making $25 Billion in rental relief funds available nationwide. The moratorium was set to expire on December 31.

Under guidance from the Trump administration, eviction notices and cases can still be filed and moved forward in court, but only move-out orders for non-payment cases are suspended under the moratorium. Under newer Housing Court rules, landlords must file a special CDC moratorium affidavit with all new cases attesting whether they have received a CDC hardship affidavit from a tenant.

The rental relief assistance funding should be welcome news for both Massachusetts landlords and tenants struggling with unpaid rent. Massachusetts is expected to receive between $250 to $500 Million in new rental assistance funding. That is double what is currently available. To help those struggling, the Baker administration has created a new website with links to various relief programs — Covid-19 Getting Help with Housing Costs.

As for the future of the federal eviction moratorium once the Biden administration takes office, based on statements made on the campaign trail, I would expect that they will extend the moratorium initially anywhere from 60-90 days. New York state just passed a very strict new moratorium for 60 days. Tenant advocates and some inner city legislators have been clamoring for another moratorium here in Massachusetts. Gov. Baker has repeatedly signaled that he would not sign such a measure, especially with rental relief funding in place.

As always, I’ll keep you informed as to future developments. Any questions? Email me at [email protected].

{ 0 comments }

Housing Court Issues Major Change to Procedures To Tackle Backlog of Cases, and Address Covid-19 Safety Concerns

With the Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium set to expire on October 17, and barring an extension from Gov. Baker or the passage of a new moratorium, the Housing Court is preparing for arguably the most challenging period in its history. Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan has just released a set of new procedural rules to manage all pending and future cases in the “new normal” of a Covid-19 world. The new rules dramatically change how all cases will be heard in the Housing Courts, with the vast majority of hearings being conducted via video-conferencing technology instead of in-person. Facing a backlog of some 20,000 pending eviction cases and an unknown number to be filed once the Moratorium expires, the goals of these new procedures are to: (a) start moving pending eviction cases forward, (b) establish new procedures for the filing and case management of new cases, (c) encourage mediation and private agreements as much as possible to decrease the backlog of cases, and (d) above all, keep litigants and court personnel safe. The new rules also contain a new affidavit requirement under the federal eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control. The new rules can be found here: Housing Court Standing Order 6-20: Temporary modifications to court operations based on the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the expiration of chapter 65 of the acts of 2020 (eviction moratorium).

Housing Court Physically Open for Business, But Most Proceedings Will Be Virtual

The Housing Court will be physically open with limited staff and judges, but the preference will be for cases to be heard virtually. The court is presently using the Zoom platform quite effectively, and I assume it will continue to do so. For self-represented (pro se) parties who may have limited access to technology, the court will assist that person with the video-conferencing technology or offer a “suitable alternative.”

The old “call of the list” on Thursday morning hearing days with hundreds of people packed in hallways and courtrooms will now be a relic of the past, and is suspended indefinitely. Instead, going forward, the clerk’s office will schedule cases and hearings directly with the parties or their lawyers, with the vast majority being on Zoom. This includes mediations. Lawyers are required to continue to E-File new cases and all pleadings.

Rich’s Practice Pointer: However it plays out, it’s a safe bet to say that evicting anyone in Massachusetts going forward could take anywhere from 6-18 months. This makes mediation and private settlement agreements all the more attractive and cost effective for landlords.

Procedures for Pending Summary Process (Eviction) Cases: Two Tiered System

Pending cases will be scheduled for hearing in the order in which they were filed, i.e, earlier filed cases get priority. All tenant motions to vacate a dismissal or default for failure to appear between March 1, 2020 and the expiration of the Moratorium (Oct. 17, 2020) will be automatically granted by the court.

The rules established a new two-tiered system to move cases forward. In Tier I, a housing specialist (who is typically a trained mediator) will schedule the first court event by video conference or telephone call. The purpose of the first event will be to determine the status of the case, whether the CDC federal moratorium applies to the tenant, attempt to mediate/resolve the case, and explore the availability of any housing assistance. If the case does not settle, the housing specialists and the clerk will hold a case management conference to determine the next steps in the case and/or schedule the case for trial. For Tier 2, the clerk will schedule the next court event by written notice. While the rule provides that trials should be held as soon as practical but no sooner than 14 days after the first tier event, I would have to assume that getting a trial date will be several months away, given the huge backlog of cases caused by the Moratorium. The new rules provide that trials will be held by video-conference, with a “small sub-set being held in person,” as determined by the Clerk Magistrate and First Justice.

Procedure for New Summary Process (Eviction) Cases

In a major change from existing practice, new cases will not be automatically scheduled for a trial on the typical Thursday morning schedule. (The rules provide that lawyers should now put “TDB by court” in the Summary Process Complaint where the the trial date would typically be listed.) Instead, the clerk’s office will send out a notice of the first event, but the rules do not say when that will actually be. The clerk will also send out an information sheet with a resources available to assist the parties in resolving the case. Cases will then proceed based on the two-tiered system outlined above.

CDC Eviction Moratorium Affidavit Requirement

The rules provide that all new eviction cases for non-payment of rent must be accompanied by a new affidavit indicating whether the landlord has received a hardship declaration under the CDC Eviction Moratorium. For pending eviction cases, the plaintiff must file the CDC affidavit before the first tier court event. The court is coming up with the new affidavit form which will be available on the court website. I believe that this new requirement will be controversial because it may prejudice landlords since the burden of claiming a Covid-19 related hardship remains with the tenant under the CDC Order.

