BOSTON (SHNS) – Two landlords have asked the state’s highest court to invalidate a law Gov. Charlie Baker signed in April halting evictions and foreclosures during the COVID-19 pandemic, arguing that the mandatory pause violates their constitutional rights.
In a lawsuit filed with the Supreme Judicial Court on Friday, plaintiffs said the moratorium left them with no viable options to recoup financial losses associated with tenants not paying rent.
The law halts most housing removals defined as non-emergency while the state of emergency Baker declared is still in effect. While it does not exempt homeowners or tenants from requirements to pay mortgages and rent, it blocks landlords from imposing late fees or alerting a credit agency if a renter can prove the failure to pay stems from a COVID-related financial hardship.
Landlords said in their petition that they understand the strain many renters are feeling, but that the relief offered by the law is inappropriately one-sided.
“The problem with the basic concept of the Act is that it unfairly shifts the burden of financial impact from tenants to the state’s rental property owners, while at the same time, imposing an unprecedented assault on such fundamental constitutional rights as the right to petition and free speech,” plaintiffs wrote. “The state was free to establish a rent stabilization fund or similar financial remedy for a financial crisis, but it chose not to do that.”
Plaintiffs argued the law violates both the state Constitution and the U.S. Constitution because it infringes upon rights to petition the judiciary, access state courts, express free speech, and enforce contracts.
Many evictions had effectively been paused since Housing Courts shuttered at the start of the pandemic, but advocates pushed for a formal statewide moratorium to provide a clearer message to the public and to prevent tenants from willingly leaving their homes amid threat of removal.
Baker signed the law on April 20 after weeks of legislative negotiations. It is set to expire 120 days after his signature or 45 days after he lifts the COVID-19 state of emergency, though the language gives him authorization to extend it in 90-day increments if the crisis continues.
Mitchell Matorin, one of the two plaintiffs, purchased a Worcester property with two tenants in September. In an affidavit, Matorin described sending a notice to quit on Feb. 19 after the tenants failed to pay rent for the month, but the court process stopped when the pandemic hit.
The other plaintiff, Linda Smith of Hudson, said in her affidavit that she has relied on an Allston rental property she has owned since 1975 as a “source of income for nearly 45 years.” She alleges that her tenants have not been paying rent and that, when she visited the property in April, one renter told her, “The Governor says I don’t have to pay my rent anymore.”
“Given the unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, this one-sided obligation and burden will continue indefinitely and quite possibly into 2021,” attorneys wrote in their case. “Many small rental property owners, especially those on fixed income like Petitioner Smith, rely on rents to afford to live in their own homes.”
Language in the law holding renters and homeowners liable for any back rent they do not pay will not be effective, plaintiffs allege, because residents unable to pay during the state of emergency will not have multiple months of back pay available once the crisis subsides.
By ordering the court not to proceed with summary process cases, the legislative and executive branches exhibited “historically unprecedented interference,” they said.
Petitioners also criticized a section of the law that requires notices about missed rent to inform tenants that they are not notices to quit as “content-based regulation of speech.”
“Rental property owners who want to remind tenants of their missed rent payments are governmentally obligated to give tenants information which will enable them to keep not paying their rent,” they wrote. “This is out of the Twilight Zone.”
Richard Vetstein, an attorney representing Matorin and Smith, told the News Service in a Monday morning email that a hearing had not yet been scheduled with the SJC.