The case for not enacting a new eviction moratorium

September 7, 2021:- Massachusetts legislators are considering H. 1434, which would establish a moratorium on non-payment evictions. It would not ban all evictions, only a subset of evictions “where the plaintiff’s complaint is based upon or includes any claim for rent or use and occupancy.” The bill has an emergency preamble, and it’s supposedly related in some way to COVID-19.

Nothing can justify another ban on people regaining possession of their property from those who are occupying said property without paying rent. The article in this week’s Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly on that subject quotes me, accurately:

“In January, the pandemic was killing about 3,000 people a day, notes Amherst attorney Peter Vickery. But as vaccines have been distributed, the death rate has declined dramatically, down to about 150 people a day.

Vickery references the New Jersey law that prohibits motorists from pumping their own gasoline. There may be some very real concerns that led to the passage of that law, but there is an ‘extraordinary mismatch between the threat and the policy.'”

I mis-stated the current daily death toll, which is now around 400-500, up from about 200 per day in July but still a far cry from the January 2021 average of 3,000. Yesterday (September 6, 2021) in the United States there were 246 deaths from COVID-19, according to the CDC. For the CDC’s tracker of daily deaths from CIVID-19, click here.

NJ ban on amateur gas-pumping

But what does the New Jersey law against pumping your own gas have to do with eviction moratoria? For readers who are curious, please consider the findings that NJ legislators included in the statute so as to justify the self-pumping ban (NJSA 34:3A-4), which findings include:


“(d)… [R]isks of crime and fall-related personal injury, which are a special burden to drivers with physical infirmities, such as the handicapped and some senior citizens;

(e) Exposure to toxic gasoline fumes represents a health hazard when customers dispense their own gasoline, particularly in the case of pregnant women;

(f) The significantly higher prices usually charged for full-service gasoline in States where self-service is permitted results in discrimination against low income individuals, who are under greater economic pressure to undergo the inconvenience and hazards of dispensing their own gasoline.”

These are all plausible risks. But do they really justify banning amateurs from filling our own gas tanks and leaving the job to trained pump attendants? No. In the rest of the United States, people manage to pump their own gas without triggering the Apocalypse. Similarly, nor does the potential for spreading COVID19 justify a ban on people regaining possession of their own property from those who are not paying rent.

As the Supreme Court of the United States held recently regarding the Biden administration’ unconstitutional non-payment eviction moratorium:

“The moratorium has put the applicants, along with millions of landlords across the country, at risk of irreparable harm by depriving them of rent payments with no guarantee of eventual recovery. Despite the CDC’s determination that landlords should bear a significant financial cost of the pandemic, many landlords have modest means. And preventing them from evicting tenants who breach their leases intrudes on one of the most fundamental elements of property ownership—the right to exclude.”

Alabama Ass’n of Realtors v. Dep’t of Health & Hum. Servs., No. 21A23, 2021 WL 3783142, at *4 (U.S. Aug. 26, 2021).

Massachusetts legislators should read this decision and, before criticizing it, think about the Court’s reasoning.

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Our right to own property is one of the many rights that the State and federal Constitutions guarantee. It is not untrammeled, but it is is not something that legislators can violate on a whim. Here in Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court has held:

“[S]ubstantive due process requires a statute affecting a fundamental right to be narrowly tailored to achieve compelling government interests.”

Sharris v. Commonwealth, 480 Mass. 586, 593, 106 N.E.3d 661, 668 (2018). Is the right to exclude non-paying tenants from your property a fundamental right? If it is, the court should apply strict scrutiny and require the Commonwealth to show that the law is narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest.

Even if the court were to apply the weaker intermediate-scrutiny test, the non-payment eviction moratorium should fail. To pass this test, the Commonwealth would have to show a reasonable, proportional fit between the law and an important governmental interest. Here, what connection could there be between a ban on non-payment evictions and the governmental interest, i.e. slowing the spread of COVID19?