Executions (Move-Out Orders)

For those housing providers holding an execution for possession (move-out order) which has now expired, they may file a written request or motion for a new execution to issue, but they must file the CDC affidavit with it. These new executions will be issued administratively without a hearing. I would expect that tenants will be filing numerous motions to stay execution based on the Covid-19 pandemic, so we will have to see how the judges handle these.

Emergency and Injunction Proceedings

As it has done throughout the pandemic and Eviction Moratorium, the court will continue scheduling all emergency matters including those for injunctive relief (lockouts, condemnation, no heat, no water/utilties, access) or a motion for stay of execution. These proceedings will be scheduled virtually to the extent possible.

Jury Trials

All parties have a right to a jury trial in the Housing Court. Indeed, this is often used as a weapon by tenant attorneys to delay cases. The new rules provide that in-person jury trials with 6 jurors may resume on October 23, 2020, but I don’t see how this is achievable. I think getting a jury trial date will be many months down the road for most cases.

My Thoughts

Like any major change to court procedures, it will take some time for litigants and court personnel to adapt to these new rules. Over the course of the pandemic, I have participated in several Zoom hearings as well as mediations in the Housing Court, and they have worked out just fine. For the mediations, the housing specialists have used the breakout room feature so parties can discuss matters in private. Trials conducted via Zoom will be a different animal, and lawyers will need to come up with some best practices for them.

Another thing I’m certain of is that it will take longer to move an eviction case through a post-Eviction Moratorium Housing Court. Perhaps many months longer, especially where there’s a jury trial demand. The Court is facing an unprecedented backlog and situation with the pandemic plus the Moratorium, and it will take quite a long time for the court to make a dent in the backlog of cases — plus we don’t know how many new cases are on route. Whatever the actual number, it’s been 6 months since new cases were allowed to be filed. However, I vigorously dispute the narrative put forth by the CityLife/Urbana Vida folks that 100,000 evictions are imminent. That’s just unsubstantiated nonsense. At minimum, the CDC Moratorium may well delay a large number of non-payment cases until it expires on Dec. 31.

If you have any questions concerning an eviction or the Housing Court, please feel free to email me at [email protected].

{ 2 comments }

Lengthy Extension of Eviction Moratorium Likely Unconstitutional; Calls for Adequate Rental Assistance Funding Go Unheeded

With Gov. Baker signaling he won’t extend the current Eviction Moratorium past Oct. 17, and Federal Judge Mark Wolf’s ruling that an extended moratorium would likely be unconstitutional, state legislators and tenant rights activists are frantically pushing an even more draconian 12+ month extension of the moratorium along with a rent freeze. The wide-ranging proposal branded as the “Housing Stability Act,” is on the fast track to passage, just clearing the Joint Committee on Housing. The new bill coming out of the Joint Committee is H. 5018, and is causing alarm within the real estate community, with the Mass. Association of Realtors and Greater Boston Real Estate Board coming out strongly in opposition to the bill.

12-36 Month Extension of Eviction Moratorium

The new bill would impose a new extended statewide moratorium on all “non-essential” evictions for at least 12 months after the Covid-19 State of Emergency is lifted by the Governor. This will cover 95% of all evictions, with the only exceptions being for serious criminal activity which threatens the safety of others. The State of Emergency, which is tied to federal disaster funding, will surely be in place until an effective Covid vaccine is available and infection levels are close to zero — which could be years away. Thus, the proposed eviction moratorium could be in place for the 18-36+ months or even longer, on top of the existing moratorium which has been in place since April. The new moratorium, unlike other states’ moratoriums, does not require a tenant to demonstrate a Covid-19 hardship.

The new eviction moratorium would be constitutionally suspect based on the 102-page ruling issued in late September by Federal Judge Mark Wolf considering housing providers’ challenge to the original Moratorium. (I am lead counsel in that case). Judge Wolf called into question the constitutionality of a moratorium which extended further past Oct. 17, ruling that: “A public health emergency does not give Governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists.” If this new bill is enacted, rest assured it will face a swift and vigorous legal challenge.

Rental Increase Freeze

The bill imposes an across the board rent increase freeze for the next 12-36 months, regardless of whether a tenant is actually impacted by Covid-19. The bill prohibits housing providers from increasing rent payments in excess of the rental amount in place as of March 10, 2020. The rent freeze will be in place for 12 months after the Covid-19 State of Emergency is lifted. Thus, like the new eviction moratorium, the rent freeze could likely be in place for the next 12-36+ months. This will effectively stop landlords from agreeing to defer rent as an accommodation to financial hardship and enter into a payment plan that recovers the deferred rent through a new lease with a higher payment. This provision would also face legal challenge because it substantially impairs existing leases under the federal Contracts Clause.

Just Cause Eviction Protections

The bill also provides for “just cause” eviction protections to tenants. This has been on tenant group’s wish list for some time now, and has been rejected across the board in the last several years. Under the bill, landlords can only evict for “just cause” if:

  • Tenant fails to pay rent (but no requirement to show Covid-19 hardship)
  • The tenant has materially violated an obligation or covenant of the tenancy or occupancy, other than the obligation to surrender possession upon proper notice, and has failed to cure such violation within 30 days after having received written notice thereof from the owner; 
  • The tenant is committing a nuisance in the unit, is permitting a nuisance to exist in the unit, is causing substantial damage to the unit or is creating a substantial interference with the quiet enjoyment of other occupants; 
  • The tenant is using or permitting the unit to be used for any illegal purpose.
  • Owner intends to make personal use of the unit within 180 days, including personal use or use by family member.

With the just cause protections in place, rental property owners would be effectively prohibited from evicting tenants on a “no-fault” basis, such as terminating a tenancy at will, holding over past the lease term, or refusing a rental increase.

