“Essential” evictions: Housing Court issues new order

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

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

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

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

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

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

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

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Dear Governor Baker:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Frederik C. Winsser

What should you tell tenants who do not pay rent?

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

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

Question

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

Answer

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

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

Conclusion

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

Not a rent moratorium

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

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

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

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

Statute

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

Regulations

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

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

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

Takeaway

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

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

Some evictions are still legal

April 23, 2020:-  Landlords and lawyers should bear in mind that the new eviction-moratorium law does not prohibit all evictions. The definition of “non-essential evictions” excludes:

(a) criminal activity that may impact the health or safety of other residents, health care workers, emergency personnel, persons lawfully on the subject property or the general public; or

(b) lease violations that may impact the health or safety of other residents, health care workers, emergency personnel, persons lawfully on the subject property or the general public.

Such evictions are not non-essential. Put another way so as to avoid a surfeit of negatives, such evictions are essential.

Note in particular the words “may,” “impact,” and “or.” The law does not say that the tenant’s criminal activity/lease violations must have a significant impact on the health and safety of another person, only that it “impact” the health or safety. Plus, it uses the disjunctive “or” as opposed to “and.”

What kind of activity can be said to “impact” someone’s health, including mental health? That is food for thought.

Takeaway: If a tenant’s activity may impact the health or safety of another person, the new law allows the landlord to file–and does not authorize the court to reject–a summary process case.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

 

 

 

Eviction moratorium: how long?

April 20, 2020:- Today Governor Charlie Baker signed the eviction-moratorium bill that will last as long as the state of emergency that he proclaimed on March 10, plus 45 days. What is the duration of the state of emergency? How long is a piece of string?

Unlike Order No. 13 (the business-closure order that expires on May 4, 2020) the state of emergency has no end date. By its terms the proclamation “shall remain in effect until notice is given, pursuant to my judgment, that the STATE OF EMERGENCY no longer exists” (all caps in original).

The new law says that the Governor may extend the moratorium in 90-day increments, so long as he does not extend it to a date more than 45 days after the end of the emergency. If, for the sake of argument, the Governor terminates the emergency on June 30, the earliest date on which a landlord could issue a notice to quit for non-payment of rent would be August 14 and the Housing Court would not have a hearing on the summary process summons and complaint until September at the earliest. Given the backlog of cases, further delays are inevitable.

The conclusion of the moratorium depends on when the emergency expires, and right now that day looks distant. There is no reason to assume that it will be in June. Because although the pandemic may be on the wane, economically we are in tatters.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), by the end of 2020 the global economy will have contracted by 3%, compared with 0.1% in the recession of 2009. Unemployment in the United States is already at 22 million (at least) and likely to go up. Hospitals are laying off workers. The price of oil has fallen below zero. If there wasn’t an emergency on March 10, there certainly is now.

But even if the Governor does lift the state of emergency and lets the moratorium expire 45 days thereafter, that might not mean much. The Legislature could choose to extend the moratorium by amending the statute. That seems more likely than not.

In view of its popularity among the majority and the likely demands by tenants’ advocates for an extension, it would take real political courage to leave the statue in its present form and let the moratorium expire on time. In the language of politics, the definition of “temporary” is almost infinitely elastic.

Legislature poised to give Governor even more power

April 15, 2020:-  Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse. If the Massachusetts Legislature passes the eviction moratorium embodied in this bill, which emerged from the Senate today, it will not only violate two of the bedrock rights that are guaranteed in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, but will also grant to the Governor a power that no executive branch in the Anglosphere — no English monarch even — has claimed since the 17th Century: the power of suspending and dispensing the laws. This is a step backward, a step back to the era of royal absolutism.

It was already bad enough that our full-time salaried lawmakers wished to take private property without compensation and bar people from going to the courts. As I pointed out in a previous post, Article 10 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights guarantees reasonable compensation when the government takes property for public uses and Article 11 guarantees everyone the right to a remedy by recourse to the law and the right to obtain justice freely and promptly. Neither of those articles contains a carve-out for when the Governor declares an emergency.

Now the Legislature intends to strip away another right, one that the people of Massachusetts granted to their Legislature, namely the power to decide how long a statute should remain in force. Section 7 of the new bill says that the eviction moratorium will expire in 120 days unless the Governor extends it. Read that again. Unless the Governor extends it. The alleged power to suspend or dispense legislation was a medieval prerogative reclaimed in the 1640s by Charles I. Things went poorly from there, for both the king and the kingdom.

If this were simply a matter of the Legislature surrendering their own rights to the executive branch, it would merit little more than a meh. But the right is not theirs to give. The purpose behind the separation of powers is to protect the rights of the people, not the rights of their full-time salaried servants in the State House.

If Governor Baker signs this bill into law we will have crossed another constitutional threshold.