Would you like to know about alternatives to eviction and ways to settle disputes before they end up in Housing Court?
At 6:00pm, Wednesday, June 1, 2022, I will be giving a Zoom presentation to MassLandlords members — and potential members — on the subject of relocation assistance agreements (cash-for-keys in the vernacular).
If the prospect of Housing Court litigation has you reaching for the TUMS®, a cash-for-keys agreement offers a healthy alternative, but it is not to everybody’s taste. I will discuss some of the essential ingredients, and why this item on the menu proves appetizing to some but unpalatable to others.
Every rental agreement in Massachusetts — whether written or unwritten — contains an important clause. It will remain as part of the agreement even if both parties, landlord and tenant alike, want to waive it. No matter how hard you try, you cannot erase it.
What is this ineradicable clause? It is the warranty of habitability. It is the landlord’s guarantee that the landlord will, at a minimum, keep the premises in compliance with the State Sanitary Code, more particularly Chapter II of the Code titled Minimum* Standards of Fitness for Human Habitation.
So one easy way for landlords to breach the warranty of habitability, and land themselves in expensive trouble, is to ignore the State Sanitary Code. Ignoring the Code could result in the landlord having to pay the tenant damages (possibly multiple damages) plus the tenant’s legal fees.
On the other hand, by paying attention to the State Sanitary Code, and making sure that each and every rental unit complies with it, landlords are more likely to live up to the warranty of habitability, stay out of trouble, and maintain a healthy business relationship with their tenants.
State government has posted a synopsis of the responsibilities of landlords in Massachusetts. It is well worth a look. In the meantime, here are some — just some — of the requirements of the State Sanitary Code. The following five items are just a starting point, not an exhaustive list. Landlords and aspiring landlords should familiarize themselves with the Code in its entirety.
1. The Code applies to every dwelling
The State Sanitary Code states:
No person shall occupy as owner-occupant or let to another for occupancy any dwelling, dwelling unit, mobile dwelling unit, or rooming unit for the purpose of living, sleeping, cooking or eating therein, which does not comply with the requirements of 105 CMR 410.000
That is a clear rule. If you provide rental accommodation, you must comply with the State Sanitary Code. There are three exceptions to the rule for landlords to know about: (1) dwellings on campgrounds that comply with the applicable State regulations for campgrounds, and (2) dwellings used exclusively as civil defense shelters. Those two exceptions are very narrow. The other exception? If the dwelling is covered by another part of the Code.
What if the would-be tenant says, “Don’t worry about the warranty of habitability. I’m happy to sign a contract waiving it. Or we can say that I’m using the apartment exclusively as a civil defense shelter. Just knock $50 off the rent.”
No. The warranty of habitability is not something a tenant can waive. And if the apartment is an ordinary rental unit, it not exclusively a civil defense shelter. A lease provision cannot transform an ordinary apartment into a civil defense shelter, even if both parties apply the George Costanza Doctrine of Truth. Housing Court judges do not take kindly to such ruses.
2. Minimum living space
The State Sanitary Code establishes the minimum amount of living space that each dwelling unit must consist of:
Every dwelling unit shall contain at least 150 square feet of floor space for its first occupant, and at least 100 square feet of floor space for each additional occupant, the floor space to be calculated on the basis of total habitable room area.
This does not include: rooms containing toilets, bathtubs or showers; laundries; pantries; foyers; communicating corridors; closets; and storage spaces. These parts of the unit do not count toward the square footage of floor space.
There is a separate square-footage requirement for rooms used for sleeping. For one occupant, the sleeping room has to contain at least 70 square feet. For more than one occupant, the sleeping room must have at least 50 square feet for each person, e.g. for two occupants, 100 square feet; for three occupants, 150 square feet.
A unit that is less than 150 square feet, excluding closets and storage spaces, is not a Code-compliant unit. An owner who rents such a unit to a tenant is breaching the warranty of habitability.
What if the unit is 145 square feet, just 5 feet under the minimum, and the would-be tenant says, “I don’t mind. Just knock $50 off the rent?”
No, the landlord is not able to contract out of the warranty of habitability.
3. Kitchen facilities
The unit must contain a kitchen sink and space to store, prepare, and serve food in a sanitary manner, and there must be a stove in good repair. Unless the written agreement puts the obligation on the tenant to provide a stove, the landlord must provide one. In addition, there must be space and connections for a refrigerator.
The kitchen must have at least one lighting fixture and at least two electrical outlets (for the kettle, coffee-maker, toaster, etc.) in “convenient locations.” In practice, this means that the tenants should not have to plug in the toaster down at the skirting board or up by the picture rail!
The Code also requires a kitchen window:
For each kitchen over 70 square feet, transparent or translucent glass which admits light from the outdoors and which is equal in area to no less than 8% of the entire floor area of that kitchen.
What if the would-be tenant says, “I don’t mind not having a kitchen. Just knock $50 off the rent.”
No, the landlord is not able to contract out of the warranty of habitability.