Housing Court Exclusive Jurisdiction For Collection of Unpaid Rent

In a first-of-its-kind proposal, the new bill gives the Housing Court exclusive jurisdiction to hear claims to recover unpaid rent. This is clearly intended to frustrate the collection of unpaid rent by housing providers who are able to file small claims in district courts across the state. The Housing Court will already be incredibly backlogged with pending and new eviction cases after the moratorium, and they have little interest in wasting their scarce judicial resources with small collection cases. This provision will essentially make it nearly impossible to collect unpaid rent balances.

Lack of Adequate Rental Assistance Funding and State Tax Credits

As I have been screaming from the rooftops since the first moratorium was passed, the fatal flaw with all of these proposals is that they remain unfunded. By my calculations, we need at least $300 Million in rental assistance funding. (Taking 100,000 renters at risk of eviction per tenant groups x $3,000 per tenant). The new bill purports to establish a new “Covid-19 Housing Stability and Recovery Fund” but it does not appropriate ANY funds for it. Proponents of the bill simply say that the federal government must fund rental losses. Without adequate rental assistance funding, the burden of Covid-19 impact will unfairly flow down from tenants to small housing providers who are equally unable to sustain those losses.

The new bill also provides for certain state tax credits for rental losses. However, there is a cumbersome application and approval procedure that housing providers must use to obtain these credits, rather than being able to simply claim the credit on personal tax returns. Landlords who claim tax credits cannot proceed with an eviction. Also, state credits are typically quite low (based on 5% state income) so it would not amount to much benefit to owners.

What’s Next?

This bill now moves to the Joint Committee on Rules where it may be amended. Tenant groups are planning a week long push next week to pass this bill. With over 80 co-sponors, it appears the bill has a strong chance of passing on Beacon Hill. The question will be whether Gov. Baker will sign or veto, and whether the State House can obtain a veto-proof 66% vote.

If you are opposed to this bill, I urge you to email the members of the Rules Committee below, as well as your own state rep and senators.

Email addresses for the Governor and all members of the Rules Committee where HD5018 is now under consideration (copy and paste into your email “TO” line):[email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected]Donald H. Wong

{ 0 comments }

The COVID-19 pandemic is not a blank check for the Governor and other elected officials.” — U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf Issues Landmark 102-Page Opinion on Constitutionality of Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium; Gov. Baker Signals He Will Allow Moratorium to Expire On Oct. 17

As readers of this blog know, I, along my colleague Jordana Greenman, Esq., are lead counsel for several housing providers in a federal court challenge to the Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium in the case of Baptiste v. Kennealy, United States District Court – Massachusetts, CA 1:20-CV-11335 (MLW). For the past three months, we have been battling with the Attorney General’s Office over the constitutionality of the Moratorium and whether the court should enjoin it. After five days of hearings and thousands of pages of legal briefing, Judge Mark Wolf has issued a landmark 102-page opinion in the case. The opinion is embedded and linked to below.

“A public health emergency does not give Governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists.”

In a nutshell, Judge Wolf declined for now to enjoin the Moratorium, reasoning that legislators had a reasonable basis for enacting it as a temporary emergency measure back in April during the beginning of the pandemic. However, and most notably, Judge Wolf expressed serious concerns over the constitutionality of the Moratorium if it is extended past its current expiration date of Oct. 17. Judge Wolf wrote:

“The COVID-19 pandemic is not a blank check for the Governor and other elected officials. Rather, it should be recognized that “a public health emergency does not give Governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists. As more medical and scientific evidence becomes available, and as States have time to craft policies in light of that evidence, courts should expect policies that more carefully account for constitutional rights.”

“In other words, in deciding how to exercise their broad discretion in responding to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, elected officials have a duty to consider the limitations imposed by the Constitution, rather than merely to rely on courts to remedy any violations of it. As Justice Anthony Kennedy has written, “the very fact that an official may have broad discretion . . . makes it all the more imperative for him or her to adhere to the Constitution and to its meaning and promise.” 

Judge Wolf also recognized that the Moratorium imposes a substantial impairment of leases between housing providers and tenants across the state:

“The rights to evict and recover property if a tenant does not pay rent are important elements of the contractual relationship that a lease creates. The Moratorium deprives the landlords of a remedy for a violation of these rights while it is in effect. It does not prevent a landlord from suing a tenant for rent owed. However, that remedy will often be illusory because landlords are unlikely to benefit from money judgments against tenants who are unable to pay rent during the COVID-19 pandemic or who are unwilling to do so. Therefore, the Moratorium materially undermines the contractual bargain.”

Judge Wolf did rule in our favor that the Moratorium Regulations violate the First Amendment as they force housing providers to provide a state mandated missing rent notice which directs tenants to pro-tenant advocacy groups like City Life/Urbana Vida.

Gov. Baker Signals He Will Not Extend Moratorium Past Oct. 17

Echoing many of Judge Wolf’s concerns, and as the Boston Globe reported yesterday, Gov. Baker suggested he won’t extend the moratorium. Instead, he wants to devise a system that protects both renters and landlords. “We would really like to see if we can put a plan together to make sure that we can do, with the courts, what needs to be done to ensure that people are protected with respect to their housing,” Baker said. “But the longer this thing goes on, the deeper the hole gets, not just for tenants but also for landlords, especially small landlords…who . . . have in many cases already run out of rope.”

