New edition of unofficial Housing Court reporter

May 31, 2022:- The latest volume (number 14) of the Western Division Housing Court Reports is available online. It is the unofficial compilation of decisions and orders issued by the Western Division Housing Court, published for the benefit of lawyers, landlords, tenants, and the public at large.

To peruse the reports, click here.

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Alternatives to eviction

Would you like to know about alternatives to eviction and ways to settle disputes before they end up in Housing Court?

Photo by Jozsef Hocza on Unsplash

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.

The event is free and open to the public.

For the event link click here.

5 things every landlord needs to know

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.”

Conclusion

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.

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Rent control: New name, same aim

April 12, 2022:- Rent control has a new moniker: It now identifies as “rent stabilization.” You know when a policy is unpopular when its advocates give it a new name. Even today, when face-masking, mind-closing, and line-toeing are all the rage among the bien pensant, a policy with the word “control” right there in the title just doesn’t sit well, I guess.

But the reason for the policy’s unpopularity is not the name but the aim. And what is the aim of rent stabilization (née rent control)? An article in Jacobin explains. It has the headline “New York Needs Universal Rent Control Now,” and a sub-headline that tells you why: “Rent control can build tenant power and undermine the logic of speculative neighborhood investments.”

The phrase “undermine the logic of speculative neighborhood investments” is a reasonably to-the-point way of expressing the idea “abolish private property.” You can count on a forthright explanation from a magazine named after the movement that was responsible for the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.

Lest readers doubt that the editor responsible for writing the headlines and sub-headlines at Jacobin got it wrong, here is a quote from the article itself:

By discouraging speculation and lowering the value of investment properties, it lays the groundwork for an expansion of alternative housing models, like social housing and community land trusts. 

Discouraging speculation? That speaks for itself, as does “lowering the value of investment properties.” Similarly, the expansion of social housing (in plain English, government housing) and community land trusts (in plain English, government housing) means the contraction of something else, i.e. privately owned housing.

Why is this expressly Statist, anti-market policy of rent stabilization (née rent control) back on the political agenda in Massachusetts and elsewhere? In short, because the politics of the people who write for Jacobin are the politics of the people who are setting the agenda for the Democratic Party in Massachusetts, namely the supporters of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

DSA stalwart State Representative Mike Connolly of Cambridge has a bill, H. 1378, that includes an option for towns and cities to enact rent control. The Joint Committee on Housing is scheduled to vote on it next month.

Myself, I believe that affordable good-quality housing is more likely to emerge through markets than through policies such as rent control. That is a belief that some committed socialists share, and it is exactly why they want rent control. From the perspective of a dedicated revolutionary, if rent control reduces the amount of affordable housing, thereby exacerbating the situation, fomenting discontent, and stimulating revolutionary conditions, so much the better.

From the standpoint of the true socialist, in the long run no housing reforms are safe without a wholesale socialist transformation of society.

But reasonable people who wish to address the need for more affordable housing (and are not revolutionary socialists or even gradualist socialists) may find the arguments for and against rent control evenly poised. They may be on the fence about it.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose rent control (click here for a few) but here’s one that the fence-sitters might — just might — think about:

Rent control artificially reduces housing units’ value, forcing housing providers to offer their properties at below-market rates. This dramatically reduces developers’ incentive to construct new units, as the artificially deflated rental market offers a lower return on investment. In cities that implement rent control, new construction decreases dramatically, producing substantial declines in the availability of rental housing.

That’s a quote from an op-ed by Drew Hamrick, senior vice president of government affairs and general counsel for the Colorado Apartment Association, writing in Colorado Politics. The bill Mr. Hamrick opposes would impose rent control on Colorado’s mobile-home parks.

Yes, it’s not just Massachusetts. Even in Colorado — longtime home of Hunter S. Thompson, birthplace of Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, and where it is illegal to lend your vacuum cleaner to your neighbor — questionable ideas sometimes find their way onto the agenda.