The reason that the CDC gave for its non-payment eviction moratorium — and that moratorium advocates continue to echo — was that “evicted renters must move.” They may move into “shared housing or other congregate settings” (of course, they may be moving from shared housing or other congregate settings, but no matter). And their relocation may even entail “crossing State borders.”

What H. 1434 would not do

Surely, if people moving from one place to another is such a risk enhancer, the Legislature should put a stop to it altogether.

But does the Legislature wish to ban all of us, renters and homeowners alike, from moving house? No, it is not trying to prevent people who own their own homes from selling them and going to live somewhere else.

Does the Legislature wish to ban tenants from relocating of their own accord? No.

Does the Legislature wish to ban all evictions? No.

Does the Legislature wish to ban judges from evicting tenants who are using the premises for illegal purposes, causing a nuisance, or interfering with other tenants’ quiet enjoyment? No.

For this bill to be a good fit, there would have to be some evidence that tenants who do not pay rent are more likely to contract and transmit COVID-19 than the tenants who are using the premises for illegal purposes, causing a nuisance, or interfering with other tenants’ quiet enjoyment. And that is just silly.

Yes, deaths from COVID-19 are higher than they were in July, but nowhere near the high of January-February 2021. Most adults in the United States — and about 90% of those aged 70 and over — have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and those vaccinations work (click here for a recent article in the Atlantic magazine on that subject). Even if there had been a good reason for H. 1434 in early 2021 (and there was not) that reason has gone.

Conclusion

The only kinds of evictions that the Legislature wishes to ban with H. 1434 are evictions where the landlord is trying to get paid. That might make the bill’s proponents feel good, but it would not reduce the transmission of COVI-19.

CDC EVICTION MORATORIUM DISCUSSION: SEPTEMBER 8

August 25, 2021:-Attorney Wayne Detring of Franklin, Tennessee, is not someone I had heard of before yesterday but, as a result of his letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, he is going on my Christmas card list.

Attorney Detring pointed out that after President Biden repeatedly said that there was no legal basis for extending his predecessor’s eviction moratorium (and then went ahead and did it anyway) the administration’s lawyer put his name to a court document arguing that, contrary to his client’s repeated and accurate public statements, the moratorium is lawful. That sort of conduct verges on the unethical, wrote Attorney Detring (see below).

Here is the President saying that the courts had ruled that the previous CDC eviction moratorium was unconstitutional and that although most constitutional scholars think that a new one would be “unlikely to pass constitutional muster” a few think it might and by the time a challenge gets through the courts the order will have served its purpose.

Clearly unconstitutional

The court decision President Biden was referring to was the one that Judge Dabney Friedrich of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued back in June. “The question for the Court is a narrow one,” wrote Judge Friedrich.

“Does the Public Health Service Act grant the CDC the legal authority to impose a nationwide eviction moratorium? It does not.”

The reason has nothing to do with the wording or extent of the CDC’s eviction moratorium. The reason is simpler than that. As an executive branch agency, the CDC may only act within the parameters that Congress has set for it, and Congress has never granted the CDC the authority to ban people who own rental property from going to court when tenants do not pay rent. The CDC does not have, and never has had, that authority.

At the end of June, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh stated that a moratorium extension would need clear and specific congressional authorization via new legislation.

Nevertheless, when Congress did not enact any such clear and specific authorization, President Biden issued another eviction moratorium through the CDC.

New order

The Alabama Association of Realtors quickly challenged the new moratorium.

In response, the Solicitor General filed a reply in which he argued that Congress had given the CDC authority via 42 USC 264(a), enacted in 1944, which provides that:

“The Surgeon General, with the approval of the Secretary, is authorized to make and enforce such regulations as in his judgment are necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the States or possessions, or from one State or possession into any other State or possession. For purposes of carrying out and enforcing such regulations, the Surgeon General may provide for such inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination, destruction of animals or articles found to be so infected or contaminated as to be sources of dangerous infection to human beings, and other measures, as in his judgment may be necessary.”