We would like to think that our lawsuits and Judge Wolf’s ruling will play a significant factor in Gov. Baker’s ultimate decision whether to allow the Moratorium to expire. We want to make clear that our clients, and housing providers across the state, do not want mass evictions during the Covid-19 pandemic. As we have said from the start, if the state had enacted a large rental assistance funding package from the start, we would likely not be in this situation where thousands of private landlords have been forced to subsidized housing for tenants impacted by the pandemic. We are ready, willing and able to work with the courts and tenant groups to put reasonable safeguards in place to assist tenants if the Moratorium is lifted. I cannot stress enough how important rental assistance funding is.

What is Next? CDC Eviction Moratorium In Place Until Dec. 31, Housing Stability Act

Even if the Massachusetts Moratorium expires on Oct. 17, the new CDC federal eviction moratorium will be in place through Dec. 31. However, the CDC order is far narrower than the Massachusetts moratorium. Tenants must affirmative certify under oath they are financially impacted by Covid-19, and it does not apply to expiration of leases, for cause situations (like bad behavior or criminal activity) and to many “no fault” situations. At a recent Bench-Bar conference, several Housing Court judges stated the court will likely allow service of notices to quit and accept eviction filings unless tenants affirmatively raise the CDC order as an affirmative defense to the eviction. Also, the National Apartment Association and a group of housing providers have challenged the CDC Order in Atlanta federal court. We will see how this will play out.

State legislators and tenant activists also continue to advocate for a 12 month extension of the moratorium through the Housing Stability Act, but again, without meaningful rental assistance funding. A few million dollars in RAFT funding will not cut it. We need upwards of $200 million dollars or more in state rental assistance funding, and unfortunately, that is nowhere to be found right now. Based on Judge Wolf’s ruling, I believe the Housing Stability Act’s 12 month eviction moratorium would likely be unconstitutional.

To all of our faithful supporters, donations to our Legal Fund would also be very much appreciated as we put our law practices on hold for several months now while spending hundreds of hours on this case:  Link: https://paypal.me/pools/c/8orbLzpxbY

Judge Mark Wolf Opinion Pre… by Richard Vetstein

{ 3 comments }

CDC Eviction Moratorium Pushes Boundaries of its Public Health Authority, Raises Other Serious Constitutional Problems

While we have been in federal court arguing the constitutionality of the Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium, the Trump administration’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just issued an emergency order (embedded below) imposing a nationwide residential eviction moratorium through December 31, 2020. The moratorium, issued under the CDC’s emergency authority to respond to public health crises and without the usual rule-making and public comment process, would cover millions of renters who are unable to pay their rent due to the Covid-19 crisis. The moratorium is scheduled to be effective as of September 4, 2020. Unfortunately, the moratorium does not provide for any rental assistance funding to landlords or tenants, so like the Massachusetts moratorium, private landlords will again shoulder the entire economic burden of rental losses.

Applicability to States With and Without Their Own Eviction Moratoriums

The CDC Eviction Moratorium only applies in states where they do not have an existing residential eviction moratorium, or if they do, where it is less strict than the CDC order. Thus, in Massachusetts, the CDC order would not apply while the current moratorium is in place through October 17, because the Massachusetts moratorium is far stricter than the CDC order. Governor Baker could extend our state moratorium for an additional 90 days, and of course, our challenge to it is still pending in federal court. If Gov. Baker does not extend the state moratorium past Oct. 17 or the federal court strikes it down, this new CDC moratorium would take its place through Dec. 31. The CDC retains the authority to extend the moratorium for any amount of time. Of course, by then there could be someone new in the White House.

Qualifying Process for Tenants

Unlike most other states’ eviction moratoriums, the CDC eviction moratorium requires that tenants take an affirmative step to qualify for protection. Tenants must send their landlord a CDC-approved form in which they certify under oath that they are:

  • Unable to pay rent due to a coronavirus-related job loss or income reduction, or qualified for a direct stimulus payment under the CARES Act or expect to earn less than $99,000 in 2020, or $198,000 if filing a joint tax return. 
  • Have made best efforts to obtain all available government assistance to cover rent;
  • Is unable to pay full rent due to a substantial loss of household income, loss of compensable hours of work or wages, a lay-off, or extraordinary out of pocket medical expenses;
  • Is using best efforts to make timely partial payments of rent that are as close to the full payment as the individual’s circumstances may permit, taking into account other non discretionary expenses; and
  • Eviction would likely render the tenant homeless or force him/her to move into and live in close quarters in a new congregate or shared living setting because the tenant has no other available housing options.
  • Unable to pay rent because of financial hardship due to Covid-19, that they have made your best efforts to make timely partial payments and that they would likely become homeless if evicted.

The order is unclear how all of these certifications will be confirmed for truthfulness. Most likely, state courts will have to establish a process where a landlord can challenge a tenant’s hardship declaration. The order does specifically say that tenants are not relieved of the obligation to pay rent, but the overall intent of the order is to ban evictions for renters who cannot pay their rent.

Scope of Eviction Protection

The CDC eviction moratorium only applies to non-payment of rent situations, as outlined above. It does not apply to the following situations where a tenant engages in:

  • Criminal activity on the premises
  • Threats to the health and safety of other residents
  • Damage or posing an immediate and significant risk of damage to property
  • Violations of building, sanitary and health codes
  • Violating any other lease provision, other than the payment of rent

The order, which is quite poorly drafted, applies to “any action by a landlord, owner of residential property, or other person with a legal right to pursue eviction or possessory action, to remove or cause the removal of a [tenant] from residential property.” Without further definition or clarification, we don’t know whether the CDC order would prohibit notices to quit/vacate, commencing an eviction case, prosecuting an existing eviction case, or just the final judicial act of issuing a move-out order.

