Referendum to the rescue? New bill would cancel the rent, ban evictions, and make Housing Court cases secret

June 30, 2020:-  Housing providers in Massachusetts may want to prepare for a referendum campaign. A new legislative proposal, HD 5166, would cancel the rent, make Housing Court cases secret, and extend the eviction moratorium for 12 months after the end of he state of emergency.

What do I mean by “cancel the rent”? After the end of the eviction moratorium–when rental-property owners would finally be allowed access to the courts again for nonpayment cases–the onus would be on the housing provider seeking unpaid rent to prove that the reason for nonpayment was not connected in some way to the emergency. That is an almost insuperable burden. Bear in mind, more than a year’s worth of rent could have accrued by that stage.

That aside, the bill is largely a grab-bag of previously filed proposals (e.g. eviction sealing and “just cause eviction”) repackaged as a response to the pandemic. If enacted it would so destabilize the market as to render the rental-housing business non-viable for all but the biggest (and most politically wired) landlords. So the bill title, “An Act to guarantee housing stability during the COVID 19 emergency and recovery,” is beyond parody.

Because of its emergency preamble, the bill, filed by State Representatives Mike Connolly and Kevin Honan (House Chair of the Joint Committee on Housing) with more than 20 co-sponsors, would go into effect immediately and the first 10 signatures necessary to start the referendum process would be due within 30 days.

Unfortunately, this proposal seems deliberately designed to destroy most private rental housing in Massachusetts thereby reducing the options for tenants to a choice between (a) big corporate landlords and (2) government housing. On the other hand (and trying hard to be optimistic and giving the politicians the benefit of the doubt) perhaps it’s just a milker bill (also known as a fetcher or juice bill).

Whatever the proponents’ aims, if this bill becomes law the only realistic way to rescue private rental housing (and preserve meaningful choice) is the referendum. Click here for referendum basics. In the meantime, please call your State Representative and Senator and ask them to take a stand against this bill.

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Lawmaker calls on Governor to extend moratorium

June 30, 2020:-  The eviction moratorium will expire in mid-August, unless Governor Baker prolongs it.  Unfortunately according to this story in MassLive and this Tweet (below), Representative Kevin Honan is urging the Governor to extend the moratorium.  I would not worry about a state representative weighing in but for the fact that this one is House chair of the Joint Committee on Housing and, therefore, somebody to whom the Governor might be inclined to listen.

For my argument as to why the Governor should let the moratorium expire (principally its negative impact on affordable housing) click here.Rep Honan tweet

 

 

Juneteenth: Remembering James H. Wolff, Esq.

June 19, 2020:- This Juneteenth please take some time to remember James H. Wolff, Esq., a naval veteran of the Civil War and co-founder of the first Black law firm in Massachusetts.

Wolff was just 14 when he enlisted in the US Navy at the outbreak of the Civil War. Born to free parents in New Hampshire, he must have known that by volunteering to fight the Slave Power he was at risk of losing both his liberty and his life. Live free or die were the conditions of his daily life, not simply a motto.

He was aboard Minnesota when she bombarded the Confederates into surrender at Fort Hatteras, and when she became a stationary target for enemy fire after running aground early in the Battle of Hampton Roads. Three of her crew died in that engagement.

Wolff survived the battle and the rest of the war, and went on to practice law in Massachusetts.  Twenty years after the war’s end and the passage of the Massachusetts anti-discrimination act, Wolff represented the plaintiff in a case that tested the statute’s limits and led to its expansion.  His client in that 1885 case, Edward E. Brown, also happened to be his law partner. Together with attorney Edwin Garrison Walker, Wolff and Brown established the state’s first Black law firm. It was a firm with a mission.

After the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883) that Congress lacked the constitutional authority to prohibit private discrimination (effectively neutralizing the federal Civil Rights Act) Wolff and his partners helped lead the campaign for stronger state-level legislation in Massachusetts. One element of that campaign took the form of a lawsuit against a Boston skating rink that refused to sell tickets to people of color. Brown was a plaintiff, and Wolff his attorney. They won.

Coordinating the case and legislative effort to enforce and amend the 1865 law was the Wendell Phillips Club, which functioned as a sort of precursor to the NAACP, bringing together business owners, ministers, and lawyers in the cause of civil rights.  Walker, Wolff, and Brown were at the forefront, litigating and lobbying for liberty pro bono publico while somehow bringing in enough billable work to pay the bills and raise their families (both of Wolff’s sons followed him into the law, by the way).

For a fuller account of the case, see my article “The Genesis of the Black Law Firm in Massachusetts,” Massachusetts Legal History 5 (1999).  Not quite everything ever published is available online, it seems, so if you would like a copy, email your request to peter@petervickery.com.

In the meantime, please devote a few moments of thought to James H. Wolff.  An exemplar of physical and moral courage, he is worthy of remembrance.

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James H. Wolff, Esq.

Eviction moratorium: HUD, Fannie, and Freddie extend through August

June 17, 2020:- An eviction moratorium that applies to some properties (those with FHA-insured mortgages) just got extended, as this mortgagee letter from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and this FHFA news release explain.

The decision does not mean that the broader federal eviction moratorium is being extended (only Congress can do that) or that the Massachusetts moratorium is being extended (only the Massachusetts Governor can do do that, or — if it decides to amend the eviction-moratorium statute — the Legislature). The moratorium in question is one of three that may apply to your property if you are a housing provider in Massachusetts.

