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Two lawsuits challenging Mass. eviction ban get their day in court

A state judge denies an attempt by landlords to halt the moratorium, but a federal judge steers both sides toward a compromise.

Protesters last month rallied at the State House in support of legislation to block evictions in Massachusetts for up to a year.
Protesters last month rallied at the State House in support of legislation to block evictions in Massachusetts for up to a year.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

One legal challenge to Massachusetts’ toughest-in-the-nation ban on evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic hit a red light Wednesday. But another got at least a yellow.

A Suffolk County judge denied landlords’ request to stop the eviction moratorium — which has blocked all eviction cases in the state since April — while their lawsuit against the moratorium proceeds, saying it was unlikely they’ll ultimately prevail in court.

But a separate lawsuit brought in federal court in Boston will get another hearing next week, after a judge Wednesday raised the prospect of a settlement that could at least weaken Massachusetts’ near-total ban on evictions. US District Judge Mark Wolf Tuesday asked lawyers for the state and three landlords challenging the ban to confer and report back Monday on the prospect of a settlement and what might happen if he were to put the moratorium on hold while the case is underway.

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“He basically ordered us to talk about a settlement or mediation,” said Richard Vetstein, the lead attorney representing the landlords in both the federal and state cases. “I think he was trying to signal there are some issues with this law.”

The moratorium, passed by state lawmakers in April, blocks nearly all eviction filings in housing court during the coronavirus state of emergency, at least through mid-October, and potentially longer should Governor Charlie Baker extend it. It is, by some measures, the strictest eviction ban in the country and has likely blocked thousands of cases over the last few months.

Housing advocates and some public health experts say it’s essential to keeping renters in their homes during the pandemic, and the resulting economic crisis. Some landlords say it puts them in an impossible situation ― forced to provide housing but unable to compel their tenants to pay rent ― and a handful have sued on a number of legal fronts.

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Some of their arguments ― including a contention that the measure effectively blocked landlords’ access to Housing Court ― fell under state law, and were the subject of an hours-long hearing before Suffolk County Superior Court Judge Paul Wilson. He ruled Wednesday that he “cannot see my way clear to finding that plaintiffs are likely to succeed,” and denied the landlords’ request to block the ban.

In a statement, Attorney General Maura Healey — who represents the state in both cases — hailed Wilson’s ruling.

“At a time when our residents are struggling financially, they need to know that they won’t be kicked out of their homes,” said Healey spokeswoman Margaret Quackenbush. “We are pleased with the court’s decision to keep this moratorium in place and will continue our defense of this critical law.”

That defense will continue next week, when Wolf has scheduled arguments in the federal lawsuit, which touches on various constitutional issues such as landlords’ First Amendment rights to communicate with their tenants. Vetstein said he expects more than one day of arguments.

The stakes could be quite large.

A study released Tuesday by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimates 61,000 renter households in Massachusetts will struggle to pay rent this fall because they lost income during the pandemic. If even a fraction of those face formal eviction proceedings, housing advocates warn it could spark a “tsunami of evictions” pushing working-class tenants from their homes, though landlord groups say large numbers of evictions are unlikely in Massachusetts’ suddenly-soft rental housing market.

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Last month, Baker extended the eviction ban until Oct. 17. He can extend it beyond that date if the state’s coronavirus emergency continues, but hasn’t yet discussed his plans publicly. The state Legislature is considering a bill that would extend the moratorium for 12 months, while providing relief to some small landlords. That bill remains in committee.


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