Notices to Quit for Non-Payment of Rent: Proceed with “Care”

Notices to quit for non-payment of rent are required for initiating an eviction against a delinquent tenant. A landlord must generally provide a fourteen-day notice to quit for such an eviction.

However, the recent federal “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” (CARES Act) throws a wrinkle into this process. As such, landlords need to proceed with “care” with serving a notice for non-payment of rent (pun intended!).

Overview of Massachusetts Evictions During Coronavirus

Both federal and state law are presently prohibiting most residential evictions in Massachusetts. The CARES Act placed an initial moratorium on a large majority of eviction cases. The subsequent state eviction moratorium has stopped all non-essential evictions across the state.

When the moratorium ends, it is expected that evictions will resume (albeit under different circumstances and conditions). However, a requirement of the CARES Act will remain after the moratorium ends for notices to quit for non-payment of rent.

Notices to Quit for Non-Payment of Rent: Additional Time Required in Certain Cases

While notices to quit for non-payment of rent generally require fourteen days, the CARES Act now requires that such notices, when sent after the end of the moratorium, provide the tenant with thirty days notice.

This only applies to a specific category of properties, referred to as a “covered dwelling unit” under the CARES Act. These are generally properties that participate in a federal program or have a federally backed mortgage.

While this category applies to a wide array of tenant properties, the following landlords, in my opinion, are the most common ones who will fall under this law: those who participate in the Section 8 housing program, and those with a Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac mortgage.

For such rental properties, a thirty day notice (and not fourteen) will be required.

Practical Implications

When the courts reopen, there will be a flood of non-payment eviction cases. I’m predicting that many tenants will raise defenses related to whether the landlord served them with the proper notice to quit.

With this in mind, landlords need to be extra careful when preparing a notice to quit. If there is any chance that their rental property is covered under the CARES Act, the landlord should go with a thirty-day notice for non-payment of rent evictions.

If you need assistance with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

Tenants With Criminal Backgrounds

Tenants with criminal backgrounds is a topic that landlords need to be careful about when selecting potential tenants. A guidance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) suggests that a landlord’s decision to outright deny renting to any potential tenant with a criminal background can constitute housing discrimination.

What is Housing Discrimination?

Housing discrimination is when a landlord refuses to rent to a tenant based upon a protected classification. Housing discrimination comes from both federal and state law. State law, which is broader than the federal housing discrimination laws, prevents discrimination on the basis of:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National Origin
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Familial Status (i.e. children)
  • Disability
  • Source of Income (e.g. a Section 8 voucher)
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Gender Identity
  • Age
  • Marital Status
  • Veteran or Active Military Status
  • Genetic Information

There are some exemptions to these laws, but they are narrow in scope. The best practice for Massachusetts landlords is to assume that housing discrimination laws apply to all of their rental properties, and proceed with extreme care and caution when selecting tenants.

Potential Tenants With Criminal Backgrounds: What To Do

Tenants with criminal backgrounds are not a protected class from discrimination. However, a HUD guidance advises that a landlord’s blanket refusal to rent to tenants with criminal backgrounds may be discriminatory.

Why? As explained in the guidance:

Across the United States, African Americans and Hispanics are arrested, convicted and incarcerated at rates disproportionate to their share of the general population. Consequently, criminal records-based barriers to housing are likely to have a disproportionate impact on minority home seekers. While having a criminal record is not a protected characteristic under the Fair Housing Act, criminal history-based restrictions on housing opportunities violate the Act if, without justification, their burden falls more often on renters or other housing market participants of one race or national origin over another (i.e., discriminatory effects liability).

Importantly, a landlord can commit racial discrimination even if they had no intention of doing so, if their actions (while neutral in nature) have the result of discriminating against a protected class over others (known as disparate impact).

With this in mind, landlords need to be careful when dealing with tenants with criminal backgrounds. A landlord should never outright refuse to rent to a tenant simply because the tenant has a criminal arrest or conviction. Rather, the landlord needs to make such decisions on a case-by-case basis, and decide if there is a real justification for denying a tenant solely from a criminal past.

As with all matters regarding landlord-tenant law, landlords should keep detailed, written records of all potential tenants, in case an issue ever arises.

Final Thoughts

If you need assistance with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

Appearing Before a Zoning Board: What to Know

Appearing before a zoning board is often required when a property owner is seeking a specific use of their property, or wishes to appeal a decision of a town or city building department. Unlike courts, where most parties are represented by attorneys, it is common for individuals to appear on their own behalf before a zoning board (although having an attorney can help in many cases).