Before the  Chapter 65 eviction moratorium there was the CARES Act eviction moratorium and before the CARES Act eviction moratorium there was the HUD eviction moratorium. Under Chapter 65, the eviction moratorium and ban on issuing notices to quit will expire on August 18, unless the Governor extends the moratorium by 90 days.

There is some overlap between the federal and State moratoria, so that even if the Massachusetts moratorium expires on August 18, a housing provider may still not be able to go to court for unpaid rent, or even terminate the lease by way of a notice to quit, if the tenant lives in a property financed by an FHA-insured mortgage. It’s all a bit of a jigsaw puzzle.

Takeaway: Housing providers in Massachusetts should not assume that after August 18 they will be able to issue non-paying tenants with notices to quit.

 

Senate to consider extending and expanding eviction moratorium

June 15, 2020:-  Before the Massachusetts Legislature imposed an eviction moratorium, Congress enacted a limited moratorium of its own. It lasts 120 days and is confined to properties participating in federal programs including, at the very outer edge, properties with federally-backed mortgage loans. CARES Act, section 4024 (page 574 of the PDF). The 120-day period started running on March 27 so expires on July 25. Democrats in Congress want to not only extend the duration of the moratorium but also expand it to cover all rental properties.

Legislative largesse

The bill that passed the House (where the Democrats have a majority) and is currently before the Senate (where the Republicans have a majority) is titled the HEROES Act.

The name is apt. Just reading the bill requires a degree of fortitude bordering on heroism. It consists of 1,815 pages that explain how the federal government should go about spending $3 trillion (trillion with a T), a sum that even nowadays seems quite a large amount of money. According to the Endowment for Human Development, a stack of one trillion dollar bills would reach almost 68,000 miles. So a stack of three trillion dollar bills would reach 204,000 miles. Driving that distance at 60 mph would take 3,400 hours, i.e. 142 days, and that’s with no rest stops (bad idea). No wonder it took Congress 1,815 pages.

Where would the proposed $3 trillion go? The potential recipients are legion, so I will name but a few that may prove of particular interest to Bay Staters.

For example, $50 million would go to the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) which every year helps fund entities in Massachusetts such as Community Legal Aid (CLA) and Northeast Legal Aid (NLA) to the tune of about $1.5 million and $1 million respectively. If you are a housing provider who has ever had to take tenants to Housing Court for, say, nonpayment of rent (back when housing providers were allowed to do that sort of thing), you may be familiar with CLA and NLA. They are the attorneys who represent the tenants. Similarly, the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association also receives LSC funding of approximately $2 million per year, which is exactly the kind of voluntarism I could volunteer for.

Under the HEROES Act another $4 million would go to the Fair Housing Organization Initiative. Earlier this year, HUD (which administers the program) awarded $300,000 to Community Legal Aid (yes, the same Community Legal Aid that got $1.5 million from the federal Legal Services Corporation). HUD also doled out $300,000 to Massachusetts Fair Housing Center, Inc. That’s the corporation that is suing Massachusetts in federal court over the Lead Paint Law, which it alleges discriminates against families with children. For a list of reasons why that lawsuit represents a less-than-judicious use of taxpayers’ money and everyone’s time, click here.

In addition to spreading the wealth around, the HEROES Act would prohibit evictions.

A year-long, nationwide eviction moratorium

In the PDF version of the HEROES Act, the provisions about the eviction moratorium start at page 961 in section 110203 of Division K, Title II (titled “Protecting Renters and Homeowners from Evictions and Foreclosures).

What would this part of the bill do if the Senate approves? For a period of 12 months after enactment, it would prohibit “legal action to recover possession of the covered dwelling from the tenant for nonpayment of rent or other fees or charges.”  The term “covered dwelling” means dwellings covered by section 802 of the federal Fair Housing Act, i.e. all rental units.  Yes, all rental units in the country, even in those States that have addressed the issue — and continue to do so — in their own way.

Federalism 101

Whether judicially, legislatively, or by executive order, many of the States have enacted eviction moratoria of some kind and duration. In a country of approximately 330-million people across 50 States, there has been some variety.  Utah imposed a ban whereas Oklahoma did not. New York extended its ban whereas Colorado did not. California? We’ll see. May Congress supplant these various State-level approaches, replacing them with a one-size-fits-all rule?

Congress does not have the authority to make laws governing absolutely each and every form of human activity that may occur in the United States. Its powers are limited, believe it or not (and for many in Congress it seems to be “not”).

As James Madison explained: “[T]he proposed government cannot be deemed a national one since its jurisdiction extends to certain enumerated objects only, and leaves to the several States a residual and inviolable sovereignty over all other objects.” Federalist No. 39. Sovereignty is shared, the Constitution circumscribes the powers of Congress, and the Constitution does not give a articular power to Congress it remains with the States. The lines of demarcation may be blurry but they are not invisible.

Among the enumerated powers of Congress is the power to regulate interstate commerce. This is what allows Congress to legislate in the area of housing so as to reduce invidious discrimination. Activities within a singe State that may have a a substantial and harmful effect on interstate commerce can come within the clause’s scope, e.g. racial discrimination in housing.