According to the Acting Solicitor General of the United Stats, Brian H. Fletcher, by way of this provision in the 1944 statute Congress gave the head of the CDC discretion to “prevent the movement of persons to prevent the spread of communicable disease.” To be fair, he was quoting the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia when it rejected the request from the Alabama Association of Realtors to vacate the stay of Judge Friedrich’s previous order. But at the time the Solicitor General filed the reply it was already clear that five justices of the Supreme Court of the United States share the opinion of Judge Friedrich that the 1944 statute, which (prior to President Trump) had never been used in this way, does not confer the necessary authority.

Professional Conduct

If you think there ought to be a rule against this sort of thing, there is, as Attorney Detring points out:

“Rule 3.1 of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits lawyers from bringing or defending a proceeding unless there is a basis in law or fact for doing so. Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states that by signing or submitting a pleading, an attorney certifies that it is not presented for any improper purpose, such as to ‘cause unnecessary delay.’ Rule 11 also provides a process for sanctioning violators… Ordinary practicing attorneys would be in grave danger of sanctions for filing a pleading knowingly unsupported by law or fact, and by admittedly filing the pleading for the purpose of delay.”

Good point, I think.

Discussion

President Biden’s conscious decision to issue an unlawful order will be one of topics up for discussion at an event MassLandlords has scheduled for September 8 titled “Are Eviction Moratoriums the New Normal?” The other points up for discussion:

Courtroom challenges to the CDC moratorium;

  • The “state moratorium 2.0” currently pending the Massachusetts Legislature; and
  • What litigation might be brought to bear against a new Massachusetts eviction moratorium.

I will be one of the three speakers, together with Attorney Jordana Roubicek Greenman and Attorney Richard Vetstein. For the event link, click here.

Help session on security deposits

A security deposit slip up can spoil a seemingly straightforward summary process case. So MassLandlords is holding a virtual lunch-and-learn session for housing providers (12 noon on Tuesday, July 20, 2021) where I will provide an overview of this slippery subject and answer questions.

To register visit masslandlords.net/events

Banana photo by Milo Bunnik on Unsplash

Home owner not liable for shooting death, SJC rules

June 7, 2021:-  The owner of a short-term rental property was not liable for the shooting death of a man who attended a party at the property, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) announced today in the case of Heath-Latson v. Styller.

The shooting occurred in May 2016 at the Lynnfield home of Alexander Styller, who let the house to a group of people as a short-term rental. Here is a link to the NECN coverage.

Ostensibly the booking was for a college reunion but via social media one of the group advertised the gathering as a “Splash Mansion Pool Party.” Approximately 100 people attended and in the early hours of the morning the local police received a call that somebody had been shot.

The estate of the decedent, Keivan Heath, sued the organizers and Mr. Styller (the homeowner) in Superior Court. The judge allowed Mr. Styller’s motion to dismiss, and the case went to the SJC. In upholding the dismissal, the SJC stated:

“A duty to protect against harm caused by the conduct of a third person arises where there is a special relationship between a defendant and a plaintiff such that the defendant reasonably could foresee that he would be expected to take affirmative action to protect the plaintiff and could anticipate harm to the plaintiff from the failure to do so…

Here, the complaint alleges no facts suggesting that the defendant had a duty to protect the decedent from wrongdoing of a third party. Although the complaint cites a finding made by a Land Court judge in a related case that that short-term rentals have significant external effects on the neighboring community and community at large, it does not allege that short-term rentals are correlated with an increase in violent crime.”

Heath-Latson v. Styller (internal citations and quotation marks omitted)

The decision reiterates the duties of a landlord and the limits on those duties.

The SJC issued another decision involving Mr. Styller today, namely Styller v Zoning Board of Appeals of Lynnfield, in which the court upheld the ZBA’s determination that the zoning bylaw prohibited short-terms rentals even before it did so expressly in 2016.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexel

Asking the Legislature to follow the money (i.e. our money)

June 2,2021:- Where is the $12 million of public money earmarked for the Eviction Diversion Initiative actually going?

Finding out is harder than you might think because the body in charge of distributing the money (the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation) says that it is not subject to the Public Records Law. So on behalf of MassLandlords, I asked the Legislature to investigate.

