Category: Housing Law
Last term, in Tyler v. Hennepin County, the Supreme Court ruled Minnesota’s tax lien foreclosure scheme unconstitutional, in violation of both the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause and the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause. Minnesota is one of twelve states, in addition to the District of Columbia, with tax lien foreclosure statutes. Sometimes referred to as “tax and take seizures” or “home equity theft,” these laws differ significantly from a typical bank foreclosure proceeding in which a homeowner can only lose equity already owed as debt. By contrast, foreclosure under tax lien laws can result in a homeowner losing the entire value of their home—often a financial loss multitudes greater than what the homeowner actually owed. Massachusetts is among the states that permit this practice. In the wake of the Tyler ruling, whether the law can or should remain on the books is worth examining.
In Tyler, Geraldine Tyler owed $15,000 in property taxes, but when Hennepin County foreclosed on her home and sold it for $40,000, it was able to keep the $25,000 balance of her equity. As Chief Justice John Roberts said, writing for a unanimous court, “The taxpayer must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but no more.”
Massachusetts’ tax lien foreclosure law, found in Chapter 60, was passed in 1996 amidst a statewide budget crisis. According to Dan Bosely, the former legislator who wrote the law, it seemed like a creative revenue generator at the time, a way to help communities recoup lost revenue when people were not paying their real estate taxes or water and sewer bills. But the practice has been widely criticized by consumer advocates, and according to professors and lawyers familiar with tax lien laws across the country, the industry targets those in distress, mostly elderly and poor homeowners. According to Joshua Polk, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation who has litigated three Massachusetts-based cases, “It’s a transfer of wealth from the poorest people to either government entities or extremely wealthy investors.” In 2018, Bosely himself expressed concern about the consequences of the legislation. From 2014 to 2021, Massachusetts residents subject to tax lien foreclosure lost 82% of their home equity, which amounted to an average loss of $172,000 per homeowner.
Under the current Massachusetts law, a municipality can take control of a property itself or sell the right to foreclose to a private buyer. In the past decade, one Boston based investment company, Tallage Inc., has purchased two thousand tax liens from thirty cities and towns. According to Tallage’s general counsel, the company is acting in the public good, helping recoup lost revenue needed to pay for public schools, police stations, and firefighters. In fact, cash-strapped cities such as Worcester, Lowell, New Bedford, Pittsfield, and Quincy use tax lien foreclosures more often, likely due to a dire need to fill city coffers. However, whether thrusting people into more acute financial precarity or homelessness might not also have collateral consequences for a city’s bottom line seems worth examining. Further, when these third-party intermediaries are involved, private investors such as Tallage, not the municipality and its taxpayers, reap the lion’s share of the financial payout.
In the wake of the Tyler ruling, an editorial in the Boston Globe urged Massachusetts to use this moment to reform its tax foreclosure laws: “Protecting the rights of homeowners ought to be part of any future legislative housing package.” Whether Tyler by itself invalidates the Massachusetts law is a different question. Unlike in Minnesota, Massachusetts tax foreclosures often happen through intermediaries like Tallage, making the government’s role more attenuated and thus potentially less dubious as a constitutional matter. Further, all Massachusetts tax foreclosures go through a Land Court hearing, at which, per a 2016 ruling, an owner may request a judicial sale to retain their equity in the property. Whether this provides any extra measure of protection is questionable though, as many individuals facing foreclosure may be unaware of these rights and unable to obtain legal counsel. Regardless of whether these procedural differences actually afford homeowners any more substantive protections, they are enough—from Tallage’s perspective—to place Massachusetts’ law squarely outside the scope of Tyler’s ruling.
To others, Tyler provides a clear mandate to change Massachusetts’ current statutory scheme. During a hearing of the Joint Committee on Revenue in June 2023, First Assistant Attorney General Pat Moore called the Massachusetts law a “classic unconstitutional taking,” undistinguishable from the one the Supreme Court just struck down. A case winding its way through the Massachusetts courts—in which a Worcester woman stands to lose $250,000 over a $2,600 unpaid tax bill—may soon clarify whether the judiciary will permit the practice to continue throughout the commonwealth.