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James Madison

Flexible it may be, but the Commerce Clause has its bounds. For example, it does not extend beyond economic activity to economic inactivity, as the Supreme Court held in NFIB v. Sebelius. In an area where the States are already acting separately, and where there is no invidious racial discrimination or other activity that has a substantial and harmful effect on interstate commerce, the answer should be no.

That seems to be the opinion of Senate Republicans at this point, who consider the bill a liberal wish list. When the GOP-majority Senate takes up the HEROES Act in July (or perhaps August according to this article) it seems unlikely to vote to extend and expand the eviction moratorium. But, as we have all learned in the past few months if we didn’t know it already, sometimes changes come thick and fast.

Conclusion

The CARES Act’s eviction moratorium applies to housing with some kind of federal connection, albeit tenuous in some cases. Each State has supplemented that federal law with a response of its own, tailored to local needs. Those State-level laws may be unpalatable and arguably unconstitutional, e.g. Chapter 65 in Massachusetts. But they are examples of federalism in action, and typify the way our system is supposed to work. Expanding the federal moratorium is both unnecessary and unconstitutional.

If you believe that the Senate should reject the effort to impose a nationwide, year-long moratorium on evictions, please call your U.S. Senators and let them know.

 

Governor Baker, let the eviction moratorium expire

June 11, 2020:-  Here’s a grip-and-grin photo of Governor Charlie Baker and yours truly back in 2018 (I’m the one with the beard). If I met the Governor again today and could ask him one thing, it would be to let the eviction moratorium expire.

Why? Because, as I point out in my latest article for MassLandlords, the eviction moratorium is making affordable housing even scarcer. It encourages housing providers to keep vacant units off the market. For the full text of the article, click here.

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Peter Vickery, Esq. and Gov. Charlie Baker

A dangerous servant

June 1, 2020:-  What is there to say today. Following the slow and public killing of George Floyd by an agent of the state, there is some valuable discussion about the doctrine of qualified immunity, e.g. this article in reason, and some renewed interest in a subject that was in the news before COVID 19,  e.g. this 2019 post from the ACLU on the way collective bargaining agreements stymie reform. In a future post, I will weigh in.

But for now, I believe that it is worth thinking about two simple statements. First, this one, sometimes attributed to George Washington: “Government, like fire, is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” Second, this quote from V for Vendetta.

I offer my sincere condolences to Mr. Floyd’s loved ones.

 

Hot news: lawsuit over eviction moratorium in NY

May 28, 2020:- Alleging that the eviction moratorium operates as a taking of their property without just compensation, a group of housing providers in New York have filed suit in federal court, according to the New York Law Journal.

Stay tuned.

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NY lawmakers extend eviction moratorium

May 28, 2020:- According to this report in News Brig, the New York legislature voted to extend the moratorium on residential evictions to last as long as the state of emergency. Originally, the moratorium was scheduled to expire in August.

Unlike Massachusetts (whose eviction moratorium will end on August 18 unless the Governor extends it)* New York’s moratorium is confined to cases where the reason for non-payment is related to COVID 19.  In contrast, the Massachusetts law, Chapter 65, prohibits housing providers starting evictions for any and all reasons, except where a tenant’s criminal activity or lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of another person on the premises or the general public.

*Under Chapter 65, if Governor Baker so chooses, he could extend the moratorium for the length of the state of emergency plus 45 days. How long will state of emergency last? How long is a piece of string?

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Eviction moratorium still in effect

May 26, 2020:- The eviction moratorium (Chapter 65) is still in effect. The earliest date on which is will expire is August 18 (120 days after Chapter 65 became law). However, the Governor could extend it by 90 days, and keep doing so until 45 after the end of the state of emergency.

End?

When will the state of emergency end? The Governor has not said. There has to be a state of emergency in effect for the Governor to issue emergency orders, so the chronology of his four-phase re-opening plan gives some clues.

No NTQs

Until the moratorium expires (August 18 at the earliest, and possibly later), housing providers must not send notices to quit, except for “essential evictions,” i.e. where the tenant’s criminal activity/lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of another person lawfully on the premises or the general public.

P.S.

May 28, 2020:- In addition to the State-level eviction moratorium established by Chapter 65, there is also a federal moratorium that Congress imposed on some properties by way of the CARES Act. As this reminder from HUD points out, housing providers are not allowed to charge late fees that accrue for unpaid rent during the 120-day federal moratorium (which ends July 25). To determine whether your property is subject to the federal moratorium, you may want to ask your lawyer.

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Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

 

Rent guarantee insurance

May 22, 2020:- Missed rental payments are on the rise in Massachusetts, but a market solution may be available.

Even though the eviction moratorium law (Chapter 65) says that tenants are required to pay rent, the lack of an enforcement mechanism is leading some to skip paying the rent with a sense of impunity. Housing providers still have to pay to maintain the property and keep it up to code even when they are not receiving rent. One way for providers to stay afloat might be rent-guarantee insurance, also known as rent default insurance, which promises coverage in the event that a tenant stops paying rent.

Unless and until the Massachusetts Legislature takes up the Fair and Equal Housing Guarantee surety-bond policy that MassLandlords is promoting, some housing providers may find this kind of product helpful. And I see that one company, Avail, has a short video on the subject.

If affordable, insurance might be a viable market solution to government failure. By “government failure” I mean the Commonwealth requiring one party to provide housing without being able to go to court to make the other party pay for said housing. This forces rental-property owners to either (a) provide free housing (not a great business model) or (b) exit the market, thereby reducing the amount of rental housing available.

