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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, 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

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

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

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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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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

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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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Potential Impacts: Registry of Deeds Closings, Financing Delays, New Covid-19 PSA Clause, Housing Market Slow Down?

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a highly infectious respiratory virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, and has spread across the globe, wreaking havoc on financial markets, public health systems, schools, universities, and daily lives. As of March 9, there are 729 reported cases in the US, with 27 deaths. Here in Massachusetts, as of March 9, there are 41 cases with no reported deaths. Infectious disease experts predict that the virus will continue spreading across the United States, affecting just about every aspect of our lives.

Update (3/17/20): Registry and Court Closings

Update (3/27/20): Impact on Rental Housing

Update (3/26/20): Remote Notarization Legislation

Here in Massachusetts, we are beginning to see significant impacts. Harvard University just cancelled all classes in favor of online instructions. Mayor Walsh has cancelled the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Some schools are closing temporarily and cancelling events. Companies are cancelling conferences and restricting travel. And of course, the stock market has dropped precipitously.

Likewise, in the real estate industry we are starting to see impacts as well. Despite the COVID fear factor, most agents are still reporting robust attendance at open houses and market activity, as confirmed by Curbed Boston. However, that may soon change as the virus gets increasingly widespread and the impacts to the financial markets begin to set in. I’m going to outline some potential impacts going forward, and I’ll update this post as developments emerge.

Registry of Deeds and Court Closings

Update (3/13/20): Suffolk and Salem Registry have shut down public closings. Only title examiners and attorneys are allowed access. They are still recording documents.

We are starting to see court and government building closings in other states. Federal courts in New York’s Southern District, including Manhattan, are restricting entry. No one will be allowed in who traveled within the past 14 days to China, South Korea, Japan, Italy or Iran, or who had close contact with someone who has. Trials have been postponed in Seattle and Tacoma courts.

No closings have been announced here in Massachusetts, but it’s a possibility. Virus impacts may result in Registries of Deeds and the Land Court being forced to closed or operate with a skeleton staff.

Fortunately, we have electronic recording capabilities here in Massachusetts. If the registries are closed, hopefully they will still allow for e-recording which should enable closings to keep on track. However, registry staff must still examine each electronically recorded document so there still could be impacts. We don’t know the fully extent of the impacts, if any.

Lender/Financing Delays

I have not yet heard of any major disruptions to lenders’ ability to provide financing. However, it’s not out of the realm of reason if companies are requiring their employees to work from home, etc. Further, if there are government employee impacts such as at the IRS for processing tax transcripts, there could be delays with underwriting. The same is true if appraisers cannot get out into the field and do their reports. I’ve already heard of at least one lender asking an attorney for a COVID-19 delay provision in a purchase and sale agreement, which brings me to the next topic…

COVID-19 Delay Clause In Purchase and Sales Agreement

Due to the various impacts and possibilities for delays as outlined above, we are already seeing requests for language dealing with the Coronavirus in purchase and sales agreements. As just mentioned, there may be lender delays affecting a buyer’s ability to obtain timely financing due to virus impacts. Buyers and sellers may be subject to quarantines, or if they are traveling, they may be stuck in a public health purgatory like the Princess Cruise ship. If Registries are closed and no e-recording is allowed, then closings will need to be cancelled or rescheduled. My colleagues and I are working on a new COVID-19 clause that will balance all of these concerns.

Our draft provision (subject to change) is as follows:

COVID-19 Impacts. 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].

Impact On The Real Estate Market

If you’re in the market for a house, all this uncertainty might have you worried about the housing market. Will it suffer a swoon similar to Wall Street? There are a few ways the virus could affect the housing market that you should be aware of. However, I think we can breath a sigh of relief, because a housing catastrophe on the scale of the 2008 financial crisis is almost certainly not going to happen.

The good news is that mortgage interest rates are still at historic lows. However, I’m also hearing that a lot of lenders are at full capacity with demand for both refinances and purchases so rates may be heading up in the very near future.

I think as we are heading towards a global recession and the continuing daily life impacts of the virus, we are going to see a slowing down of the real estate market in general. Uncertainty is the hobgoblin of the home buyer. Indeed, this is exactly what Lawrence Yun, Chief Economist at the National Assoc. of Realtors is saying:

I hope I’m wrong. Comment below or shoot me a line ([email protected]) and tell me what you’re seeing out there. I’ll keep you posted with any developments.

