A state housing court judge on Monday overturned the citywide eviction moratorium then-Acting Mayor Kim Janey declared in Boston earlier this year.
In response to a lawsuit filed by a Boston landlord and a constable, Judge Irene Bagdoian said the city had overstepped its public health emergency powers when the Janey administration in late August announced a blanket ban on enforcing evictions due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Janey’s move — which blocked enforcement of court-approved evictions in Boston — came in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling overturning a similar federal ban, and in the heat of this fall’s mayoral race when Janey’s rivals were urging her to do more to protect vulnerable tenants. Since the start of the pandemic, housing advocates have argued that eviction bans protect public health by keeping people in their homes and out of crowded apartments where disease can more easily spread.
But it drew immediate legal fire from critics, who say such bans effectively force landlords to house people without compensation and stretch public health powers too far. In this case, Bagdoian agreed, noting that in Massachusetts, evictions are a matter of state law, not local authority.
“This court perceives great mischief in allowing a municipality or one of its agencies to exceed its power, even for compelling reasons,” she wrote, noting that a suburban town could use a similar public health rationale to circumvent laws requiring affordable housing, for instance. “In this court’s view, such expansion of power by a governmental agency, even for compelling reasons, should be unthinkable in a democratic system of governance.”
Attorneys Jordana Roubicek Greenman and Mitchell Matorin, who filed one of the two lawsuits the court ruled on, said in a joint statement that the Boston Public Health Commission “lacked the authority to override state law and render the Court’s own judgments unenforceable.”
“For a year and a half, small landlords have been told that they cannot regain possession of their own property and must continue [to] provide housing to people who either are not paying rent or who are otherwise violating their tenancy agreements,” the statement read. “Today, the Court correctly decided that cities and towns have no authority to do this.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of an 81-year-old landlord who has been trying to evict a tenant since 2019, as well as a constable who lost his business, Greenman said. Three more small landlords were also added to the lawsuit, which Greenman and Matorin funded themselves, she said.
Richard Vetstein, an attorney who filed an amicus curiae brief in the case, said Monday’s ruling is the “correct legal decision as the BPHC does not have authority to override the state eviction system.”
“The city moratorium was a political move and vast government overreach,” he said.
In Boston, what happens next is unclear. As a candidate, now-Mayor Michelle Wu described Janey’s moratorium as “temporary relief,” but said more is needed to help tenants.
Wu said Monday during a Hanukkah menorah lighting at the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston that her administration will be “looking at all of our options” and is particularly disappointed about the decision as “we’re heading into the holiday season and winter weather.”
She later added in a statement: “I’m deeply concerned about the impacts of today’s decision on struggling families. Our law department is reviewing the decision closely and will seek a stay of the decision to keep the eviction moratorium in place. We need more protections for renters in Boston. Our focus remains on protecting tenants from displacement during the COVID emergency, and connecting our residents to City and State rental relief programs.”
Malden and Somerville have their own local eviction bans in place.
As moratoriums have been shot down repeatedly in court over the last year, state and local officials have focused on rent relief programs as a more comprehensive approach to keeping struggling tenants in their homes.
As of the end of October, the state has doled out $363 million in rental aid to more than 50,000 households across Massachusetts. The number of new cases filed still runs below pre-COVID levels and is lower in Suffolk County, home to Boston, than in some other urban parts of the state.
Still, supporters of eviction bans say they remain a key ingredient in staving off the worst impact of the intertwined health and economic crises spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Denise Matthews-Turner, co-executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana, said that while she is disappointed in the judge’s ruling, her focus is on pressing lawmakers to take action to protect tenants across the state.
“What the judge has indicated is that the city does not have the power at this point, but one of the things we do know is there is power in the Legislature to pass the COVID-19 housing equity bill,” she said. “If folks want to see their neighbors protected, they can call their legislators and urge them to pass protections for homeowners and tenants across the commonwealth.”
“For us, it’s unconscionable,” she added. “In the midst of a global pandemic, this is the absolute worst time to put people at risk and all of the data suggests that communities of color are going to be most impacted by this.”
Isaac Simon Hodes, a housing advocate with Homes for All Massachusetts and director of Lynn United for Change, said state lawmakers should act with urgency to pass the housing equity law.
“This is a clear test of whether elected officials meant it last year when they made statements about supporting racial justice and standing in solidarity with low-wage frontline workers,” he said. “If they meant those things then they need to take action to prevent completely needless evictions and foreclosures, which are continuing to happen across the state.”
Hodes said he was encouraged by Wu’s comments that the city will pursue a stay on the judge’s ruling, but he emphasized that the onus is on the Legislature to take up the issue.
“We need municipal governments to be engaged in finding solutions as well, but ultimately the real power around these questions is going to rest with the State House,” he said.
Globe correspondent Breanne Kovatch contributed to this report.