Ideally, Governor Charlie Baker would let Chapter 65 expire on August 18 rather than exercising his option to extend it. But if he chooses to prolong the moratorium, insurance might do the trick.

Please note that I have no contractual, fiduciary, relationship with Avail or Steady Marketplace, either oral or written, and receive no remuneration of any kind from the companies, make no representations regarding them, and suspect that there are other entities out there that offer similar insurance products. In the vernacular, I am not shilling for Avail or Steady Marketplace, or any other insurance company for that matter.  I just think that for some housing providers, rent-guarantee insurance might be worth exploring.

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The Big Shut Up: the eviction moratorium and speech

May 19, 2020:-  The Massachusetts eviction moratorium (Chapter 65) has several execrable features, and one of the worst is the abridgment of free speech. The speech in question is in the category that courts refer to as “commercial speech.” Should you care about State government violating people’s right to utter commercial speech? If you care about the non-commercial variety, yes.

Some, but not all, notices to quit

The statute — §3(a)(ii) to be precise — prohibits housing providers from sending “any notice, including a notice to quit, requesting, or demanding that a tenant of a residential dwelling unit vacate the premises” for non-payment of rent, for cause, or for no cause. However, the statute does permit notices to quit where a tenant’s criminal activity or lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of another person, including the general public.

So if a tenant is violating the lease in a way that “may impact the health or safety” of another, the housing provider is allowed to terminate the tenancy and issue a notice to quit (a prerequisite for most eviction proceedings, called “summary process” in Massachusetts).  But if a tenant is simply not paying rent, the housing provider is not allowed to do so.

Before going any further, it is important to remember this key point: The law prohibits some, but not all, notices to quit.

Notices to quit are speech

A notice to quit is, literally, correspondence; a letter from one person to another. Both sender and recipient are parties to a contract, and the notice to quit is how the sender tells the recipient that the contract is at an end. It is a form of “expression related solely to the economic interests of the speaker and its audience” so constitutes commercial speech.  Central Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Public Serv. Comm’n of N.Y., 447 U.S. 557, 561 (1980). The housing provider who sends the notice to quit is not evicting the tenant. Only a judge can do that by way of legal proceedings called summary process (see below).

Even though the notice to quit is commercial speech, which means that it gets less protection from the courts than non-commercial varieties, the government does not have free rein. If it wants to restrict someone’s commercial speech, the government still has to follow some rules.

To be constitutional, commercial-speech restrictions must be effective

The Supreme Judicial Court has held that “a restriction on commercial speech will not be upheld if it provides only ineffective or remote support for the government’s purpose.”  Bulldog Inv’rs Gen. P’ship v. Sec’y of Com., 460 Mass. 647, 669–70 (2011) quoting Central Hudson, 447 U.S. at 564. If the restriction does not effectively support the government’s purpose, it is unconstitutional.

Does the ban on some notices to quit (but not others) effectively support the government’s purpose? And what is the government’s purpose, anyway?

The selective ban on notices to quit is ineffective

The express purpose of the Commonwealth, stated in the statute’s emergency preamble, is to establish “a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the Governor’s COVID 19 emergency declaration.” So for the duration of the emergency the government wants to temporarily stop evictions. Fair enough, some might say.

But evictions are not something housing providers can perform. Housing providers cannot evict anyone; only judges can do that. There are statutes that make this clear.  G.L. c. 239 and c. 186.

If landlords try to evict, that is called self help, and it is illegal in Massachusetts. In fact, tenants’ advocates recommend that if a landlord resorts to self help the tenants should call the police and file a criminal complaint. Don’t believe me? Follow this link to the Massachusetts Legal Aid site and scroll down to the words in bold: Call the police and file a criminal complaint.

In order to impose a moratorium on evictions, the Commonwealth need only prohibit the courts from issuing judgments and executions for possession, which it has done by way of §3(b)(ii) which states that the courts must not “enter a judgment or default judgment for a plaintiff for possession of a residential dwelling unit… (iii) issue an execution for possession of a residential dwelling unit… ; (iv) deny, upon the request of a defendant, a stay of execution, or upon the request by a party, a continuance of a summary process case; or (v) schedule a court event, including a summary process trial.”

Courts are not allowed to hold summary process trials, enter judgment, award possession to housing providers, or deny tenants a stay of execution (execution means the eviction itself, where the sheriff forcibly removes the people and their belongings). That part of the statute, §3(b)(ii), is the one part that actually does establish a moratorium on evictions.

But only some evictions. Remember, Chapter 65 prohibits evictions for non-payment of rent and evictions where the housing provider does not specify a particular reason, so-called “no cause” evictions. It does not prohibit evictions where the tenant’s criminal activity or lease violations” may impact the health or safety” of another person or the general public.

How does evicting someone for criminal activity that may impact the safety of the general public (thereby rendering that dangerous person homeless) help keep the general public safe, whereas evicting someone for nonpayment of rent makes the general public less safe?  That is a genuine question. I would like to know the Commonwealth’s answer.

Conclusion

The supposed goal of Chapter 65 is to establish a moratorium on evictions during the COVID 19 emergency. One part of the statute does exactly that (almost), by barring the courts from evicting people, except people who are potentially a danger to the public (putting them out on the street is OK, apparently). What does restricting the commercial speech rights of housing providers do to make the moratorium more effective? Nothing.

