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As Mass. eviction ban heads to court, it’s attracting attention nationwide

Chicago, Los Angeles, other cities oppose effort to overturn Governor Baker's freeze

A rally in support of of efforts to block evictions for up to a year was held earlier this month outside the State House.
A rally in support of of efforts to block evictions for up to a year was held earlier this month outside the State House.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

A lawsuit challenging Massachusetts’ toughest-in-the-nation ban on evictions is heading to court on Thursday. And some big names are weighing in on the case.

Some 30 cities and counties, including Chicago and Los Angeles, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the nation’s foremost researcher on evictions have filed briefs in the case supporting the state’s halt on nearly all eviction filings because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, a collection of landlords and trade groups are joining two Massachusetts landlords in asking a Suffolk County judge to overturn the ban immediately.

Those arguments will be heard Thursday in a Boston courtroom, as the landlords seek a temporary injunction to block the freeze while their case moves forward. Potentially at stake are the homes of thousands of renters across the state who have fallen behind on or stopped paying rent during the pandemic.

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For now, they can’t be evicted, thanks to a measure lawmakers passed in April, which Governor Charlie Baker last week extended through October. But landlords say the law violates their rights, effectively requiring them to provide housing, with no compensation, for months.

And while some landlords can delay their mortgage payments, managing an apartment building comes with many expenses, said Mitch Matorin, who owns a three-family house in Worcester where one of his tenants has stopped paying rent. Matorin is one of the lead plaintiffs in the Suffolk County case and a similar one filed in federal court in Massachusetts.

“I’ve got to keep up the place, and there’s no money to do it,” Matorin said in a recent interview. “You fix one problem by saying no one should be evicted. But that creates a new problem for landlords.”

Matorin’s argument was echoed in amicus briefs filed by other landlords and their trade groups around the state. They contend the moratorium amounts to an illegal “taking,” arguing other businesses that were shut down in the pandemic didn’t have to continue to provide services. And they argued that fully halting evictions — which in Massachusetts require a judge’s order — violates their constitutional right to access the courts.

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“This is no mere procedural rule,” wrote an attorney for a Cape Cod landlord. “The Courthouse door is entirely closed.”

But in an emergency like this, lawyers for the state say, that is justified. The economic and public health impacts of widespread evictions amid the outbreak of a potentially fatal infectious disease outweigh any potential harm to landlords, they argue.

And, they note, the moratorium is temporary, set to end in October, though state law allows Baker to extend it again.

A wide range of housing advocates, tenant groups, and cities and counties filed briefs of their own, supporting the state’s defense of the moratorium.

Evictions are likely to fall hardest on lower-income and nonwhite renters in Massachusetts — the same population being hit most by COVID-19 — and exacerbate long-running disparities in Greater Boston’s housing market, wrote several researchers, including Matthew Desmond, who runs Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. Ending the ban now and forcing people out of their homes would probably worsen the pandemic and risk overwhelming already-taxed health and social service providers, wrote lawyers for the City of Chicago. They filed a brief cosigned by 28 other cities and counties, including Somerville, Boston, Seattle, and Los Angeles.

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“The country is facing the possibility of millions of people displaced from their homes if at least some of the protections do not remain in place for the foreseeable future,” they said.

There is some common ground. Advocates on both sides voiced support for rent-relief programs, which would help tenants keep up with their payments and thus help keep their landlords solvent.

But so far, those programs have been modest. Massachusetts has allocated $38 million to rent relief since March, a fraction of what studies indicate would be needed, especially with the $600 federal unemployment payments ending this week. Many cities and towns have launched smaller programs of their own.

Larger-scale federal relief — such as the $100 billion package approved by House Democrats — remains stalled in Congress. Meanwhile, a moratorium halting evictions on federally financed housing ended last week, and other states where housing courts have reopened have seen the numbers of eviction cases rise sharply.

Advocates on both sides warn that a wave of evictions will eventually hit Massachusetts, too. The moratorium doesn’t forgive rent, after all; it just blocks evictions for nonpayment. Eventually, those bills will come due.

When that happens could be determined by a judge on Thursday.


Tim Logan can be reached at timothy.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.