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Allen Seymour – Arraignment Brookline District Court

Summary Judgment Ruling In Favor of Forgery Victim Allows Case to Proceed to Trial

As I’ve written here, I have been representing three victims in a brazen and complex real estate forgery scam. The ringleader was Allen Seymour of Oxford, who used forged deeds, fake notary stamps and driver’s licenses to sell properties out from under homeowners, flipping their properties to wealthy investors, and pocketing the cash. Seymour targeted properties in Cambridge, Brookline, and Somerville. By accounts, he made off with over $2M in illicit sale proceeds. Seymour also worked with a group of accomplices including a Newton police lieutenant. The cases have been featured in several Fox News 25 segments. While Seymour remains in jail awaiting trial on 22 felony indictments, the civil cases have been ongoing for almost two years, and are heading towards trial.

I just received the first major court ruling in the cases from Superior Court Justice Douglas Wilkins. The ruling is noteworthy because it appears to be the first time a Massachusetts judge has issued a written decision dealing with the unique type of forgery that occurred in this case.

The Deed Forgery Scam

Forged Deed First Page
Forged Deed Second Page

The facts of the case are pretty surreal. My client is the owner of a three family property in Brookline, assessed at $1.5 Million. He was behind on his mortgage, and Seymour (using the alias “Rich Chase”) approached him with a foreclosure rescue scheme. Seymour had him sign a mortgage payoff authorization form which contained a separate signature page with a notary block – which would be used later to perpetrate the fraudulent scam. Ordinarily, mortgage payoff authorizations are not notarized. Behind my client’s back, Seymour took the notarized signature page of the payoff form and attached it to a quitclaim deed and recorded it with the registry of deeds. This deed “sold” the property from my client to Seymour’s accomplice for some 30% of its value, at $480,000. While this was happening, Seymour orchestrated a flip of the property for $750,000 to an LLC owned by Fred Starikov, the owner of City Realty in Boston. Starikov’s LLC then took out a $850,000 mortgage on the property from Bee Investments LLC. Seymour then made off with the sale proceeds, and tried to flee the country with a duffle bag of cash and a trash bag filled with Oxycontin. Fortunately, he was caught in South Carolina by the FBI, and brought back to Massachusetts to face multiple felony charges.

Lawsuit Asserts Claims for Forgery and Fraud

On behalf of the victim, I brought claims for quiet title and fraud, asserting that the quitclaim deed was a forgery. Under Massachusetts law, a forgery of a deed conveys no title. It is null and void, and title reverts back to the original owner as if the forgery never occurred. This is very important in these cases, because a forgery would also avoid the defense asserted by Starikov and his lender being a “bona fide good faith” purchase or lender. This defense, if successful, could allow them to keep title to the property. Starikov and his lender also asserted a claim for “equitable subrogation.” This theory is used to enable a lender to seek repayment of monies paid out in the transaction (typically mortgage proceeds) on the theory of unjust enrichment and mistake.

What is a Forgery?

Starikov and his lender filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss the case prior to trial, arguing that the deed wasn’t a forgery because my client’s signature was “genuine” and on the deed itself, and asserting the good faith and equitable subrogation defenses. In what appears to be a case of first impression, Justice Wilkins held that the transfer of an altered signature page onto a deed was in fact a forgery under the common law definition. As he wrote in his decision:

Red Flags: Good Faith and Equitable Subrogation

Judge Wilkins also rejected the good faith purchaser and equitable subrogation defenses. As I argued, the judge recognized that there were several “red flags” with the deed and the purchase and sale agreement (which was also forged) which could have put a closing attorney on notice of the irregularities in the transaction. These red flags are properly considered at trial, the judge ruled.

What’s Next?

Overall, I’m very pleased with Judge Wilkin’s ruling. He understood the issues, and provided some much needed justice for my client. So now the case will proceed to trial (or settlement). I will keep you appraised of any further developments. I’ve embedded the entire opinion below for your reading pleasure.

Nelson v. Chandler Cazenove LLC (Middlesex Mass. Superior Court) Jan. 23, 2020 by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Parties Who Negotiated Past Purchase and Sale Agreement Deadline Waived It, Court Rules

The Massachusetts Appeals Court just came down with a ruling which should be a cautionary tale to everyone in the residential real estate business. It’s an interesting fact pattern, but not necessarily unusual. For those with short attention spans, the Court held that the standard deadline to execute the purchase and sale agreement is not necessarily a hard deadline. Rather, the deadline can be waived by the parties if they negotiate beyond the date, even without a formal extension in place. The Court also held that where the property is owned by several individuals, even if only one of those individuals sign the offer, this is not necessarily fatal to the deal.