Severe Penalties for Non-Compliance

The CDC eviction moratorium also provides for incredibly severe and punitive penalties and even criminal liability for landlords who violated it. Landlords can be fined up to $100,000, or up to $250,000 if the violation results in death. The Department of Justice is also authorized to bring civil and criminal charges against landlords.

Legal and Constitutional Problems

While I have not yet done a deep dive into the legality of the CDC eviction moratorium, having just fully briefed the federal court on the constitutionality of the Massachusetts eviction moratorium, many of the same problems are clearly present here. There would be an argument that the CDC moratorium constitutes a “taking” of rental owner’s property in violation of the Fifth Amendment, a substantial impairment of leases under the Contracts Clause, a violation of the right to petition and access courts under the First Amendment, and a ban on commercial speech under the First Amendment. There also appear to be substantial problems with the CDC’s authority to issue such a sweeping economic regulation under its public health authority, as well as its by-passing of the usual administrative rule making procedures under the federal Administrative Procedures Act.

As we told Judge Mark Wolf yesterday the CDC eviction moratorium has no impact whatsoever on our legal challenge to the Massachusetts eviction moratorium. However, we are looking into challenging the CDC order here in Massachusetts.

If you are a landlord and receive a hardship form from a tenant under the new CDC order, please contact me via email at [email protected].

CDC Eviction Moratorium Emergency Order Federal Register by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

{ 5 comments }

Federal Court Judge Mark Wolf (Boston Globe Staff photo by Ted Fitzgerald)

Suffolk Superior Court Justice Paul Wilson Leaves Moratorium In Place, But Federal Judge Mark Wolf To Hear Arguments on Federal Constitutionality Next Tuesday

For those following the state and federal lawsuits against the Eviction Moratorium (where I am lead counsel), it was a roller-coaster week. While we were arguing the case in federal court on Wednesday, Suffolk Superior Court Justice Paul Wilson released his ruling declining to issue an injunction against the Eviction Moratorium. (See below). We were of course disappointed in the decision, however, it will have no impact on the federal case. This is because we removed all of the federal constitutional claims (First Amendment, Right to Petition, Takings and Contracts Clause) to federal court earlier. The state court case only dealt with state constitutional issues. In any event, we are considering an appeal of Judge Wilson’s ruling as we feel he gave the state too much deference and there may have been some incorrect legal analysis.

In the federal court case, Judge Wolf rejected the Attorney General’s argument that he abstain from hearing the case in light of the pending state court case, reasoning that a federal court is duty-bound to hear the constitutionality of the law. Judge Wolf also raised the possibility of the Attorney General engaging in settlement discussions with us or agreeing to mediation. My comment was of course we would consider that but the AG has always been fighting this tooth and nail and that hasn’t changed. The AG attorney confirmed that. Judge Wolf also made an interesting comment about the state’s successful pandemic response — essentially that while a Moratorium may have been reasonable back in April, it may not be so reasonable now since Massachusetts has done so well against the virus.

Interesting comments as we head into a week of hearings on whether the landlords are entitled to a preliminary injunction stopping enforcement of the Act, starting Tuesday, Sept. 1 at 130pm. Mark your calendars! It will be publicly available. Sign up form below:

Access to the hearing will be made available to the media and public. In order to gain access to the hearing, you must sign up at the following address: https://public.mad.uscourts.gov/seating-signup.html.

Anyways, this case has been quite the interesting ride. The good news is that we are still in this fight, and very much so! Thank you again for all your support. Funding link for donations to legal fees is here: https://paypal.me/pools/c/8orbLzpxbY

Matorin v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts Decision on Preliminary Injunction by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

{ 1 comment }

“You Can’t Evict Me So I’m Not Paying Shit.” — Tenant Tells Jonathan DaPonte, a Fall River Housing Provider and Former Iraq Combat Veteran.

Jonathan DaPonte, Iraq Combat Veteran and Small Landlord

For those following our federal and state lawsuits challenging the Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium Act, I have some important updates for you.

In the federal case (Baptiste v. EOHED, USDC, CA 1:20-cv-11335), we have added Governor Baker as a defendant, and are seeking that the court order him to rescind his recent extension of the Moratorium through Oct. 17, as well as enjoin him from any future extensions.

We have also added a new plaintiff, Jonathan DaPonte, a former combat veteran in Operation Iraqi Freedom. DaPonte is a small landlord in Fall River, who works as a local funeral director. His tenant has not paid him thousands of dollars in rent since April, telling him “you can’t evict me so I am not paying shit.” The tenant is still working, has no Covid-19 related hardship, and like many tenants across the state, is taking advantage of the Moratorium to get out of paying rent, as we claim in our lawsuit. A husband and father of two small kids, Mr. DaPonte has been picking up extra hours at his funeral director job, in order to cover his rental losses due to the Moratorium. These stories are playing out across Massachusetts. Jon, like so many other housing providers, are being forced by the state to provide free rental housing to their tenants. The Moratorium has been a disaster and completely unfair for housing providers across the state. A link to our new Amended Complaint is below.

The Attorney General has been fighting us tooth and nail, filing hundreds of pages of legal briefs and a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the state enjoys “sovereign immunity” against any lawsuits. We have filed an opposition to that motion. Earlier in the case, we were successful in persuading Judge Wolf to deny four tenant groups, including City Life/Urbana Vida’s attempt to directly intervene in the case and file friend of the court briefs.

We just got word today that Judge Wolf will conduct a hearing in the case on August 24, 2020 at 10am! We aren’t sure if it will be live-streamed or not, but we’ll let you know here.