What if the landlord says to the would-be tenant, “There is no light fixture in the kitchen. I could install one if you pay for it.”
“Sure, I’ll pay for it,” says the would-be tenant.
No, the Code says that the owner must provide the fixture and outlets and it defines the word “provide” as “supply and pay for.”
4. Maintaining facilities
Everything that the owner installs, the owner must maintain. For example, the owner has the duty to maintain the toilets, sinks, wash basins, water pipes, sewer lines, and gas lines free from leaks, obstructions, and defects. If the owner installed the stove and refrigerator, the owner must keep them in good repair. When the tenant tells the owner that the faucet is leaking, the owner has to repair it.
Does the Code say what standard the owner must live up to? Yes, the owner must install and maintain facilities “in accordance with accepted plumbing, gasfitting and electrical wiring standards.”
So who should do the plumbing? A licensed plumber. The wiring? A licensed electrician.
But let’s say the kitchen sink has always leaked. It leaked when the landlord bought the place, and it has leaked ever since. During the showing, the landlord says to the would-be tenant,
“The kitchen sink leaks. It’s leaked from the get-go. Somehow I never get around to fixing it.”
“That’s OK,” says the would-be tenant, “I don’t mind a leaky sink. Just knock $10 off the rent.”
No, the landlord is not able to contract out of the warranty of habitability.
5. Windows must be secure
The Code states that in every habitable room other than the kitchen there must be:
transparent or translucent glass which admits light from the outdoors and which is equal in area to no less than 8% of the entire floor area of that room
It also says:
The owner shall provide, install and maintain locks so that… Every openable exterior window shall be capable of being secured.
A habitable room needs a window of sufficient size. If the window is capable of being opened it needs to have a mechanism to keep it from simply sliding or falling open or from being opened from the outside (by an intruder, for example). It needs a lock.
What if the latch on the living-room window fell off?
“I see that the living room window doesn’t have a lock or even a latch that works. Could you knock $50 off the rent?”
“Sorry,” says the owner, “I can’t buy my way out of the warranty of habitability. I’ll install a lock tomorrow. And I’ll send you the bill.”
No, the owner is not allowed to charge the tenant for the cost of making the exterior window secure. The owner’s duty is to provide the lock, and the word “provide” means “supply and pay for.”
Anyone who intends to become a landlord in Massachusetts should become familiar with the State Sanitary Code, and consistently comply with it. Failing to comply with the Code and breaching the warranty of habitability could be a very expensive mistake.
*This is the word to focus on. The State Sanitary Code establishes the minimum standards of fitness for human habitation. Think of it as a floor, not a ceiling.
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.
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.
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).
Slatecovered 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.
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.
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.
January 21, 2021:- Yesterday President Biden extended the CDC’s eviction moratorium through March 31, 2021. For the Forbes article click here. For the CDC order itself, click here.
Housing providers in Massachusetts who take tenants to court for nonpayment of rent have to file an affidavit swearing that they have not received a CDC declaration from the tenants. In any event, even if the CDC moratorium does not cover the tenants in question, under a state law that was tacked on to the budget (Chapter 257 of the Acts of 2020) in nonpayment cases judges are not allowed to enter orders for possession or issue executions if the tenants have a pending application for rental assistance.
Under Chapter 257, housing providers who send tenants notices to quit for nonpayment of rent have to also give the tenants a form stating that the tenants do not have to leave:
“THIS NOTICE TO QUIT IS NOT AN EVICTION. YOU DO NOT NEED TO IMMEDIATELY LEAVE YOUR UNIT. YOU ARE ENTITLED TO A LEGAL PROCEEDING IN WHICH YOU CAN DEFEND AGAINST THE EVICTION. ONLY A COURT ORDER CAN FORCE YOU TO LEAVE YOUR UNIT.”
They also have to send the Commonwealth a copy of the notice to quit via an online portal. Later, when filing the case in court, housing providers have to submit a sworn statement (another form) confirming compliance. This is in addition to the CDC affidavit and (if e-filing) an affidavit confirming compliance with the e-filing rules.
What does this mean in practice? Nonpayment cases involve more paperwork and take longer.
October 6, 2020:- The Housing Court has issued a new standing order (SO 6-2) that will govern pending and newly-filed summary process cases if the eviction moratorium expires on October 17 (and if the Legislature does not impose a new one).
I will provide a synopsis in a future post. In the meantime, housing providers should note that:
(1) for default judgments entered after March 1, the Housing Court is allowing all motions to remove the default;
(2) for already-filed cases summary process cases the Clerks will be sending out scheduling notices for conferences with Housing Specialists;
(3) for new summary process cases, the owner/attorney who completes the summons and complaint should not insert a trial date (write TBD instead); and
(4) because the CDC moratorium order is in effect, the Housing Court will provide an affidavit for housing providers to use in order to tell the Court whether the renters gave them the declaration that the CDC order requires.