Here, I want to offer some advice on appearing before a zoning board in Massachusetts.

What Are the Zoning Boards in Massachusetts?

The two most common zoning boards in Massachusetts are the Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) and the Planning Board. Each town or city has different rules on the specific zoning relief that each of these boards can consider.

Some towns and cities also have zoning decisions heard by the city council or selectboard. Boston has its own, unique system of zoning decision making.

Know What Is Required For What You Are Seeking

Zoning requests have different requirements that an applicant must satisfy. Simply explaining why you want the zoning relief is generally not enough; an applicant must show why their request meets each of the requirements.

Variances have detailed requirements which are generally uniform for all Massachusetts cities and towns. Special permit requirements are often unique for each individual jurisdiction.

Put It In Writing

A good piece of advice on appearing before a zoning board is what you can do before the meeting. You should consider submitting a letter to the board, in advance, that explains what you are looking for and why you meet each of the zoning requirements.

Doing this before the meeting will give the board members time to review your request in advance.

Seek the Support of Abutters

Often, a zoning request can implicate the rights of persons living near the property, known as abutters. Because of this, zoning boards often like to hear that abutters have no objection to the zoning request before them.

If you can, try to obtain a letter of support from such abutters or, even better, ask them to appear at the meeting on your behalf. If an abutter has concerns about the zoning relief you are seeking, try to work this out with them in advance.

Understand the Appeals Process

Anyone aggrieved by a zoning decision has the right to appeal. Such appeals, however, generally come with an extremely tight deadline. If you find yourself having to appeal, be sure to pay close attention to the timing of when the appeal must be filed. You should also consider obtaining an attorney, as zoning appeals can be complicated.

Final Thoughts

Zoning is an incredibly important topic for property owners in Massachusetts. If you find yourself in need of assistance with such a matter, contact me for a consultation.

Foreclosure Moratorium in Massachusetts: FAQs

UPDATE: The eviction and foreclosure moratorium has been extended through October 2020.

Earlier this week,  Governor Baker signed into law “An Act providing for a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the COVID-19 Emergency.” I previously wrote about how this law affects evictions. In this post, I’ll discuss the foreclosure moratorium.

What Foreclosures Are Covered Under the Moratorium?

The moratorium covers all residential foreclosures in Massachusetts. This law broadly prohibits all action related to a Massachusetts foreclosure, including the start of a Servicemembers Case and the publishing of a foreclosure sale notice.

An exception is allowed for “vacant or abandoned” property. The law does not cover foreclosures for commercial property.

What Relief is Available to Homeowners Under the Moratorium?

The law allows a homeowner to request a forbearance of their mortgage loan, which temporarily suspends payments on the loan. This is only allowed for those who have a “certain mortgage loan”, which is defined under a pre-foreclosure law, G.L. c. 244, § 35B. This forbearance, importantly, requires that the unpaid loan expenses be added to the end of the loan.

Forbearances are presently allowed for many homeowners under the federal CARES Act. However, to the best of my knowledge, a forbearance under the CARES Act does not require a lender to add the unpaid balance at the end of the loan, as the state moratorium does.

How Long Will the Moratorium Last?

120 days after the passage of the bill or 45 days after the COVID-19 emergency declaration has been lifted . . . whichever is sooner. The Governor also has the power to extend this moratorium.

What Impact will the Moratorium Have on Future Foreclosures?

A common misconception about foreclosure is that the process begins immediately after a homeowner misses a loan payment. In Massachusetts, nothing can be further from the truth. A myriad number of state and federal laws and mortgage requirements must be followed before a foreclosure sale can occur. It can easily be at least a year (and often longer) from the default of a loan up to a foreclosure sale.

As such, even without the moratorium, I wouldn’t have expected too many foreclosure sales to occur during the coronavirus pandemic. Some lenders may have started the process, but few homes would have actually been foreclosed. This moratorium will delay the inevitable foreclosures that will eventually arise from the pandemic.

What will happen next? It is possible that a wave of foreclosures may occur in the next several years, similar to what happen after the 2007/2008 financial meltdown. In my opinion, the most likely scenario is that loan servicers and other mortgage holders will be flooded with requests for mortgage relief in the next year. Many homeowners, unfortunately, will have difficulty getting the assistance they need.

Final Thoughts

If you need assistance with a foreclosure matter, contact me for a consultation.

Preventing Adverse Possession in Massachusetts

Massachusetts zoning

Preventing adverse possession is a concern that all property owners should keep in mind when dealing with a trespasser upon their property. Without taking the proper action, one’s property can be lost to another.

What is Adverse Possession?