To learn more, you can read my article in the MassLandlords newsletter by clicking here.

Photo by Pepi Stojanovski on Unsplash

How will Beacon Hill respond to rising rents?

May 28, 2021:- Rents are rising again in the United States, according to Fannie Mae as reported by Bloomberg.

This affects everyone, not just renters. Why? Because, as this article in the Wall Street Journal points out, it contributes to inflation:

“Higher rents could play a role in an anticipated rise in inflation, unleashed by waves of stimulus checks, low borrowing rates and pent-up demand after months when the pandemic damped consumer spending. Rent accounts for about one-third of the consumer-price index, which economists expect to tick higher in the months ahead.”

Will Paker, “Apartment Rents Rise; Perks, Discounts Fade: Covid-19 vaccine rollout, higher employment bring more people back into cities looking to rent,” Wall Street Journal (April 24, 2021). Paywall.

Talk of inflation always makes me think of Berlin, of which more below.

Why are rents rising? I do not pretend to be an economist but I suspect that the governmental response to COVID-19, e.g. eviction moratoria, might have something to do with it. After all, if you want to make something more expensive, you make it scarce.

The effects of rising rents on renters – known to politicians as “voters” – are obvious and unwelcome. How the politicians will respond to the predicament of these voters is less obvious. But were I a betting man, I would remember that the number of voters who are renters is vastly greater than the number of voters who are landlords, and put money on the politicians doing something that panders to renters. Sadly, as the Duke of Wellington once pointed out, something is usually the wrong thing to do.

Here in Massachusetts, I expect that lawmakers will enact new measures to supplement the laws that they enacted during the State of Emergency, measures that on the face of it look friendly to renters and not so friendly to landlords. Even if those laws helped cause rents to rise (the phenomenon that actually hurt renters) they will opt for more of the same.

I now refer to this approach to policymaking as the Father Ted Fine-Tuning Approach. Click here to see what I mean.

If they were trying to drive you out of business, what would they do differently?

What proposals have lawmakers tossed into the legislative hopper so far? At the start of the session State Representative Mike Connolly, a Democrat and member of Democratic Socialists of America, sponsored a bill to cancel rent, HD.4072.

That particular bill seems to be in limbo, but another of Representative Connolly’s bills, H.1378, is moving along. It would enable towns and cities to impose rent control. Lest owners try to avoid rent control by taking their units off the market, Representative Connolly has another bill that would allow municipalities to impose excise tax on units that are vacant for more than 90 days (H.2852).

Representative Connolly’s bills reflect the mood of the Boston chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, which considers rising rents, along with evictions, something to “fight.” The Boston DSA site states that its Housing Working Group is

“concerned with organizing around one of our most fundamental rights — the right to a stable and affordable home. In Boston this right has come increasingly under attack as rent prices skyrocket, rising by 25% in the last five years. The Housing Group works closely with City Life Vida Urbana, a local tenants rights organization, as well as other community groups, to fight rent increases and evictions in the neighborhoods where these trends are most acutely felt.”

So in answer to the question I get asked from time to time by landlords in Massachusetts, “Are they trying to drive us out of business?” the answer is a qualified yes. If by “they” you mean state legislators, I do think some of them are trying to drive landlords out of business. Those who are committed socialists wish to bring real estate, including rental properties, under government control.

The first draft of the Democratic Socialists of America 2021 platform states that:

“As socialists we ultimately believe in the abolition of capitalism and the creation of a democratically run economy that would provide for people’s needs without the distortion of the profit motive, and we support economic regulation that moves us closer to that vision.”

Not surprisingly then, one of the party’s medium-term goals is to:

“Nationalize and socialize (through worker and community ownership and control) institutions of monetary policy, insurance, real estate, and finance.”

That is on page 4, under the title Economic Regulation.  On pages 9-10, under the title Housing, the Democratic Socialists of America announce that:

“We seek to use this [COVID-19] crisis to build on the insurgent tenant movement and further decommodify housing and land. This can be done through canceling rent, closing eviction courts, and, as landlords exit the market, using State action to acquire properties and leveraging disinvestment to convert thousands of homes into publicly and democratically controlled land/housing.”