Chapter 65 is set to expire on August 18 unless the Governor exercises his option to extend it. Should he let it expire, or grant it an extension?

Exercise your speech rights while you can and let me know what you think.

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New landlord-tenant cases online

May 19, 2020:-  Volume 3 of the unofficial Western Division Housing Court reporter is now available online at masshousingcourtreports.org.

Please note that the reporter does not include all decisions and orders. The Court does not provide decisions from impounded cases and cases involving highly sensitive issues relating to minors, and the editors will generally exclude certain types of decisions, such as simple scheduling orders; terse orders lacking sufficient context to be of value to those unfamiliar with the case; and, decisions that relate certain types of particularly sensitive, personal information. A full description of the process and editorial standards can be found at the beginning of each volume.

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Maura Healey edits statute

May 12, 2020:-  On May 8, 2020, Attorney General Maura Healey issued an “advisory” on residential evictions. An advisory is not a law or regulation, but it indicates how the Attorney General will interpret the law and try to persuade the courts to apply it. This particular advisory includes a novel interpretation of Chapter 65, the statute that limits the right of access to the courts for one class of people, namely housing providers (landlords).

The statute also abridges freedom of speech by banning landlords from sending notices to quit. In addition, by preventing property owners from obtaining possession even when tenants stop paying rent (whether for reasons related to COVID 19 or not) it operates as a taking. I have addressed those violations before and will do so again in future posts. This post is about access to justice, and how Attorney General Healey’s advisory (mis)interprets what the statute has to say about it.

Chapter 65

Chapter 65 allows housing providers to file for summary process only where a tenant’s criminal activity or lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of another person lawfully on the property or of the general public. But it bars housing providers from taking tenants to court for non-payment of rent. Under Chapter 65 (as opposed to the Declaration of Rights) no access to the courts is the rule, and the health/safety provision is the exception.

Statute in Derogation of Liberty

Chapter 65 takes away a fundamental liberty, namely access to the courts, which (as I have mentioned elsewhere) is one of the liberties guaranteed by the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. Here in Massachusetts it is well established that statutes in derogation of liberty should be strictly construed and interpreted narrowly. They should be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling and legitimate government interest and strictly construed to comply with requirements of substantive due process, as the Supreme Judicial Court held in the Mattter of E.C., 479 Mass. 113 (2018).

In other words, if a statute takes away a basic right, the courts should interpret it narrowly so as to confine the damage to the individual’s liberty interest.

But Attorney General Healey says the opposite, that it is the fundamental right that should be narrowly construed, not the exception to it.

Editing out, and editing in

“Evictions can be brought only where a tenant (1) violates lease terms or engages in criminal activity, and (2) the violation may impact the health or safety of others who are lawfully on the premises. This exception is narrow and should only be used where there is a serious health or safety concern that can’t otherwise be addressed.”

That is what the advisory says about the statute. But that is not what the statute itself says. Not at all. First, the statutory language about impacts on health/safety applies not only to people lawfully on the premises but also to the general public. It says so right there in Section 1 of the statute:

“… may impact the health or safety of other residents, health care workers, emergency personnel, persons lawfully on the subject property or the general public.”

So in advising the general public, the Attorney General Healey left out that bit about the general public.

Second, if the Legislature had intended to say that housing providers may ask the courts to evict tenants only where the criminal activity or lease violations “are likely to seriously affect the health or safety of another person and cannot be addressed short of eviction” it would have said so. But it did not. Chapter 65 does not say “serious health or safety concerns” nor does it state that eviction must be the very last resort.

In addition to leaving out some words and adding others, the Attorney General’s interpretation is the opposite of the way to interpret a statute that derogates from liberty. The advisory says that the right of access to the courts that is the “narrow exception,”  which is not what the appellate decisions say about statutes in derogation of liberty. On the contrary, according to precedent it is the liberty that should be construed broadly, and the exception to that liberty (in this case the barring of the courtroom doors for all but health/safety cases) that should be construed narrowly.

Conclusion

As if it were not bad enough that we have a statute that abridges freedom speech, bars access to the courts for one class of people, operates as an unconstitutional taking without reasonable compensation, and grants the Governor the option of extending its duration, now the Commonwealth’s chief law-enforcement official says that she will read into that statute words that are not there and apply it n a way that flies in the face of precedent.

So now you know the opinion of Attorney General Healey about your right of access to the courts. Should you wish to share your opinion with Attorney General Maura Healey, here is a link to the Contact page.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

Injunction against Maura Healey

May 7, 2020:- A federal judge provided a welcome victory for the rights of free speech and access to the courts yesterday. Judge Stearns of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts issued an injunction prohibiting Maura Healey (the Massachusetts Attorney General ) from enforcing “emergency” regulations that would have prevented debt collectors from making phone calls to debtors and from going to court.

Claiming authority under the Consumer Protection Act (M.G.L. c. 93A) Healey had issued “emergency” regulations that were exempt from the notice-and-comment requirement that usually allows the public to weigh in. These were in addition to, not instead of, the comprehensive debt-collection regulations that already govern this area of economic activity. The new regulations purported to ban debt collection agencies from calling debtors and taking them to court for the duration of the open-ended state of emergency that Governor Charlie Baker proclaimed on March 10.