Adverse possession is a legal claim that allows a party to obtain real property owned by someone else if the trespasser has used it continuously for a minimum of twenty years. Adverse possession has a number of specific requirements, including one that the use of the property must be non-permissive. In other words, the party using the property must have done so without the land owner’s permission.

In Massachusetts, there is a presumption that the use of another’s property is non-permissive, unless there is something to show otherwise. With this in mind, property owners need to be careful when dealing with a circumstance in which someone else is using their property.

Preventing Adverse Possession: Give Them Permission to Use the Property

The first, and easiest means of preventing adverse possession, is to simply give the other party permission to use the property. This is a good option when the other party’s use of the property isn’t a major concern, and (other than to avoid adverse possession) there is no real harm to the land owner.

Permission to use property can be done through a license, which is a limited right to use property that, importantly, is revocable. When giving such permission, it should always be done in writing, with proof of receipt to the other side. It is also a good idea to consider recording this notice in the land records.

Note that giving permission to the other party must be done within the twenty-year deadline for adverse possession. If the twenty-year period has already elapsed, adverse possession may already have occurred.

Preventing Adverse Possession: File a Court Action To Remove the Trespasser From the Property

If you do not want to give the other party permission to use your property, a court action to remove the trespassing party may be necessary. A court has authority to issue an injunction, which is a legal order preventing a party from doing something. In the case of a trespasser, a court can order a party to stay off of another’s property.

Final Thoughts

Preventing adverse possession is an important matter for any property owner with a trespasser. If you need assistance with such a matter, contact me for a consultation.

Eviction Moratorium in Massachusetts: FAQs

UPDATE: The eviction and foreclosure moratorium has been extended through October 2020.

As expected, Governor Baker signed into law “An Act providing for a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the COVID-19 Emergency.” This law puts the brakes on all current and future evictions for the time being.

Who’s Covered by the Eviction Moratorium?

The eviction moratorium applies to all residential landlords and tenants, and commercial “small business premises unit” tenants, who fit a narrow definition for a small business.

What’s Covered Under the Eviction Moratorium?

Landlords are not permitted to serve notices to quit, file eviction cases, or seek a default judgement against tenants. The moratorium also bans nearly all other possible action that could occur in an on-going eviction proceeding.

How Does This Affect Current Eviction Cases?

The eviction moratorium suspends any deadlines involved with a pending eviction case. In cases where the landlord has already obtained an execution for possession, the bill prevents landlords from being able to use it (known as “levying an execution”).

How Long Will This Last?

120 days after the passage of the bill or 45 days after the COVID-19 emergency declaration has been lifted . . . whichever is sooner. The Governor also has the power to extend this moratorium.

In essence, this means that, most likely, no evictions will be proceeding until July 2020, at the absolute earliest.

What Are the Exceptions to the Eviction Moratorium?

Evictions are allowed for cases concerning:

(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

There are also several exceptions for certain commercial evictions.

My take is that a landlord will need a strong, documented case against a tenant to even try one of these limited exceptions. Few judges are going to readily allow an eviction with the coronavirus ongoing.

Are There Any Protections for Landlords During the Eviction Moratorium?

The law allows landlords to use a last month rental deposit for “expenses”, such as mortgage payments and repairs. From my reading of the law, a landlord cannot use a last month rental deposit for unpaid rent alone.

If the landlord uses this deposit, the landlord must notify the tenant, inform the tenant that the deposit will still be applied for rent at the last month of the tenancy, and that the landlord must still pay the tenant interest on this deposit.

This is not allowed for a security deposit.

Must Tenants Continue Paying Rent During the Eviction Moratorium?

Yes. However, given this moratorium, a landlord will have limited means of doing anything about non-payment of rent for quite some time.

For landlords, be extremely careful when dealing with non-paying tenants. Any conduct that could be considered a “self-help” eviction is not worth the risk.

Final Thoughts

With the courts (and the rest of Massachusetts) closed, evictions aren’t happening anyway. This moratorium will continue this status quo for months ahead, and push most evictions into Summer/Fall 2020.

As I’ve written before, there will be an enormous backlog of cases when the courts reopen, from both existing cases and the inevitable future cases that will arise over the next few months.

If you need assistance with a landlord-tenant matter, feel free to contact me.

Tips for Obtaining Mortgage Payment Assistance

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many homeowners will likely need mortgage payment assistance in months ahead. Here are some tips for homeowners in need of such help.

Speak to Your Lender

For anyone seeking mortgage payment assistance, the first step is to speak with your lender. Most lenders have some form of mortgage assistance available, which can sometimes be granted through a simple phone call with the lender.