In this way the first draft of 2021 platform of Democratic Socialists of America offers a clear answer the question “Are they trying to drive us out of business?” Yes, they wish to use the COVID-19 crisis to cancel rent, close eviction courts, “and, as landlords exit the market, use State action to acquire properties and leveraging disinvestment to convert thousands of homes into publicly and democratically controlled land/housing.” Their words, not mine.

As the long-term demand, they want “democratically controlled, publicly run housing everywhere.” The medium-term demand?

Pass a universal tenants bill of rights that includes:

  • Right to renew your lease
  • Universal rent control
  • Right to organize a tenants’ union in your home
  • Universal right to counsel in housing court

Organizing a tenants union, or anything else, will pose a challenge if the Democratic Socialists achieve one of their medium-term Economic Regulation demands namely the “public ownership and control of social media platforms.” With the government controlling social media, good luck organizing anything more than the occasional day-trip to the tractor factory for the Young Pioneers.

But kudos to Democratic Socialists of America for their candor about wanting to use the COVID-19 crisis to drive landlords out of business and, more generally, “economic regulation that moves us closer to that vision.” What vision? The abolition of capitalism.

Onward to Berlin

When DSA legislators promote measures that a reasonable objective observer with some experience of rental housing, markets, and human nature would consider antithetical to the continued private ownership of rental properties, those legislators are not being naïve. They are being dedicated. In contrast, when non-DSA legislators – rank and file Democrats of the go-along-to-get-along variety – endorse these measures, naivete is the most generous word to describe them with.

Bills that are already popular among non-DSA Democrats in the State House are H.1434, which would effectively prohibit evictions for non-payment of rent, and H.1426, which would give tenants the right of first refusal if the owner tries to sell (thereby automatically delaying by months any sale to someone other than the tenants or the organization of their choice). This will make the business of being a landlord more difficult, and it is important to remember that this not a bug but a feature.

What’s next? How will they get from rendering the business of being a landlord increasingly difficult to making it completely non-viable? That is, after all, the avowed goal of Democratic Socialists of America. Perhaps they will look to Berlin.

As I mentioned, at the mention of inflation my mind turns to Berlin (here’s why) so I looked into what left-leaning Berliners are up to nowadays. As luck would have it, some of them are promoting a measure that I am sure the Democratic Socialists of America would approve of, namely the expropriation of rental properties. Expropriation is where the government takes private property (in the US we refer to it as eminent domain).

Slate covered this campaign recently, putting in the context of rising rents:

“Data from Guthmann Estate, a real estate company in Berlin, shows that the median rent in the city rose by more than 70 percent between 2012 and 2021.”

Here’s a link to an article on the same subject titled “We Want a Society Without Landlords” in Jacobin magazine, a publication that describes itself as “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.” The authors explain that seizing 240,000 units of private housing is not really all that radical, which alone makes it is well worth a read.

Socialists in Berlin want to stop landlords from raising the rent by stopping them from being landlords. Like many ideas that people tried in the 20th century, it has the allure of simplicity.

To solve the rising-rent problem in Massachusetts, perhaps DSA will try to put a question on the ballot to take by eminent domain rental units that have remained vacant for 90 days or more (or just take all rental units, which would be more efficient).

I think not, but not because I doubt their candor. Democratic Socialists of America are admirably up-front about their wish to use the COVID-19 crisis to cancel rent, close eviction courts, “and, as landlords exit the market, use State action to acquire properties and leveraging disinvestment to convert thousands of homes into publicly and democratically controlled land/housing.”

Why would they not put expropriation on the ballot?

Because it is not necessary. All they have to do carry on making it harder and harder for private property owners to provide rental housing and before long those owners will, as the Democratic Socialists of America predict, exit the market. Onward to Berlin. East Berlin, that is.