September 18, 2020:- The New Civil Liberties Alliance lawsuit against the CDC eviction moratorium order (Brown v Azar) argues, among other things, that the agency’s order flies in the face of the non-delegation doctrine. This is the doctrine that says that the legislature cannot delegate its authority to the executive because doing do would violate article 1, section 1 of the Constitution of the United States, which vests all legislative power in Congress. It is supposed to help keep each branch of government in its own lane.
I find it hard to see how this particular argument can fail.
There is no doubt that the authority to establish a nationwide eviction moratorium lies (if anywhere) with Congress. To find evidence to support this, we do not have to look very far. In fact we only have to look back as far as April 2020, when Congress passed the CARES Act, section 4024 of which established a nationwide eviction moratorium.
If any branch of the federal government has the authority to bar property owners from going to court to seek the return of their own property, which is by no means certain, it is Congress. By imposing an eviction moratorium of its own, the CDC, an executive branch agency, is usurping the power that the Constitution vests exclusively in Congress.
September 2, 2020:- Imagine they passed a law saying that you’ve got to go to work every day of the year, and if the company doesn’t pay your wages, that’s just too bad. You can’t sue them. You can’t go on strike. You can’t even quit.
I have a client who is in a position something like that.
She works as a housing provider, in addition to her day job as a nurse. She owns her own home and one other house that she bought in order to rent it out. Her goal was to use the rental income to pay the bank, and then (when she’d paid off the mortgage) start making a profit.
“It was supposed to be my 401(k),” she told me.
Not a 401(k)
That’s not how it turned out. In November 2019, the tenant (then, as now, unemployed) stopped paying rent, so my client started summary process (eviction) proceedings in Housing Court. But then the Legislature and the Governor passed Chapter 65, the partial eviction moratorium, which prohibits the courts from moving forward with non-payment cases even if the reason for non-payment has nothing to do with COVID 19 or the state government’s job-destroying, livelihood-wrecking response to it.
So the summary process case is suspended until the moratorium expires, which could be in October or might be in January if the Governor chooses to extend it. Or it could be even later; who knows.
When the case emerges from limbo, it will be one among thousands waiting for a judge to hear it. In the meantime, is there anything my client can do to try to get paid? At this point, the rent arrears are somewhat north of $8,000, by the way.
Two attorneys brought a constitutional challenge to the partial eviction moratorium, namely Jordana Rubicek Greenman and Richard Vetstein. For details of the lawsuit, check out Attorney Vetstein’s blog.
I wrote an amicus brief for MassLandlords, and watched the oral argument before Superior Court Judge Paul Wilson online. In the course of the argument, Attorney Vetstein made the point that the moratorium is barring the courts to one class of litigants, i.e. landlords. Not so, responded counsel for one of the tenants’ organizations who said that the courts aren’t barred because landlords can still sue tenants for breach of contract.
In his order denying the request for a preliminary injunction, Judge Wilson said the same thing: “[T]he economic effect on landlords is mitigated not only by their ability to sue non-paying tenants for breach of contract, but by the temporary nature of the moratorium.”
Could that really be a viable route, I wondered? Could landlords, who can’t use summary process for the foreseeable future, sue for breach of contract? The client I’m writing about here agreed to try.
Breach of contract case
On her behalf, I filed a simple breach of contract case in Housing Court. The tenant’s (taxpayer-funded) lawyer filed a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(9) of the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure on the basis that my client can’t have two cases about the same issue going at once.
Fair enough, you might say, why not just dismiss the summary process claim? Dismissing a case where the other side has filed counterclaims (which happened here) requires a motion that a judge has to rule on, and the partial eviction moratorium prohibits the courts from scheduling a court event.
More importantly, if my client did dismiss her summary process case, in order to regain possession of her house when the moratorium expires she would have to start all over again. She would be at the back of a line. A very long line.
Regarding those counterclaims that the tenant filed: Are there two sides to this story? Obviously.
But what if (after the moratorium expires) a judge, after hearing all the evidence, decided that even if some of the counterclaims were valid, the tenant owed my client, say, 75% — or even 50% — of the rent that had built up since November 2019? Does anyone really believe that the unemployed tenant will be able to pay several thousand dollars?
Anyway, we had a hearing, and the judge took it under advisement. When the court issues the decision, I will post an update.
No names, no pack drill
This story is far from being the most extraordinary that I have heard in the last few months. This one seems worth telling today, now that the federal government has established a nationwide eviction moratorium and there is some wider public discussion of the administration’s proffered justification and the likely impact.
My client gave me permission to tell her story online, but I decided not to use her name or other identifying information because you know how things are these days.
Like the tenant, she is a real person. She deserves some consideration from policymakers, and from the people who are supposed to hold them to account, i.e. the electorate.
She has to pay to maintain the property and keep it up to code. The tenant won’t pay rent, and has not applied for the subsidies that are available to cover the rent. But without the tenant applying, my client can’t get access to those subsidies.
So my client doesn’t want to be a landlord any more, obviously. But she doesn’t have a choice. She can’t get paid, and she can’t even quit.
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.
What began as an emergency stop-gap in the Spring will continue at least until the Fall.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.