The most important piece of advice for obtaining mortgage payment assistance is (1) get it in writing and (2) keep a timeline of your communications with the lender. If a problem arises later, having this information can be critical in trying to avoid foreclosure.

Understand the Relief Available

Most lenders are offering mortgage forbearances as assistance during the coronavirus pandemic. A forbearance is a postponement of mortgage payments. It gives the homeowner a break from paying their mortgage.

A forbearance, importantly, does not forgive what is owed, or permanently modifies the loan. A homeowner who receives a forbearance needs to remember that their mortgage payments will resume in the future.

I have a feeling that the federal government (and many lenders on their own) will be pushing through more permanent mortgage assistance options in the future, so additional relief may be available soon.

Foreclosures Are Not Occurring Anytime Soon

While many homeowners, understandably, are concerned about losing their homes, foreclosures will not be occurring soon, due to federal and state regulations. Homeowners, however, do need to be proactive in addressing these matters, as foreclosures will resume at some point in the future.

Conclusion

If you need assistance with a foreclosure matter, contact me for a consultation.

Challenging a Zoning Decision: SJC Clarifies the Rules

foreclosure appeal

I previously wrote a post about Murchison v. Zoning Board of Appeals, concerning the matter of challenging a zoning decision. This was a decision from the Appeals Court that discussed who can pursue a zoning appeal. Murchison, in essence, held that any zoning decision that affected a density matter was grounds for pursuing a zoning appeal.

This decision was of great concern to many developers and real estate professionals, who worried that the decision would allow anyone to pursue a zoning appeal. The Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) agreed to review this decision again, and ruled that the party trying to pursue this appeal in Murchison lacked standing to do so.

Challenging a Zoning Decision: Who Is Permitted to File an Appeal?

Massachusetts law allows for appeals of local zoning decisions from zoning board of appeals (“ZBA”), planning boards, and other local zoning agencies. Such an appeal must be filed twenty days after the decision is filed with the city or town clerk.

Challenging a zoning decision requires a party to be aggrieved. In essence, this means that the party will suffer harm from the zoning decision. In legal terms, this is referred to as having standing to pursue the case.

Standing for a zoning appeal is a critical, threshold requirement. If a party lacks standing, the appeal will be dismissed.

Zoning Appeals After Murchison

Murchison concerned one of the common grounds for showing aggrievement: density. Density is often regulated through front and side setback requirements, height limitations, and lot-width restrictions. The purpose of such density restrictions are to prevent overcrowding of properties.

Massachusetts law allows a party to apply for an exemption from a zoning requirement, known as a variance. In limited circumstances, the town or city zoning board can grant such a exemption. If, however, another party is harmed by such a decision, they have a right to appeal.

For example, if a property owner obtains a variance allowing them to build a storage shed closer to their neighbor’s home, the neighbor will likely be able to appeal this decision.

The Appeals Court decision in Murchison (which the SJC overturned) suggested that any violation of a density requirement was grounds for standing. This was contrary to prior decisions, which suggested that a party needed to show some actual harm from the zoning relief. If, for example, the party wishing to appeal was not located near the subject property, the Appeals Court decision suggested that the zoning appeal could still proceed.

The SJC overturned the Appeals Court decision in Murchison the day after the hearing in this matter. I’ve never heard of the SJC ever issuing a decision so quickly, which underscores the importance of this matter.

However, the SJC has not yet issued a written decision on this matter. Until they do, the law on zoning appeals remains unclear.

Conclusion

If you need assistance with a zoning appeal, contact me for a consultation.

Three Success Stories as a Landlord Lawyer

As a landlord lawyer, I’ve had the pleasure of representing numerous Massachusetts landlords with their disputes against tenants. As an attorney who has represented landlords and tenants, I have experience with both sides of these legal disputes.

Here, I want to discuss three success stories that I’ve had as a landlord lawyer.

Working Out a Repayment Plan for Unpaid Rent

One of the best ways to succeed in a landlord-tenant dispute is to keep the matter out of court in the first place.

My client owned a condominium in the Greater Boston area, and was owed a large amount of rent from his tenants. The client hired me to start an eviction against the tenant.

Prior to starting the eviction, however, I reached out to the tenants to discuss a repayment plan. I was able to reach an agreement with the tenants to avoid a court proceeding and get my client repaid his money.

What’s the lesson of this? Keeping matters out of court is almost always the best outcome for landlords and tenants. In this case, my client recovered his rent and the tenants avoided an eviction.