Photo by Aneta Pawlik on Unsplash

New lawsuit against CDC

May 19, 2021:- The Florida Association of Realtors® and R.W. Caldwell, Inc., have filed a complaint in the United States District Court in the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, asking the court to set aside the partial eviction moratorium that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) imposed, first at the direction of President Trump and then at the direction of President Biden.

One judge did just that quite recently. In early May Judge Dabney Friedrich set aside the partial eviction moratorium but stayed the order, i.e. put it on hold, while the Biden administration appeals the case. This means that the CDC partial eviction moratorium remains in effect for the time being.

This new complaint asks for the same kind of relief that Judge Dabney ordered earlier in the month.  I quote two paragraphs of the complaint that get to the heart of the matter.

Paragraph 40 of the complaint states:

“The Eviction Moratorium contains no findings and relies on no evidence to support its stated assertion that Covid-19 will spread between states or United States territories if landlords are permitted to exercise their contractual rights to evict tenants who fail to make rent payments as required by their leases.”

That is why I call it a partial eviction moratorium, by the way. It only covers some evictions, i.e. nonpayment cases. Why the tenants in that kind of case are more likely than tenants in other sorts of cases (e.g. those being evicted for, say, criminal activity) to contract and transmit COVID-19 is not clear, at least not to me.

And the CDC certainly did not issue a moratorium on moving house. House sales have done very well during the emergency, I believe. Lots of people are buying and selling, moving from place to place. The CDC did not try to ban residential real estate transactions.

Getting to the constitutional argument, paragraph 5 of the complaint states:

“The CDC predicates this unprecedented action on its statutory authority to prevent the interstate spread of disease, but that authority does not make the CDC the nation’s landlord-in-chief any more than it places the CDC in charge of citizens’ social media or the national minimum wage. Were it otherwise, then Congress would have impermissibly turned over its lawmaking authority to an unelected administrative agency. The United States Constitution and its nondelegation doctrine prevent Congress from doing so. Indeed, the Constitution does not authorize Congress or the CDC to interfere with the purely local matter of tenants’ occupancy of individual rental properties.”

What’s the problem with an unelected administrative agency exercising the lawmaking authority that the Constitution grants exclusively to the Congress? Why is it unconstitutional for unelected government employees to legislate?

The reason has to do with democratic accountability, an essential requirement for a self-governing republic of free people, and stripped of legal jargon it is this: We can’t throw out those rascals. The only rascals We the People can throw out are the rascals we elected in the first place. Unelected rascals are beyond our reach.

What will happen to the CDC’s partial eviction moratorium? Stay tuned.

New edition of Housing Court Reporter

May 18, 2021:- If you like to read judges’ decisions about landlord-tenant disputes, you will be glad to learn that Volume 9 of the Western Division Housing Court Reporter (an unofficial compilation of decisions and orders issued by the Western Division Housing Court) is available online. To see it, just click here.

Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

Housing law update

March 29, 2021:- Today the Biden administration announced that it will extend the Centers for Disease Control partial eviction moratorium to June 30, 2021.

In the meantime, here in Massachusetts housing providers who go to Housing Court to try to obtain unpaid rent and to eventually regain possession of their property are up against taxpayer-funded lawyers. Tenants obtain counsel at no charge; housing providers must pay, unless they can find a lawyer who will work for free. To misquote Animal Farm, some equal protection is more equal than others.

To read my latest article on the subject for MassLandlords, click here.

Animal Farm, by George Orwell

Federal eviction moratorium extended

December 28,2020, Washington, DC:- Yesterday President Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2021 (H.R. 133) which, among many other things, extends the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) moratorium on some evictions. The CDC eviction moratorium is now set to expire January 31, 2021.

For the House summary, click here and scroll down to page 22.

What happens when the Massachusetts eviction moratorium expires?

October 9, 2020: – In this short video, I describe the two key things housing providers need to know about when the Massachusetts eviction moratorium expires:

  1. The Federal eviction moratorium ordered by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and
  2. Housing Court Standing Order 6-20.
Peter Vickery, Esq.