Landlords challenge constitutionality of eviction ban

Two landlords from Randolph and Worcester are challenging the constitutionality of the ongoing eviction moratorium, arguing the state is allowing their tenants to basically take property without paying for it.

The two landlords are Marie Baptiste, a nurse from Randolph who says her tenants owe her about $20,000 in back rent, and Mitch Matorin, who owns a three-family house in Worcester where one of his tenants has stopped paying rent.

Richard Vetstein, who is representing the landlords, told Suffolk Superior Court Judge Paul Wilson on Thursday that the eviction moratorium is violating court access rights and constitutional property law. He is seeking an injunction to open housing courts to evictions.

“You’re literally forcing landlords across the state to provide public housing to tenants because of this moratorium,” he said.  “This is literally state reps trying to be housing court judges, and it’s gone too far.”

Jennifer Greaney, an assistant attorney general representing the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, 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.

The eviction moratorium has been extended until October and could be extended further if legislation filed by Reps. Mike Connolly of Cambridge and Kevin Honan of Brighton passes. Their bill would extend the moratorium into next year, and only partially addresses how tenants will catch up with the rent they owe.

Vetstein and tenant rights attorney Joey Michalakes also squabbled about the need for the moratorium. Michalakes said 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 City Life/Vida Urbana and Massachusetts Institute of Technology report that concluded Covid-19 related evictions are more likely to occur in communities of color.

Vetstein dismissed those claims, saying that lifting the moratorium would not lead to a mass amount of evictions, homelessness, and the spread of COVID-19. “It’s like three levels of logical leaps that you have to go through,” he said.

Michalakes retorted that there are 5,000 pending cases in housing court, and “taking into account those cases alone, it’s extremely likely that lifting the moratorium … would lead to a non-trivial increase in homelessness — and that’s going to spread the disease.”

Wilson quelled the disagreement, saying that what happens after the ban is lifted is besides the point. “I see the issue before me as whether the Legislature did something unconstitutional when it enacted it in the first place,” he said. Wilson promised a decision soon.

SARAH BETANCOURT


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