Initiating An Eviction for A Tenant Who Doesn’t Plan To Leave An Apartment At the End of a Lease

When a lease is over, a tenant is suppose to leave the rental property (if the landlord doesn’t want them to stay). If the tenant remains, the landlord needs to evict.

Massachusetts law, however, has a lesser known provision that allows a landlord to start an eviction case before the end of the lease, if it is clear that the tenant has no plans to leave.

I represented a landlord whose tenant had no plans to leave at the end of the lease. Rather than wait until this happened, I took advantage of this law and filed the eviction right away. Doing so saved my client time, and got the matter to court (and to a resolution) as quickly as possible. Given that the eviction process in Massachusetts can be lengthy, starting as soon as possible is to the landlord’s benefit.

Protecting a Landlord’s Property From a Disruptive Tenant

In my practice as a landlord lawyer, I sometimes come across landlord-tenant disputes that are about more than just unpaid rent.

In this case, I represented a landlord who needed possession of his apartment. Prior to the start of the eviction, we learned that the tenants were damaging the property.

My response was to request a temporary restraining order (“TRO”). This court order, which is a form of injunctive relief, asks the court for an immediate order preventing a party from doing something. This is allowed for a case of irreparable harm, where the damage cannot be fixed simply by payment of money at the end of the case.

In this case, the court granted my TRO. Doing so helped bring the case to a prompt resolution.

Conclusion

My work as a landlord lawyer is rewarding, and I like nothing better than getting a great result for my clients. If you need help with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

Serving a Notice to Quit

Massachusetts’s Supreme Judicial Court issued an important decision last week on landlord-tenant law. The full decision, Youghal, LLC v. Entwistle, is included below.

Like many appeals, the decision touches upon many different legal issues, not all of which are relevant for Massachusetts landlords. Here, I want to focus on a topic that is critically important for landlord-tenant law: properly serving a notice to quit. I’ll also discuss the requirements for appealing a landlord-tenant case (this latter topic constituted the bulk of the decision, but is more relevant to lawyers than landlords).

Overview

Youghal was an eviction case brought by a landlord against a tenant for non-payment of rent. This eviction, like nearly every Massachusetts eviction, required the landlord to provide the tenant with a notice to quit prior to filing the eviction case.

A notice to quit provides the tenant with the reason and date that the landlord is terminating the tenancy. Such a notice is a mandatory requirement for evictions, and as demonstrated in this case, can be fatal if not done correctly. For non-payment of rent, a landlord generally has to give a tenant a fourteen (14) day notice to quit.

Serving a Notice to Quit

One of the defenses that the tenants raised in this case is that the landlord filed the eviction case too soon, before the end of the fourteen day notice period. Here, it appears that the landlord posted the notice to quit on the tenant’s door. The tenant was not present when this occurred, and only learned about it the following day.

The landlord argued that the fourteen-day period was based on the day that the landlord posted the notice. The Court disagreed, ruling that this period started when the tenant had actual notice of the notice to quit. Simply posting the notice on the door was not enough to start this fourteen-day period.

Practical Implications

How could this have been avoided? The landlord in this case should have a used a constable or sheriff to serve the notice to quit.

By law, a constable’s return of service is prima facie evidence that the tenant was served. A tenant can still try and argue that they never received the notice to quit, but must overcome a presumption that service was properly made.

While it is not entirely apparent from this decision, it appears that the landlord in this case never used a sheriff or constable to serve the notice to quit, and instead, did it on their own. Such an approach is risky because, as seen in Youghal, if the landlord does not actually hand the notice to the tenant, it can be an open question as to when the tenant received notice.

To be clear, it is possible that the same defense could have occurred even if a sheriff or constable was involved. In my experience, however, serving a notice to quit through a constable or sheriff makes such problems much less likely to occur.

Appealing a Landlord-Tenant Decision

Youghal also concerned the process of appealing a landlord-tenant decision. Such appeals come with an incredibly tight deadline: ten days after final judgment. The issue in Youghal concerned a scenario where this deadline is extended by the filing of a motion for reconsideration.

Attorney Joseph Schneiderman, who prepared a brief for the benefit of the tenants in this case, told me that “[t]hese provisions of the civil and appellate rules often create counterintuitive tangles that confound practitioners and litigants alike, especially in summary process cases. This decision positively detangles this issue by allowing a party to toll the appeal clock by moving for a new trial or to alter or amend.a judgment before judgment formally enters.”

What’s the take home lesson for landlords? Be extremely careful when filing a landlord-tenant appeal.

Conclusion

If you need assistance with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

Youghal-LLC-v.-Entwistle