In the state case pending in Suffolk Superior Court, we had a three hour hearing on July 30th (blog post here), and are waiting for Judge Wilson to rule on the case, hopefully soon!

We appreciate everyone’s donations and hope to see them keep coming. For those wishing to donate online, the link is  https://paypal.me/pools/c/8orbLzpxbY

Many thanks, Richard Vetstein, Esq. & Jordana Greenman, Esq.

First Amended Complaint, Federal Challenge to Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

{ 0 comments }

HUD Director Dr. Ben Carson

Federal COVID-19 CARES Act Eviction and Foreclosure Moratorium Extended Another Two Months

HUD Secretary Ben Carson announced yesterday that federal housing agencies have extended the CARES Act eviction and foreclosure moratoriums through August 31 for tenants and homeowners with Fannie Mae, FHA, VA, USDA-insured single-family mortgages. The current moratorium was set to expire on June 30.  “While the economic recovery is already underway, many American families still need more time and assistance to regain their financial footing,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson. “Our foreclosure and eviction extension means that these families will not have to worry about losing their home as they work to recover from the financial impacts of COVID-19.”

The CARES Act eviction moratorium applies to approximately 28% of all rental properties in the United States. It prohibits the eviction of tenants residing in any single-family or multifamily property financed by federally backed mortgages (Fannie Mae, Freddie, FHA, VA, USDA loans) and renters living in federally assisted housing (Section 8).

Overlap With Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium Act

For Massachusetts rental property owners, the state already has a statewide eviction and foreclosure moratorium in place until August 19, 2020 which covers virtually every residential rental eviction situation. The Massachusetts Moratorium does not have any distinctions between federal insured or non-insured mortgages; rather, it covers the type of eviction, i.e, “non-essential” vs. “essential” evictions. Gov. Baker may extend the state Moratorium for unlimited 90 day increments. The general consensus in the rental housing community is that Baker will extend the Moratorium through the end of 2020. However, led by yours truly, two landlords have filed a legal challenge to the Moratorium with the Supreme Judicial Court, which is pending. If the Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium is struck down, the CARES Act Moratorium will still be in place, at least through Aug. 31. That could be extended as well, however.

There are several databases and search websites to see if your rental property has a federally backed mortgage subject to the CARES Act —

NHLP has created a searchable database of multifamily projects subject to federal eviction moratoriums, https://nlihc.org/federal-moratoriums?ct=t%28update_041720%29

Foreclosure Protections Under CARES Act

The CARES Act provides foreclosure protections for borrowers with property secured by federally backed mortgage loans. Borrowers who affirm they are experiencing a COVID-19 related hardship can request a forbearance from their loan servicer of up to 180 days, which can be extended for an additional period of up to 180 days. Except with respect to a vacant or abandoned property, servicers may not initiate a foreclosure, move for judgment, or order a sale, or execute a foreclosure-related eviction or foreclosure sale until August 30, 2020.

{ 1 comment }

State Rep. Mike Connolly (D-Cambridge)

Self-Proclaimed “Socialist” State Rep. Sponsors Rent Control and Tenant Protection Bills; Measures Pass Important Committee

After passing the nation’s strongest COVID-19 Eviction Moratorium, a group of far left legislators are now using the Coronavirus public health crisis to push many more controversial measures, including Rent Control and Just Cause Evictions. The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing voted last week to recommend passage of two measures that would let cities and towns impose rent control and other tenant protections, effectively undoing a 1994 ballot measure that banned rent control in Massachusetts.

One bill (H.B. 3924), sponsored by self-proclaimed socialist Rep. Mike Connolly of Cambridge (pictured left), would establish a new “Tenant Protection Act,” enabling towns and cities to restore local rent control boards. However, this measure goes much further, seeking to adopt a radical wish list of tenant protection proposals previously rejected over the last several years. These include new “anti-displacement zones,” stricter condominium conversion rules with mandatory tenant relocation payments, a broad just-cause eviction statute (which the Legislature previously rejected a year ago), mandatory rent deposit installment plans, and other tenant-favorable provisions.

The other bill (H.B. 1319) would cap rent increases at the annual change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) or 5%, whichever is less. The only exception to this would be for owner-occupied units of three-family homes or less with a Sec. 8 or other federal/state subsidized tenant.

As I’ve written here before, Rent Control is an experiment tried and failed many times before, and universally rejected by economists. 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.

The bills’ fate is far from clear. Lawmakers have a host of issues on the agenda before their formal session ends in July, and have been voting remotely, which has slowed the legislative process. Baker signaled his opposition to the bill when it was first filed last year, saying it would hinder construction of new housing, though he has said little about it lately.

Rental property owners should email their representatives to reject House Bill 3924 and House Bill 1319.

{ 0 comments }

Rental Property Owners File Emergency Petition with Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Asserting COVID-19 Eviction Moratorium Act Is Unconstitutional

Attorney Richard D. Vetstein and his colleague, Jordana Roubicek Greenman, Esq., have filed an Emergency Petition with the Supreme Judicial Court on behalf of two local rental property owners challenging the constitutionality of the recently passed, Act Providing For a Moratorium On Evictions and Foreclosures During the COVID-19 Emergency and the its regulations. A copy of the Petition can be viewed below.

One of the plaintiffs is a elderly woman on a fixed income whose tenant owes her over $6,000 in back rent and told her “The Governor says I don’t have to pay my rent anymore.” She risks bankruptcy and foreclosure if something isn’t done. The other plaintiff has a non-payment eviction in progress in Worcester Housing Court, and is owed several months of rent with no likelihood of any payment while the Act suspends his case.