Because the regulations interfered with constitutionally-guaranteed rights of speech, petitioning, and access to the courts, ACA International asked the federal court for an injunction. The judge noted that one of the supposed justifications for the regulation (“vouchsafing the financial wellbeing of Massachusetts residents”)  had little apparent connection to the AG’s attempt to prohibit one particular form of communication with debtors, namely the telephone. In fact, none of the reasons that the AG offered could justify burdening the commercial speech of professional debt collectors (as opposed to other people trying to collect debts, which the regulation exempted).

With regard to the AG’s rationale for barring the courthouse doors to one class of litigants (i.e. that there is a state of emergency), the judge quoted from a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States: “Emergency does not create power… Constitutions cannot be changed by events alone.”

There are similarities between the debt-collection regulations and Chapter 65, the Legislature’s eviction moratorium. Chapter 65 bars one class of litigants from going to court to seek possession of their real estate for nonpayment of rent (but allows them to seek repossession where a tenant’s criminal activity/lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of another person). Similarly it bans them from sending tenants notices to quit for nonpayment of rent (but not where criminal activity/lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of another person).

Might a court use the same line of reasoning to strike down the part of Chapter 65 that bans landlords from issuing notices to quit and going to court for summary process?

Certainly, there is a difference between a regulation and a statute. But the principle that an officer of state government may not use the state of emergency as an excuse to strip away basic constitutionally-guaranteed rights should apply with equal force to the Legislature. Landlords should take hope from the ruling.

 

 

 

Eviction Moratorium FAQs

Q. Is the eviction moratorium a federal law or a state law?

There are two moratoria. One is contained in the federal CARES Act. The other is a Massachusetts law, Chapter 65.

Q. Is the Massachusetts eviction moratorium a statute or an executive order?

The eviction moratorium is a statute, not an executive order. The Massachusetts Legislature passed it (and Governor Charlie Baker signed it) as an emergency law, Chapter 65 of the Acts of 2020, on April 20.

How long will the eviction moratorium last?

At present, Chapter 65 says that the eviction moratorium will last as long as the state of emergency plus 45 days. Governor Baker proclaimed the state of emergency on March 10, 2020, and his proclamation does not have an end date.

Even when Governor Baker does announce an end to the state of emergency, the Legislature could still amend the statute to extend the length of the moratorium.

Does the moratorium ban all evictions?

No, it allows housing providers to file summary process complaints where a tenant’s criminal activity or lease violation “may impact the health or safety” of another person. It prohibits no-cause evictions and evictions for nonpayment of rent.

In order for the court to accept a summary process summons and complaint, Standing Order 5-20 requires that the housing provider or attorney also file an affidavit swearing that the case qualifies as an “essential eviction” under Chapter 65, i.e. that it is based on a tenant’s criminal activity or lease violation “may impact the health or safety” of another person.

Q. Does the moratorium allow landlords to send notices to quit?

Yes, so long as the notice is for a tenant’s criminal activity or lease violation that “may impact the health or safety” of another person. Chapter 65 prohibits all other notices to quit, e.g. for nonpayment of rent. It also bans any notices that demand or request that a tenant vacate the premises. Landlords should take care not to write anything that could be construed as a request to vacate. For what to write in missed-rent notices, read on.

Q. Does the moratorium allow landlords to charge a late fee?

No, not if within 30 days after the missed rent payment the tenant gives the landlord a notice stating that the non-payment of rent was due to a financial impact from COVID-19. State government has published a notice for tenants to use.

 

Q. Does the moratorium allow a landlord to send notices of missed payments?

Yes, and landlords should do so, but the executive office of housing and economic development has issued regulations that specify what the notice must say including the following statement, which must appear on the first page.

“THIS IS NOT A NOTICE TO QUIT.  YOU ARE NOT BEING EVICTED, AND YOU DO NOT HAVE TO LEAVE YOUR HOME.  An emergency law temporarily protects tenants from eviction during the COVID-19 emergency.  The purpose of this notice is to make sure you understand the amount of rent you owe to your landlord. For information about resources that may help you pay your rent, you can contact your regional Housing Consumer Education Center.

For a list of agencies, see https://www.masshousinginfo.org/regional-agencies.

Additional information about resources for tenants is available at https://www.mhp.net/news/2020/resources-for-tenants-during-covid-19-pandemic.

You will not be subject to late fees or a negative report to a credit bureau if you certify to your landlord in writing within 30 days from the missed payment that your non-payment of rent is due to a financial impact from COVID-19.  If possible, you should use the approved form at: https://www.mass.gov/lists/moratorium-on-evictions-and-foreclosures-forms-and-other-resources.  If you cannot access the form on this website, you can ask your landlord to provide the form to you.  You may also send a letter or email so long as it contains a detailed explanation of your household loss in income or increase in expenses due to COVID-19.”

Landlords should also include the following, “This is important notice. Please have it translated.” The State government notice for tenants (see above) contains translations of that statement in 10 languages:

THIS IS AN IMPORTANT NOTICE. PLEASE HAVE IT TRANSLATED.

Questa é una notizia molto importante. Per piacere falla tradurre.

Este es un aviso importante. Sírvase mandarlo traducir.

C’est important. Veuillez faire traduire.

ĐÂY LÀ MỘT BẢN THÔNG CÁO QUAN TRỌNG.