To be fair, the socialists have a response to people like Drew Hamrick. To the claim that rent control reduces the amount of new rental housing, they say “oh no it doesn’t.” For an article in Jacobin countering the pro-private property argument with data, click here. For arguments from the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute in favor of private ownership and against rent control, also with data, click here.

Please do me a favor and read the arguments for and against rent control.

As a former socialist whose mind changed after much experience, reading, and reflection, I am grateful for the liberty to read works that express ideas that differ from my own. Of course, that very liberty depends entirely on another liberty: the liberty to own and sell property. If one entity (the State) controls your ability to make the money with which you can buy food, shelter, and whatever else you need and desire, your ability to criticize that entity will be very constrained. Without that liberty to criticize through writing and speech, dissent sounds like this. And that, fundamentally, is why rent control is a bad policy.

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.

HUD Secretary accuses SCOTUS of “putting millions of Americans at risk.”

August 27, 2021:- HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge issued a statement criticizing the Supreme Court of the United States for holding the CDC eviction moratorium unconstitutional. Here is the opening paragraph of the statement:

“I am deeply disappointed by the Supreme Court’s ruling on the CDC’s eviction moratorium. With this decision, the Court has put millions of Americans at risk of losing their homes—even as the Delta variant heightens their risk of exposure to COVID-19. Many of these Americans are among our most vulnerable—including senior citizens, people with chronic illnesses, young children, and families with the lowest incomes.”

The statement is inaccurate. As the Supreme Court’s decision points out, it is Congress, not the CDC, that has the power to enact an eviction moratorium. Congress has done so before, and it could do so again. If Congress had wanted to enact a new eviction moratorium, it could have. But it did not. That choice on the part of Congress did not magically empower another branch of the federal government to legislate in its place.

Many political actors have put people at risk of losing their homes, e.g. the governors who closed down businesses and the legislators who enabled them. The culprits do not include the justices of the Supreme Court.

https://www.hud.gov/about/leadership/marcia_fudgehttps://www.hud.gov/about/leadership/marcia_fudge

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

Legislative presentation

On Wednesday, February 3 at 5:00 p.m. I will be offering a presentation for MassLandlords on the subject of bills for the next sessions of the Massachusetts Legislature.

One of the bills has to do with civil asset forfeiture, by the way. What does that have to do with housing law? Tune in and fine out!

To learn more and to register click here.

Peter Vickery, Esq.

Green light? Housing Court preparing to resume summary process cases

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.

Photo by DavisSanchez by Pexels

Eviction moratorium: federal judge criticizes compelled speech

September 28, 2020:- Another small victory for freedom of expression in Massachusetts, again from a Federal judge rather than the State courts. The key point? Housing providers should not have to promote organizations that seek to strip away their rights.

In the case of Baptiste v. Kenneally, the U.S. District Court did not grant the plaintiffs an injunction against the Commonwealth’s eviction moratorium, but did find that the regulations issued under it impermissibly burden free speech.

In April, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted Chapter 65 (the eviction moratorium) which prohibits landlords from sending notices to quit, but allows them to send missed-payment notices stating how much the tenants owe.

Then the executive branch issued emergency regulations (with no notice-and-comment period) that tell housing providers what to say in these missed-payment notices, including a link to certain “resources.” The “resources” include Massachusetts Housing Partnership, which in turn links to the advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana, the taxpayer-funded nonprofit corporation* that campaigns for measures that are (I will put this mildly) not entirely consistent with the constitutionally-guaranteed right to possess and enjoy private property, e.g.

“We will fight for legislation to protect and expand rights for all working-class renters and homeowners, including RENT CONTROL, RIGHT TO COUNSEL, and an EVICTION SEALING ACT. We’ll actively support efforts to make corporate developers pay for these initiatives through a TRANSFER FEE on the sale of luxury development” (all caps in original).