Ferguson v. Maxim, Mass. Appeals Court, 18-P-1081 (Nov. 6, 2019)

In the case, the buyer, David Ferguson, and the seller, Joyce Maxim, signed the standard form Offer to Purchase put out by the Massachusetts Association of Realtors for the sale of residential property in Leominster. (For my post comparing the MAR form with the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, click here). It turns out that title to the property was actually held by a group of five individuals including Maxim, but we will get to that in a few. As is standard, the Offer provided that the parties would enter into a standard form purchase and sale agreement by a specific deadline. However, the seller’s attorney did not sent out a draft PSA until after the deadline, and negotiations continued well past the deadline without any issue raised by the parties or their attorneys. Both attorneys had suggested formalizing an extension of the PSA deadline at various times, but a formal extension agreement was never signed. At some point the seller’s attorney tried to cease the negotiations acknowledging that “we are well beyond our [PSA] date.” A week later, the buyer’s attorney tried to resurrect negotiations and save the deal. Further negotiations ensued between the parties, but they were abruptly stopped by the seller’s attorney who stated that the deal was for all intents and purposes dead.

Mr. Ferguson, the buyer, was naturally upset, and sued, seeking an order of “specific performance” to enforce the deal, based on well established law that an offer to purchase is a legally binding contract for the sale of real estate. (Read the case if you want to learn about various procedural issues that arose in the case with respect to the buyer’s obtaining a lis pendens and the seller’s special motion to dismiss under the lis pendens law.).

Two Important Take-Aways

The important take-aways from the ruling were twofold. First, the Court ruled that the typical deadline to execute the purchase and sale agreement is not always a hard deadline. Some people may be surprised to here that, but under Massachusetts law, a deadline in any contract can be “waived” by the parties words, actions, or conduct. Here, the Court said that a waiver of the deadline could be found where the seller’s attorney didn’t provide the draft PSA until after the deadline and the parties freely negotiated well past the deadline, even without a formal extension in place. Second, the Court also held that where the property is owned by several individuals, only having one of those individuals sign the offer is not necessarily fatal to the deal. If there is evidence that the signatory had apparently authority to sign for the others, or that the sellers ratified the offer, then the contract could be enforced. So now the buyer’s case will continue on for trial. Interestingly, during the pendency of the case, the sellers sold the property to another party. If the buyer is successfully, that new buyer is going to be very unhappy because his transfer will be voided! He may want to lawyer up himself.

Let’s Play Monday Morning Quarterback!

Now, what could have been done differently in this case to avoid the bad result for the seller? For starters, the seller’s attorney should have delivered the draft PSA on time. Once the parties started negotiations after the PSA deadline, they were in “no man’s zone” and that can only come back to hurt the sellers. Deadlines need to be taken very seriously, and sharp lawyers will always send out emails or other written reminders of them, and reserve their rights to terminate an agreement if the parties blow past a deadline without a written extension in place. The buyer’s attorney played this correctly, and didn’t push on the deadline issue because the law would favor his client on the waiver issue (which it ultimately did).

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Benefits and Affordability Of Owner’s Title Insurance Coverage Praised In Widely Read Article

When my friend Jim Morrison, formerly of Banker and Tradesman and now a freelance real estate reporter, contacted me about an article on owner’s title insurance, I was rather surprised. After all, title insurance isn’t the most “sexy” of real estate topics. However, I did have a whole bunch of horror stories to tell Jim about what happens when buyers don’t elect to get owner’s title insurance coverage. I told Jim the stories and, as always, recounted how I got owner’s title insurance on my own house purchases, even though I was pretty certain the title was clean. The article would be posted on Boston.com, Jim said. Sound great, Jim, thanks for letting me comment, I said.

Well, Jim wrote a fantastic article. And what do you know, but the article was so widely read and shared that the Globe decided to put it in the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine with yours truly featured in the inset! I was thrilled — not only for the good press, but more importantly, to spread the word that owner’s title insurance is a “must-have” for every buyer and a good deal financially.