Even if the Massachusetts courts find the Chapter 60 provisions distinguishable from those at issue in Tyler, the practice is problematic and the legislature should take action. According to UMass law professor Ralph Clifford, municipalities collect an average of $50 for every $1 of delinquent real estate owed. Raising revenue off the backs of a state’s poorest and medically compromised citizens and depriving them of the equity they have built up over years, even if constitutional, is surely unsound policy.
In February, 2023 Rep. Jeffrey Roy (D-Franklin) and Rep. Tommy Vitolo (D-Brookline) introduced H. 2937, “An act relative to tax deeds and protecting equity for homeowners facing foreclosure.” This bill would bring the law surrounding tax lien foreclosures in line with that governing mortgage foreclosures: a municipality would still have license to sell a property burdened by unpaid tax debt, but additional money from the sale, beyond the debt owed, would be returned to the homeowner. Another bill, H.2907, filed by Rep. Tram Nguyen (D-Andover), addresses concerns surrounding notice. While towns are required to provide written notice to homeowners at risk of tax foreclosure, the requirement is minimal and, given contemporary realities of how information is consumed, inadequate. According to a legal aid lawyer familiar with these cases, “Maybe [the requirements] made sense 100 year ago when people got their information from going to town hall or the post office, or from a newspaper…but in the context of our world today, using those procedures is calculated not to give notice, but to hide it from people.” H.2907 would require notice be understandable to an unsophisticated consumer. Given that those affected by tax lien foreclosures are usually elderly, medically compromised, or without the resources to hire an attorney, such enhanced procedural safeguards seem prudent.
Massachusetts legislators have filed bills addressing these issues in the past. With Tyler shining a national spotlight on this issue, advocates are hopeful the moment is ripe for reform. The legislature should not wait for the courts to take action in the wake of Tyler. Regardless of whether the current scheme passes constitutional muster from the perspective of the judiciary, real policy concerns with the statutory scheme have been exposed. The legislature has itself deemed, per Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 93, § 46, that a practice need not be illegal to be an unfair and unreasonable manner of debt collection. Legislators should seize on this moment to act as independent constitutional actors and pass the aforementioned legislation. Further, any reform regarding these laws would be remiss not to provide remedial measures for those who have already suffered injury due to this predatory practice.
On August 8, 2023, Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey declared a state of emergency because state resources were insufficient to comply with the Commonwealth's right to shelter law. Although the law has been in place for 40 years, a rapid increase in the number of people requesting shelter and the declaration of a state of emergency has inspired new debates and tensions around the right to shelter. To maintain the spirit of the law but not overburden the Commonwealth, compromises must be made to continue the legacy of the right to shelter.
Governor Dukakis & Right to Shelter
In 1983, Massachusetts closed its mental hospitals, which along with rising drug use, left people homeless and sleeping in the streets across the state. In response, Governor Michael Dukakis filed legislation guaranteeing shelter for every homeless family in the state. Ten months later he signed the ‘right to shelter’ law.
The emergency assistance program, colloquially known as the right to shelter law, is meant to protect children from homelessness if their parents fall onto hard times. The law guarantees shelter for families with children and pregnant people without children. Under the law, the state must quickly provide shelter and basic necessities to families who have nowhere else to stay.
Governor Healey & Current Crisis
On July 31, before the state of emergency, a group of Massachusetts legislators released a letter urging the federal government to streamline the process for work authorizations so immigrants can begin working and stop depending on the state. Employment authorization had a wait time of six months or longer, thus forcing immigrants to rely on the state as they cannot legally work without authorization.
On August 8, Governor Healey declared a state of emergency after months of rapid escalation of families seeking shelter. Along with the state of emergency, the state reported spending nearly $45 million per month on programs to help families eligible for emergency assistance. As of October 2023, nearly 7,000 families were in emergency shelter and about half of those in shelter were children. The governor said the state would be unable to accommodate new families by the end of October 2023. Despite the inflated numbers and costs, the governor made it very clear that the law was not ending, but Massachusetts needed federal assistance, sites to house people, staffing, and funds to continue doing the work of sheltering those in need.
Massachusetts is the only state that has a right to shelter. The most similar law is a New York City consent decree that guarantees all unhoused individuals—not just families—shelter within city limits. The city’s right to shelter law has also been facing criticism as an increase in unhoused people and an influx of immigrants has overburdened that system as well. In response to the surge of families seeking shelter, New York City Mayor Adams suspended some components of the law, Governor Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency, and subsequently received $104.6 million federal funds in response. Much like what happened in New York City, Mayor Healey is attempting to solicit federal assistance to mitigate the rapid increase in those seeking shelter and the amount of state resources being allocated to handling the crisis.