As outlined in the Petition, the Eviction Moratorium Act imposes an unprecedented and indefinite shutdown of virtually every future and pending eviction case in the state, as well as prohibiting landlords from even issuing notices to quit.  The Petitioners, two local rental property owners saddled with non-paying tenants whom they cannot evict, claim irreparable harm on behalf of themselves and all other similarly situated rental property owners across the state.  The Petitioners assert the Act is an unconstitutional infringement on their constitutional right to access the courts and right to petition. They also claim the Act is an unconstitutional interference by the Legislature on the core functions of the courts.  Further, the Act operates as a “taking” without just compensation because it forces rental property owners to house non-paying tenants without any recourse.  Lastly, the Petitioners argue the Act violates the U.S. Constitution’s Contracts Clause as it unconstitutionally impairs their lease agreements.

 The operation of the Act obligates rental property owners to pay their own mortgages, real estate taxes, insurance, and water/sewer used by non-paying tenants, and to maintain their properties and comply with the state sanitary code, while being effectively deprived of the revenue required to do those things.  Given the unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, this one-sided obligation and burden will continue indefinitely and quite possibly into 2021.  Many small rental property owners, especially those on fixed income, rely on rents to afford to live in their own homes.

The Supreme Judicial Court is expected to take up the case next week, and will hopefully schedule it for hearing. I will provide you with updates of course.

We are also still seeking donations to the cause. To contribute please click our secure Paypal link: https://paypal.me/pools/c/8orbLzpxbY.

Matorin v Chief Justice, SJ… by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

{ 5 comments }

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Business Impacts

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

Foreclosure Relief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Act is embedded below (House Bill 4647).

Massachusetts Act Providing… by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

{ 8 comments }

COVID-19 Impacts: Eviction Moratorium Proposals, Tenant Payment Issues, Housing Court Delays, Stay at Home Order, and Move-In Delays

I’ve written two posts here and here about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Global Pandemic, both focused primarily on impacts to real estate transactions and closings. Along with my colleague and fellow landlord-tenant attorney, Jordana Greenman, Esq., we want to now discuss the impact on rental housing, evictions and landlord-tenant relationships.

The number of reported cases are exploding and events are changing daily, even hourly. I first wrote about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic on March 10, about two weeks ago. As of that writing (data as of March 9), there were 729 reported cases in the US, with 27 deaths. As of today March 27, Johns Hopkins is reporting that the United States has surpassed China with over 86,000 confirmed cases and over 1,300 deaths. With the well publicized testing delays, the real number of cases is likely far higher. Unfortunately, Massachusetts has not been spared, with over 2,400 reported cases, including over 140 Boston city hospital workers.

Gov. Baker has ordered the shutdown of all schools and day-cares through May 6, closed down restaurants and bars, and banned gatherings over 25 people. Last week, all Trial Courthouses were shut down for two full days. They have re-opened, but not to the public and with very limited availability for hearing cases (other than true emergencies). On Monday March 23, Gov. Baker issued a “stay at home” advisory, essentially closing down all “non-essential” businesses.

Of course, the big problem for the rental housing industry is the economy has gone into the tank. Experts predict that unemployment will rise to Great Depression levels. The stock market has lost some 30% of its value. When people have lost their jobs and lost their savings, they can’t pay the mortgage or the rent.

Legislation for Eviction Moratorium

In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh has announced a voluntary eviction moratorium agreement with the city’s largest landlords including Trinity Financial, Winn Residential and the Community Builders, which manage hundreds of apartments in Boston. On Beacon Hill, legislators have filed a bill calling for a state-wide moratorium on evictions during the pendency of the COVID-19 State of Emergency. At the federal level, HUD has suspended all evictions for FHA insured single family residences. It’s unclear whether this also applies to HUD Section 8 rental subsidy participants. Lastly, Attorney General Maura Healy just implemented new regulations prohibiting consumer debt collection activities for a 90 day period, however, landlord-tenant payments are excluded from the regulation.

The problem with these legislative efforts, of course, is that there needs to be a corresponding moratorium on the payment of mortgages, real estate taxes and property expenses for rental property owners, otherwise small landlords will shoulder an enormous amount of the financial burden during this crisis. “If renters don’t have money to pay rent, landlords don’t have money, either,” Doug Quattrochi, executive director of the group MassLandlords told the Boston Globe recently. “That’s money that pays plumbers and electricians and mortgage bills. If they’re a senior on a fixed income, it might be how they buy food.”

Gov. Charlie Baker indicated during his last press conference that he was not at a point where he would impose such a moratorium. Thus, as of now, a moratorium on rental payments in Massachusetts is unlikely, but of course, that could change, and such change would disproportionately affect the small landlords.

Housing Court COVID-19 Response

Practically speaking however, there exists a de facto moratorium on evictions because the statewide Housing Court has deferred hearing eviction cases through April 21. Under two new Standing Orders, all Housing Courts are closed to the public through at least until April 6, 2020, and are hearing only emergency matters. All evictions (summary process) are impacted by the order, and are currently on hold until April 21, 2020. A party may seek to advance their case upon a showing of “good cause,” but my feeling is that those will be quite rare. “Emergency matters” include the following circumstances: applications for injunctive relief, temporary restraining orders where a complaint involves a lockout, condemnation, no heat, no water, and/or no utilities; conduct and or conditions endangering the health safety and welfare of residential occupants and others; stay of levy on an execution; or where access is required to address an emergency (e.g., burst water pipe, gas fumes, etc.).