You can find a link to the article here: What Is Title Insurance, and Why Do You Need It? It is really one of the best articles on owner’s title insurance that I’ve seen in a long time. For all my fellow law colleagues, real estate agents, and mortgage professionals, it’s a great piece to share on your social media feed and client newsletters!

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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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Bumpy Ride Ahead — Expect Some Delays For Certain Loans

I asked my friend David Gaffin, Senior Mortgage Banker and Branch Manager at Fairway Mortgage – Hudson ([email protected]), whether and to what extent the federal government shutdown is affecting real estate closings in Massachusetts. Here’s what he has to say.

Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac Loans — Mixed Bag on Impact/Delays

In general, the shutdown doesn’t impact loan processing at these agencies because they’re not funded by the government. If you’re a federal worker or contractor, however, and your lender cannot get a verbal verification of employment from your federal employer prior to loan delivery, your loan approval may be denied or delayed. Verification of employment is a key requirement to get a loan from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the agencies cannot buy loans in which a borrower’s employment — and ability to repay — hasn’t been fully vetted. Also, if you loan requires SSA or IRS tax transcript verification, there could be delays, as discussed below.

FHA Closings May Be Delayed

With fewer staff working at FHA, some borrowers may see a closing delay due to increased backlog. Systems and functions that will NOT remain available during the shutdown are:

  • Endorsements on HECM/Reverse mortgages (please watch for updates from reverse mortgage investors on any impact to those programs as a result)
  • Homeownership Center staff will be furloughed so they will not complete HRAP condo project approvals that have been submitted. They recommend holding all submissions until the shut down is over.
  • Loans with cases created during the shut down will have “holds” for the social security verification that happens in FHA connection. With the social security administration services also impacted this verification cannot occur.  Until this is resolved these loans with cases created during the shut down won’t be able to close until the shut down ends and we can remove the verification “hold.”

USDA Loans Will Be Impacted

It appears that the shutdown will have a significant effect on USDA loans.

  • Loans with a conditional commitment already issued by a RHS office before the shutdown will be able to close as normal.
  • Loans that have not been reviewed by RHS staff and had a conditional commitment issued before the shut down will NOT be reviewed until after the shut down. This will impact closings as can not close a USDA loan without the conditional commitment issued. Effectively, even though a conditional commitment issue, until reviewed cannot close. CLOSING DELAYS, RATE LOCK EXTENSION FEES POSSIBLE TO CONSUMER
  • Loans that have already closed but have not obtained the loan note guarantee prior to the shut down will also have that process delayed, potentially impacting secondary market operations.

SSA (Social Security Administration) Verification Impact

To process a mortgage application, lenders verify that your Social Security number is valid with the Social Security Administration. With significant delays expected in processing these requests, government-sponsored agencies have relaxed their rules to allow lenders to submit these reports prior to loan delivery rather than earlier in the loan process. If your Social Security number cannot be validated prior to this time, however, your loan could be denied.

  • Third party vendors used to verify social security numbers may not receive responses from SSA during a shutdown. This has the potential to impact closings
  • Borrowers may not be able to obtain income benefit documentation information in a timely manner during the shut down. This has the potential to impact closings

NFIP (National Flood Insurance Program)

  • FEMA has instructed the NFIP to issue flood policies during the shut down, a reversal of previous direction

Internal Revenue Service — Tax Transcripts Back Online

As part of the usual underwriting process, lenders request copies of a borrower’s tax transcripts from the IRS. Originally, the IRS suspended processing tax transcript information when the shutdown began, but as concerns about a prolonged shutdown heightened, trade groups – including the Mortgage Bankers Association – lobbied the IRS to reconsider. The IRS will resume processing lender requests for tax transcripts to verify income for mortgage applicants despite the government shutdown. In a letter released Monday to participants of its Income Verification Express Service, the IRS said it will begin working through the backlog of requests that have piled up since December 22 and that the employees involved will return to work. There still could be delays in obtaining tax transcripts.

Another issue brought to my attention concerns tax lien releases. There have been reports that the IRS is not issuing or delaying the issuances of tax lien releases, so that would impact a seller’s ability to deliver clean title.