That quote is from the page on the corporation’s website titled Our Work. All those measures are diametrically opposed to the interests of housing providers, and members of the statewide organization MassLandlords have consistently voiced their opposition to them.

On September 25, Judge Mark L. Wolf held that the State government regulations infringe the speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

[T]he court finds that plaintiffs are likely to prevail on their claim that the second paragraph of 400 C.M.R. §5.03(2) unconstitutionally compels speech by requiring plaintiffs to include in any notice of rent arrearage addresses of non-governmental websites that, in turn, refer tenants to tenant advocacy groups, including City Life/Vida Urbana, with interests adverse to plaintiffs’.

The judge went on:

“[I]t is a fact that organizations like City Life/Vida Urbana provide legal services to tenants who want to resist being evicted, they also engage in other activities including, among other things, advocating for legislation that restricts landlords’ rights to evict, and litigating against them.”

The judge explained that State government should not compel landlords to endorse and promote these activities, and that compelled speech of this sort would not survive intermediate scrutiny let alone strict scrutiny.

This part of the decision represents a welcome victory for free speech in the Federal District Court. What a shame the State-level courts in Massachusetts so rarely evince a similar regard for that right.

___

*The corporation’s legal name is Urban Revival, Inc. and according to its Form 990 (2017) its mission/significant activities are “racial/ethnic harmony through affordable housing and economic development,” which is more succinct than (and different in tone from) the mission statement on its website:

“City Life/Vida Urbana is a grassroots community organization committed to fighting for racial, social and economic justice and gender equality by building working class power. We promote individual empowerment, develop community leaders and build collective power to effect systemic change and transform society.”

“Riot police” by mac_ivan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

P.S. A note about my choice of image, which illustrates the idea of the mailed fist in the velvet glove. When I write about compelled speech, I like to offer a reminder about who it is, exactly, that is doing the compelling. If ever you disobey a law, you risk an encounter with agents of the only organization in society that (as Max Weber pointed out) claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, namely the government. If you refuse to do what the government tells you to do, or you refuse to speak the words that it demands that you utter, eventually you will come into contact with the government’s agents, people who wear uniforms, carry weapons, and have the power to alter your condition from free to un-free and from alive to dead.

Executive overreach: CDC eviction moratorium usurps Congress

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.

Stay tuned.

“US Capitol” by keithreifsnyder is licensed under CC BY 2.0

New federal eviction moratorium

September 2,2020:- Yesterday the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) issued an order prohibiting evictions. For the fact sheet from the White House, click here. Before going any further, let me quote a pertinent passage:

“This Order does not apply in any State… with a moratorium on residential evictions that provides the same or greater level of public health protection than the requirements listed in this Order.”

If “public health protection” means eviction moratorium, then (assuming Governor Baker extends the moratorium through the end of 2020) the federal order would not apply in Massachusetts. The partial eviction moratorium here is much broader than the CDC’s.

Readers who care about old-fashioned concepts like law might be wondering, “what is the statutory authority for this order?” The agency cites section 361 of the Public Health Services Act.

As for whether the order is lawful and constitutionally sound, perhaps someone will sue and ask a judge to decide.

In terms of common sense, do the circumstances justify the order? I offer two screenshots from the CDC, and ask you to decide for yourself. The first screenshot is from the order. The second is from the agency’s recent provisional weekly COVID 19 death count. I urge you look at the full document.

If you have an opinion to share, please use the form that appears below screenshot 2.

Screenshot 1
Screenshot 2

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lawmaker calls on Governor to extend moratorium

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Senate to consider extending and expanding eviction moratorium

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

Legislative largesse

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

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

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

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

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

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

A year-long, nationwide eviction moratorium

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

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

Federalism 101

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

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

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

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

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James Madison

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

 

Governor Baker, let the eviction moratorium expire

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

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

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Peter Vickery, Esq. and Gov. Charlie Baker