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Judge declines to lift eviction ban, but warns Baker on extending it past Oct. 17

Mark Wolf questions why the moratorium should be allowed to stay in place indefinitely.

Governor Charlie Baker will have “a lot to think about,” if he moves to continue the moratorium on evictions beyond its current expiration date of Oct. 17, a federal judge said Thursday.
Governor Charlie Baker will have “a lot to think about,” if he moves to continue the moratorium on evictions beyond its current expiration date of Oct. 17, a federal judge said Thursday.Sam Doran/Pool

A federal judge Thursday sounded skeptical of Massachusetts' toughest-in-the-nation ban on evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, but stopped short of lifting it entirely.

In a virtual hearing at federal court in Boston, US District Judge Mark Wolf turned down a request by landlords to immediately halt Massachusetts' broad moratorium on evictions. But, he said, Governor Charlie Baker would have “a lot to think about,” if he moves to continue the moratorium beyond its current expiration date of Oct. 17. Wolf pointed to reduced COVID-19 case rates in Massachusetts and Baker’s own push to reopen schools. He asked why the moratorium, which the Legislature passed on an emergency basis as the virus raged here in April, should continue indefinitely.

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“This moratorium was said to be temporary,” Wolf said. “What is constitutionally permissible for a limited period of time may become unpermissible at some point.”

For now, though, he’s allowing it to remain in place while lawyers for landlords and the state lay out their arguments in the case, which could take months to litigate.

Housing advocates in Massachusetts say the ban has likely prevented thousands of evictions statewide as the pandemic-induced economic crisis has dragged on. Landlords say it gives them no way to collect rent, even from tenants who haven’t lost a job, and could push smaller property owners into foreclosure or selling their buildings.

Both sides note the state ban ― like a federal eviction moratorium announced last week by the federal Centers for Disease Control ― does nothing to guarantee back rent, meaning months of unpaid rent will come due when it ends. A $100 billion rental relief package is stalled in Congress.

Also on Thursday, real estate website ApartmentList said it estimates that 31 percent of renters nationwide owed unpaid back rent at the start of September, a number many housing experts expect will grow now that expanded unemployment benefits have ended for most people.

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