XIN VUI LÒNG CHO DỊCH LẠI THÔNG CÁO NÀY.

Este é um aviso importante. Por favor mande traduzi-lo.

Es ê un avizu importanti. Di favor, manda traduzil.

Se yon anons ki enpòtan anpil. Sou Ple, fè tradwi li pou w.

Σπουδαιε Πληροφορεια − Παρακαλω να το µεταφρασετε.

MassLandlords has a sample notice available for members. Landlords should not send missed-payment notices that fail to comply with the regulations.

Q. Is Chapter 65 constitutional?

Some people believe that by prohibiting owners from going to court to try to regain possession of their property Chapter 65 violates the constitutional guarantee of access to justice, and that by requiring owners to provide housing with no guarantee of payment it may operate as a taking without compensation. Neither the Legislature nor the Governor asked the Supreme Judicial Court for an advisory opinion prior to enactment, and so far there are no judicial decisions one way or the other.

Q.  If landlords wish to seek compensation for the alleged taking, what law could they rely on?

For owners whose real estate the Commonwealth has taken for public use during a state of emergency, the Civil Defense Act of 1950 sets forth the steps to follow. In a nutshell, the Act allows aggrieved property owners to file claims in Superior Court. Potential claimants should note the one-year statute of limitations.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

“Essential” evictions: Housing Court issues new order

May 1, 2020:-  Today the Housing Court issued Standing Order 5-20, which sets out the steps for property-owners and attorneys to take in summary process cases that the Legislature deems “essential.”

Along with the summary process summons and complaint, the owner/attorney must file an Affidavit of Cause affirming under oath that the eviction is “for cause,” as defined in the moratorium law, Chapter 65, i.e. that the tenant’s criminal activity/lease violation “may impact the health or safety” of another person.

This new standing order provides some much-needed clarity for court staff, litigants, and practitioners. It also serves as a reminder that the moratorium does not prohibit all evictions, only some.

Of course, how prohibiting evictions for non-payment of rent but not evictions for health/safety reasons could in any way help “flatten the curve” or otherwise reduce the spread of COVID19 is not at all clear.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

Dear Governor: One housing provider’s message to Charlie Baker

April 29, 2020:- Massachusetts law now bans property owners from seeking summary process except where a tenant’s criminal activity/lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of others.  It forces some landlords to extend credit that they cannot afford to give. This near-barring of the courthouse doors to one particular class of people (plus its forced-loan feature) prompted Frederik Winsser to write a letter to Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, which Mr. Winsser kindly gave me permission to publish here.

______

Dear Governor Baker:

I am writing about the effect that the COVID-19 epidemic is having on housing in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

I am Housing Provider – a ‘Mom and Pop’ small property owner/landlord in Massachusetts. I am a retired senior and receive a small pension, a limited social security benefit, and a small VA service connected disability payment. I depend upon my rental income to pay for my medical expenses, my mortgages, property taxes, insurance, and other bills.

Thirty years ago, I purchased my first house, a two family in Waltham. Over the years, I was working as an Electrical Engineer and invested work income as well as a tremendous amount of sweat equity into the house. My hard work allowed me to purchase additional rental properties, the most recent being a four family house fifteen years ago needing a lot of work.

Over the years I have invested a significant amount of time and money to improve the apartments with new kitchens, bathrooms, refinished interiors, high efficiency heating systems, and much more. For my four family house, after fifteen years of sweat equity and money invested, I still have a net $94,223.00 negative cash flow balance on my original investment. Only in 2019 did I finally have a small positive cash flow of $10,800.00.

I very well understand that there currently is a housing crisis in the country. A large number of people have lost their jobs and are unsure of their future financial security. I do understand that their ability to pay for the necessities of shelter, food, and health care are being seriously impacted.

There are programs such as Section 8, SNAP, etc., but placing the burden on the housing providers is unfair. Speaking for myself and other housing providers, we still have to pay mortgages, taxes, insurance, utilities, and expenses. If we don’t pay the property taxes, the city will place a lien on the property. With the current eviction moratorium, there is no practical remedy for us if the renters cannot or will not pay their rent. Yes, we can take them to court in three to six months for the back rent and hope to be able to collect the rent. By way of an example, last year I went to court to evict a tenant for repeated non payment of rent. In July she moved out with no forwarding address, still owing me over $3,500.00 in rent and legal expenses. Neither the police nor I can locate her.

In closing, would someone go to the supermarket, fill up a shopping cart full of groceries, and at the checkout counter say ‘I’ll pay for the groceries after the COVID crisis is over’. I don’t think so. Please do consider the plight of the housing providers as well.

Sincerely,

Frederik C. Winsser

What should you tell tenants who do not pay rent?

April 27, 2020:- Since March 23, 2020, when Governor Baker issued COVID 19 Order No. 13, closing businesses across Massachusetts, about half-a-million Bay Staters have been thrown out of work. Some are renters who will find it difficult–or impossible–to pay rent. In ordinary times, landlords would have had the option of sending them a notice to quit and then going to court for summary process.

On April 20 the Governor signed the eviction moratorium that the Legislature had passed, which will last as long as the state of emergency plus 45 days, namely Acts of 2020 Chapter 65. The new law prohibits property-owners from going to court for summary process (except where a tenant’s criminal activity/lease violations  “may impact the health or safety of other residents, health care workers, emergency personnel, persons lawfully on the subject property or the general public”). So landlords with tenants who can’t or won’t pay rent have no legal recourse. They are, however, allowed to remind tenants of the duty to pay rent.