_______________________________________________________________

If you have any further questions about the impact of the federal government shutdown on Massachusetts real estate and loan closings, feel free to contact David Gaffin directly at [email protected] or Tel: 508-683-0383

 

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Attorney General Healy Announces Indictments Against Allen Seymour and Ex-Wife

As I’ve written here before, I have been representing three families victimized by convicted felon, Allen Seymour, in a brazen complex real estate forgery scam. As a result of the courageous testimony from my clients, I’m happy to report that a statewide Grand Jury has just handed down a 22 count indictment against Seymour on charges of forgery, uttering, larceny, and money laundering. Seymour’s ex-wife, Tina Seymour, was also charged with conspiracy to commit forgery.

Seymour, who used the alias “Richard Chase,” targeted elderly and unsophisticated homeowners. He used forged deeds and fake notary stamps to sell their properties out from under them, flipping them to wealthy investors, and pocketing the cash. Seymour targeted properties in Cambridge, Brookline, and Somerville. As claimed in my lawsuits, Seymour also worked with a group of accomplices including Newton police lieutenant, Francis Foley III, who was not indicted but remains under investigation and on paid leave from the force.

Allen Seymour fled the state and was apprehended in South Carolina in May, and is currently being held without bail pending probation surrender hearing scheduled for a later date. He will appear in Worcester Superior Court on Jan. 7, 2019 for a hearing regarding his probation surrender. Tina Seymour will be arraigned in Hampden Superior Court at a later date.

I have filed three civil actions in Middlesex Superior Court, seeking to quiet title and restore ownership to the victims. The cases are ongoing.

First American Title Company has issued a statewide Fraud Agent Alert concerning this scheme.

Boston 25 News reported on the indictment below

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Cases Subject of Attorney General and FBI Investigation, Oxford Man Under Arrest

Over the last month, I’ve been representing the victims in two significant forgery lawsuits, the likes and brazenness of which I have not seen in 20 years of practicing law. The matters are now the subject of criminal charges by the Attorney General’s Office.

As alleged in the two lawsuits, Allen J. Seymour, of Oxford, Massachusetts, is the alleged mastermind behind a sophisticated forgery scheme to defraud property owners out of their ownership to their homes. In one of the schemes involving a Brookline property, Seymour, using an alias, approached my client with a foreclosure assistance plan, getting him to execute a mortgage payoff form with an unusual second signature page. Unbeknownst to my client, that signature page was then attached to a quitclaim deed to a straw-person (an individual known as Kayla Turner, also of Oxford, MA), and recorded with the Norfolk Registry of Deeds. The straw-person then purported to sell the deal to local investors, with the sale proceeds wired to a bank account controlled by Seymour and his associates.

In another case involving a Cambridge property, a deed was forged using a fake notary public stamp, then sold to investors who took out a $2 Million mortgage loan against the property. My client found out about the scam when a locksmith arrived at his house, attempting to drill out his front door lockset. As alleged in the lawsuit and shown by records kept by the Secretary of State’s Office, the straw entity, the Dudley Group, LLC, used in the Cambridge transaction was managed by a Francis Foley III, who is a Lieutenant in the Newton, Massachusetts Police Department.

This is not Allen Seymour’s first run in with the law. He pled guilty in 2009-10 to a slew of federal and state crimes stemming from a similar foreclosure and mortgage fraud scheme in the Worcester County area whereby he defrauded homeowners out of millions of dollars. Seymour was arrested at a Florida airport in February 2008 with $1.37 million in cash hidden in his luggage. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

As a result of the lawsuits filed by my office and cooperation with the Attorney General’s office, Seymour was recently arrested in South Carolina. Seymour was arraigned in Brookline District Court on June 18, with bail set at $2.5 Million. Forgery (also known as uttering) of a deed is a felony with a maximum state prison sentence of 10 years.

I have filed a civil action in both cases to quiet title to the property, asking the court to reverse the fraudulent transactions. Under the law, a deed procured by forgery conveys no title. The cases are complicated because there are many parties involved and there have been mortgages recorded against the properties which will need to be discharged.

Early estimates are that up to $1,500,000 in sale proceeds were taken in these fraudulent transactions. The investors who purchased the properties are also pursuing Seymour and his associates.

I was recently interviewed by Fox News 25 (see video below) on these cases which are sure to attract some local media attention. There are also reports of many more potential fraudulent deals that were pending. If you have any knowledge of these, please contact me at [email protected]

I will keep you updated with any important developments!

Related Links:  Read the Lawsuit in Anzalone v. Dudley Group LLC, Middlesex Superior Court; Nelson v. Chandler Cazanove LLC, Middlesex Superior Court

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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 — 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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