We want to highlight the likely scenario that once this crisis (hopefully) ends, the Housing Court will be swamped with cases in Spring/Summer 2020. On average, the Boston Housing Court itself receives hundreds of new eviction cases weekly. The COVID-19 postponement is sure to result in a huge backlog of eviction cases for many months to come and even more crowding in the courthouses.

Legal Guidance: Advice to landlords dealing with tenants who cannot pay rent — You have to take a wait and see approach. Legally, you are still allowed to issue a 14 day notice to quit for non-payment of rent. You are also allowed to file an eviction complaint in the Housing Court. But you will likely not get in front of a judge until sometime in May, and possibly longer. So, it’s a good idea to go ahead and have an attorney send out the notice to quit and get the summary process complaint filed, and then you’ll have to wait in line and see what happens. We do not yet know the order in which cases will be scheduled or if those filed during this time will be given priority.

Stay At Home Order: Impact on Rental Agent Activities

Gov. Baker’s Stay at Home guidance/order appears to apply to real estate and rental agent activities. They are not specifically mentioned as one of the enumerated “essential” businesses, and their activities do involve much inter-personal contact in the ordinary course of business. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has issued a formal letter advising rental agents not to hold showings of occupied rental units. He also issued guidance that any prospective tenants who are sick should not be allowed to view a unit in person, and added that open houses should not be used to market properties that are for rent or for sale. Anecdotally, I’m hearing that some (but not all) rental agencies are shutting down operations and many are simply working remotely.

Legal Guidance: showing rental properties live in person is a violation of the Stay At Home Order, and incongruent with the public health policy behind it. Rental agents should instead use virtual showing technology, FaceTime and Zoom to replicate in person showings. Moreover, holding in person showings could lead to someone getting infected with COVID-19, then a big lawsuit against the rental agent. We don’t want to see that either.

Move-in Delays

Many tenants are scheduled to move in the coming months and, while moving companies have been deemed “essential” under the Stay at Home Order, many people may feel safer staying in place than moving to an unknown locations. Landlords and tenants should be encouraged to work together in the event of delays.

We have created a COVID-19 Lease Rider addressing the issue of move-in delays during this crisis. While it may be tempting for a landlord to keep a prepaid first month’s rent, last month’s rent and security deposit in the event a tenant either cannot move or feels unsafe doing so, this may open landlords up to liability and legal claims are sure to ensue. We encourage the parties to work together and be flexible. 

For current occupancies, landlords should remind their tenants to keep the apartments clean and sanitary. Most importantly, during tenant turnovers, landlords should hire a sanitization company (e.g., Service Master) to clean and disinfect units prior to a new occupancy.

Conclusion

Our collective appreciation goes out to the many health care and public service employees working to help combat this epidemic. The Massachusetts’s official COVID-19 website contains the most up-to-date information. We are also available to consult regarding your current or pending landlord-tenant needs.

Feel free to email Rich at [email protected] or Jordana at [email protected].

{ 3 comments }

Legislation Would Temporarily Allow Video-Conferencing Technology For Attorney Notaries

Update: 4/23/20 — The bill (now Senate Bill 2645), has passed both Senate and the House, and will soon be on the way to the Governor’s desk where he is expected to sign the bill. Click here for my new post: Legislature Passes Remote Virtual Notarization Act for COVID-19 Emergency.

Update: 4/22/20 — The Senate has passed a new revised version of the Bill, now it moves on to the House where it is expected to pass.

The real estate legal community, including yours truly, have been working and lobbying tirelessly to address the various impacts of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Crisis on real estate transactions and closings. One of the first solutions we proposed is legislation allowing for remote or virtual notarizations of deeds, mortgages and other closing documents so that buyers and sellers can sign documents in the safety of their own homes on their computers. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, many folks are subject to the Governor’s Stay At Home Order or don’t feel safe traveling outside to an attorneys’ office for a real estate closing. Meanwhile, while the economy heads towards a recession, real estate is one of the few assets with available equity for consumers.

Under our proposed legislation, An Act Relative To Remote Notarization During COVID-19 State of Emergency (S.D. 2882), a licensed Massachusetts attorney may notarize legal documents using video-conferencing technology. There is a two-step process laid out in the legislation to complete the notarization process where the signer shows the attorney his/her state issued identification, sends the original signed documents back to the attorney, and then verifies the authenticity of the signed documents. Once that process is complete, the attorney can stamp the documents as notarized and must also complete and sign an affidavit attesting that all requirements have been met. Those notarized documents may then be recorded with the Registry of Deeds as valid, legal and binding recordable instruments. Additionally, the two video-conferences must be recorded and kept on file for 10 years. The bill would only be in effect during the COVID-19 State of Emergency.

The bill has widespread industry support from the Real Estate Bar Association (including the Probate Section), the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors and Greater Boston Real Estate Board. Twenty three (23) states have now passed remote notarization bills, including just recently due to the COVID19 crisis, including New York State, Vermont, Connecticut, Florida, Virginia, Texas, and Nevada. Moreover, a nationwide bill has been proposed by the American Land Title Association.

There are a number of technology companies that offer end-to-end remote notarization systems and are approved by national title insurance companies and lenders. They include:

To our real estate partners and colleagues, WE NEED YOUR HELP NOW! We need you to email or call your State Rep. and Senator and tell them you support our proposed legislation, An Act Relative To Remote Notarization During COVID-19 State of Emergency (S.D. 2882). To search for your state legislator, please click here.

Thank you! I will keep you posted as to developments and hopefully passage of the bill. Also many thanks to Attorneys Kosta and Nik Ligris on spearheading the bill!

Massachusetts Act relative to remote notarization during COVID-19 state of emergency. by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

{ 3 comments }