Question

If you are a property owner, what should you tell the tenant who misses rent?

Answer

Do not worry: the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development of  has decided for you. It has issued regulations that state not only what you may write but what you must write. These are emergency regulations, so did not have to go through the process of notice and comment that allows the public to have a say. Here are the precise words that your State government requires you to utter:

THIS IS NOT A NOTICE TO QUIT.  YOU ARE NOT BEING EVICTED, AND YOU DO NOT HAVE TO LEAVE YOUR HOME.  An emergency law temporarily protects tenants from eviction during the COVID-19 emergency.  The purpose of this notice is to make sure you understand the amount of rent you owe to your landlord.
For information about resources that may help you pay your rent, you can contact your regional Housing Consumer Education Center.  For a list of agencies, see https://www.masshousinginfo.org/regional-agencies.
Additional information about resources for tenants is available at https://www.mhp.net/news/2020/resources-for-tenants-during-covid-19-pandemic. You will not be subject to late fees or a negative report to a credit bureau if you certify to your landlord in writing within 30 days from the missed payment that your non-payment of rent is due to a financial impact from COVID-19.  If possible, you should use the approved form at: https://www.mass.gov/lists/moratorium-on-evictions-and-foreclosures-forms-and-other-resources.
If you cannot access the form on this website, you can ask your landlord to provide the form to you.  You may also send a letter or email so long as it contains a detailed explanation of your household loss in income or increase in expenses due to COVID-19.
The regulation adds:
The notice may also include other information that will promote the prompt and non-judicial resolution of such matters, such as the total balance due, the months remaining and the total of lease payments expected to be made on a lease for a term of years, information on how to contact the landlord to work out a revised payment arrangement, and a reminder that after the state of emergency ends the tenant may face eviction if rent remains unpaid.
The term “non-judicial resolution” is a bit pointless in the absence of any possibility of judicial resolution (Chapter 65 effectively barred the courthouse doors). But anyway,  at least they are letting you say how much the tenants owe you and what may happen after the emergency.
The regulation goes on to add something that you should do, and also mentions something it “encourages” you to do.
If a landlord knows that the tenant is not proficient in English, the landlord should use reasonable efforts to deliver the notice in a language that the tenant understands.
Not a mandate, of course, just a suggestion. Then some more hortatory language.
Landlords are encouraged to include with the notice a statement that the notice is important and should be translated, a form of which is available on the EOHED website.
“Should” is not “shall” and “encouraged” is not exactly the same as “directly ordered to,” but you do not need a particularly vivid imagination to foresee what will happen to the landlord who chooses not to translate the notice and not to include the translated statement about the notice’s importance.

Conclusion

State government now permits you to inform non-paying tenants how much they owe and that after the state of emergency they may face eviction for non-payment. If you do choose to communicate with tenants on this subject, State government requires you to write the words set forth in the regulation. For some additional legal text that I consider relevant, click here.
Compelled speech 2
Editorial advice from State Government

Not a rent moratorium

April 23, 2020:- The new law is a moratorium on some (not all) evictions, not on rent. The law expressly states:

Nothing in this section shall relieve a tenant from the obligation to pay rent or restrict a landlord’s ability to recover rent.

Are landlords allowed to remind tenants of this fact? Yes.

Certainly, landlords who choose to provide a written reminder need to take care not to say anything that could construed as a request to vacate or as a threat to initiate a debt-collection lawsuit, nor should they visit the tenant. Sending the reminder to some tenants but not to others would invite a charge of discrimination, so an all-or-none approach would be wiser.

Statute

The eviction moratorium statute prohibits landlords from sending, for the purposes of a “non-essential eviction,” any notice, including a notice to quit, requesting or demanding that a tenant of a residential dwelling unit vacate the premises.”

Regulations

The Attorney General’s emergency debt-collection regulations prohibit “creditors” from threatening to initiate a collection lawsuit. Is a landlord who is trying to collect rent owed (overdue by 30+ days) under a lease a “creditor” within the meaning of the debt-collection regulations?

The emergency regulation states, at s. 35.03(2), that the prohibitions do not apply to “an attempt to collect a debt owed by a tenant to an owner.” The applicable regulation defines “tenant” as a person who occupies a dwelling unit “under a rental agreement,” which term the regulation defines as “an express or implied agreement for use and occupancy of a dwelling unit.” Is a tenant-at-sufferance someone who is occupying a dwelling unit “under an express or implied agreement”?  No; on the contrary, the tenant-at-sufferance is occupying the unit without the owner’s agreement, after any express or implied agreement has expired or been terminated.

This is somewhat convoluted, but bear with me: It is all too easy to imagine someone whose lease/rental agreement has expired or been terminated claiming to be a tenant-at-sufferance and, therefore, not a “tenant” within the meaning of the regulation and, therefore, outside the scope of the landlord-tenant exception to the ban on creditor-debtor communication. So tread carefully.

Takeaway

Sending a simple reminder to all tenants that the new law states that “nothing in this section shall relieve a tenant from the obligation to pay rent or restrict a landlord’s ability to recover rent” would not, in my opinion, violate the statute or the regulations.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.