State judge blocks attempt to end eviction moratorium

Says ban is not an ‘unreasonable exercise’ of state’s power

A SUFFOLK SUPERIOR COURT JUDGE on Wednesday rejected a request by two landlords to suspend the state’s moratorium on evictions, saying the ban is not an “unreasonable exercise” of power. 

“I cannot see my way clear in finding that Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on merits of their claims that the Eviction Moratorium Law is an unreasonable exercise of power having no actual relation to the public safety, public health, or public morals,” wrote Judge Paul Wilson 

Two landlords from Randolph and Worcester brought the case, arguing that the moratorium is unconstitutional and that the state is allowing tenants to basically take property without paying for it. A parallel case, focused on federal constitutional arguments, is playing out in federal court and has a hearing next Tuesday.  

Richard Vetstein, who is representing the landlords in both cases, had asked the state court for an injunction in early August to open housing courts to evictions.  

“We feel we had a very strong argument on the separation of powers,” Vetstein said in an interview, adding that having lawmakers on Beacon Hill “micromanaging and telling housing courts what to do is a clear example of that.” He said he plans to appeal.  

Vetstein said he doesn’t anticipate a flood of evictions when the ban is lifted. 

Joseph Michalakes, a legal aid attorney, argued at an earlier court hearing that tenants who continue to be financially strapped due to job losses will be among the tens of thousands expected to be part of eviction filings as soon as the ban lifts. He referenced information from a report produced by City Life/Vida Urbana and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

Michalakes, on behalf of tenant groups that include City Life and Chelsea Collaborative, said those organizations believe today’s Superior Court order appropriately recognizes that the Eviction and Foreclosure Moratorium law plays a vital role in Massachusetts’ ongoing and comprehensive effort to defeat the spread of COVID-19.” 

They said the ban is particularly critical in communities with large numbers of low-income people, who have been the hardest hit by the disease.   

Gov. Charlie Baker extended the statewide eviction and foreclosure moratorium by 60 days at the end of July. The ban suspends most residential and small business commercial evictions, as well as residential foreclosures. It doesn’t forgive mortgage and rent payments.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

City Life/Vida Urbana claims that thousands of families at risk of eviction have called the organization’s hotline during the pandemic. “This decision allows them to keep a roof over their heads for the time being,” said executive director Lisa Owens.  

Jennifer Greaney, the assistant attorney general representing the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development in the suit, didn’t reply to requests for comment on Wednesday. During arguments, she said the eviction freeze doesn’t deprive landlords of the ability to defend their rights – it only puts that process on pause. 

“The only thing that has happened is that the Legislature has delayed the remedy of possession and it certainly has the right to do [so] without violating the right of access to the courts,” she said.