Do we still need an eviction moratorium? Define “eviction.”

July 30, 2020:- Perhaps I am a slow learner. But I think I just realized something important about the eviction moratorium.

Those following the Matorin v. EOHED case challenging Chapter 65 (the eviction moratorium) will know that earlier today the Superior Court held a hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction.

What struck me while I was watching the oral argument was the size of the gap between the law’s supposed purpose and its actual effect. Then I realized that there is a gap between the two sides over the nature of the very thing they are arguing about, i.e. evictions. I will explain what I mean in a moment, but first a very brief explanation of a key term, namely “execution.”

Execution

In Massachusetts, only a judge can evict a tenant and award the housing provider possession of the rented premises.  If, after trial, the judge decides to award the housing provider possession, the housing provider has to wait 10 days and then ask for a document called the writ of execution.   This is the document that authorizes the sheriff or constable to physically remove the renters and their belongings. When the sheriff does so, it is called levying.

When non-lawyers think about evictions, what they have in mind is the event called levying the execution. It is quite rare, fortunately.

Before the constables or sheriffs can even get their hands on an execution to levy, the renters can ask the judge for a stay, i.e. a pause or delay. The law allows judges to stay execution for up to six months (12 months, if the renters have disabilities or are age 60+).

Rule 13  of the Uniform Rules of Summary Process lays out the steps.

Now back to the argument over Chapter 65.

How to stop executions

The proponents of Chapter 65 argue that the Legislature enacted the eviction moratorium in order to stop people being made homeless during the COVID 19 pandemic. If that had indeed been the real purpose, the Legislature could have achieved it by banning the courts from issuing executions and prohibiting the sheriffs from levying on any executions already issued. Here is the bill the Legislature could have enacted:

In any summary process case, the court shall not issue execution, and no person shall levy execution, until 45 days after the end of the state of emergency.

But the Legislature chose not to do that. Instead of banning the thing that non-lawyers think of as evictions (levied executions), it banned housing providers from even getting into court. And that, in turn, bars access to the trained Housing Court mediators who resolve disputes and help the parties work out payment plans.

If the Legislature and Governor had defined the problem they were trying to solve, they would not have created the unholy mess that will confront so many housing providers and renters when the moratorium finally ends. Defining problems before attempting to solve them is a big part of the job. And, unlike some of the housing providers I represent, the legislators are actually getting paid. Legislative salary moratorium, anyone?

Decision?

As for the hearing in the Matorin case, the judge took the matter under advisement, which means that he will issue his decision at a later date. To stay up to date, and to read more about the case from Attorney Richard Vetstein, who is one of the two lawyers representing the Matorin plaintiffs,  click here.

 

All work and no pay: Cancel the rent cancellation bill

July 27, 2020:- What if the law forced you to go to work every day and then, if the boss refused to pay your wages, prohibited you from suing? Imagine having to provide the service, and not being able to make the other side stick to their end of the deal.

delivery man wearing a face mask carrying boxes
Photo by Norma Mortenson on Pexels.com

All work and no pay isn’t fair. But that’s the situation confronting many housing providers in Massachusetts right now. The law requires them to house their tenants even if the tenants can’t — or won’t — pay rent.

As if that weren’t bad enough, a bill that would flat out cancel the rent had garnered much support in the Massachusetts State House. Even as I write, an effort is underway to tack the proposal (together with the tried-and-failed policy of rent-control) onto another bill by way of amendments.

But it has not become law yet.

There is still time to tell your state representatives and senators what you think. The deadline is 12 noon tomorrow, Tuesday, July 28, 2020.

To submit your testimony on H4878/S2831 click here.

Governor extends eviction moratorium, and “strongly encourages” tenants to pay rent

July 21, 2020:- Today Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker informed the Legislature of his decision to extend the eviction moratorium to October 17, 2020. His letter includes the folowing:

I am aware that the extension I am declaring today will impact many small landlords who rely on rental income to pay their own expenses.  I strongly encourage tenants to continue to pay rent, and homeowners to make their mortgage payments, to the extent they are able while the moratoria remain in place.  The Baker-Polito Administration already has made available $20 million in emergency rental and mortgage assistance to help lower-income tenants and homeowners make their housing payments.  Between now and October 17, my administration will assess whether additional federal and state resources should be made available for this purpose.  We also will be working closely with our colleagues in the judicial branch to ensure that when evictions proceedings resume there are programs in place to help tenants pay their rent and avoid eviction.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What began as an emergency stop-gap in the Spring will continue at least until the Fall.

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.

james madison 1
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.

PV with Governor Baker_August 11 2018 (2)
Peter Vickery, Esq. and Gov. Charlie Baker