Debates Over Right to Shelter
Since the beginning of 2023, there has been increased criticism of the right to shelter in Massachusetts. People claim the housing crisis paired with the surge of immigrants entering the state have overburdened the emergency assistance system. Further, they claim the right to shelter has turned Massachusetts into a ‘migrant magnet.’ Overall, critics see the right to shelter as an outdated relic that cannot keep up with current demands. These criticisms have come with calls for the law to be amended, suspended, or altogether repealed.
Rep. Peter Durant (R-Worcester), is among the most vocal in expressing criticisms of the right to shelter law. Durant firmly believes the right to shelter law is being overrun by migrant families asking for assistance and suggested adjusting the law to excluding immigrants from receiving aid under this law. On September 14, 2023, Durant proposed H.4561 (An Act Ensuring Fair Housing for Homeless Families) to amend the right to shelter law to only apply to U.S. citizens. He is joined by twelve other petitioners, and the bill is still in committee as of October 2023.
Despite the criticism, there is still sizable support for the law amidst the crisis. Sarang Sekavat, chief of staff at Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, testified, “The idea [of the law] has always been to help out families and really to make sure that children aren’t suffering when their parents fall on hard times, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing right now.” 76% of Massachusetts residents, especially immigration and housing advocates, agree with Sekavat and believe the law is operating exactly as it was meant to and exemplifies the character of Massachusetts.
Although the current housing crisis is putting the right to shelter law under intense scrutiny, the law is functioning as intended. The law was passed with children in mind and with the goal of ensuring no child had to sleep on the streets of Massachusetts. There is a rising need for housing, influenced by the housing and immigration crises, and many children do not have housing. The law has been an important part of Massachusetts’ identity for four decades, and to repeal it now when people need it most would be to go against the very nature of the Commonwealth.
On the other hand, concessions may need to be made for the well-being of the Commonwealth. If the Commonwealth overextends itself and its resources to meet rising needs, it may jeopardize the longevity of the right to shelter and similar programs. In 1983 there was no way to predict the amount of people seeking shelter in 2023. Now, there is no way to predict the trends in people seeking shelter, particularly if it will continue to increase or when it will stop. If Massachusetts will run out of room imminently, difficult decisions must be made to address the need for shelter with the availability of resources and housing.
The path forward must be a mix of aspiration and reality. Massachusetts must solicit support from the federal government with financial assistance and an expedited process for work authorizations. Further, Massachusetts must look inward to equitably share the responsibility among all towns and cities, as well as plan to increase the housing available for those in need. Additionally, the Massachusetts Legislature could pass legislation to address the housing crisis, including implementing rent caps and moratoriums on evictions. To continue the legacy of the right to shelter law, the Massachusetts and federal governments must work together to address the current crisis and preserve the law for those who need it in the future.
In 2023 Massachusetts established the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities with an eye toward creating more housing in the state, which, like many across the country, is suffering a housing shortage. Some estimates suggest that Massachusetts will require between 125,000-200,000 additional housing units by the end of the decade. Various proposals are currently being considered as how to best spur the creation of new homes. The eventual solution will not be a single provision but likely many policy amalgams from various sectors. One proposal currently before the Joint Committee on Housing is Senator James B. Eldridge’s bill, An Act Enabling Local Options for Tenant Protections (Bill S. 872). One of the more quietly influential provisions in the bill, Section 8(g),[i] should be amended to be mandatory across the state, rather than allowing municipalities to opt into the provision and the language regarding should be changed to prohibit the business from charging tenants a fee. Any of the various similar bills that the committee is considering should adopt Section 8’s amended language.
Section 8(g) could alone reduce the cost of relocating to a new apartment by almost 20%, greatly increasing the mobility of Massachusetts tenants, and concomitantly, increasing the competitive demand for more, new housing units. The bill allows municipalities, to prohibit tenant-paid broker fees. Currently, tenants relocating in the Commonwealth may be required to provide first month’s rent, last month’s rent, a security deposit, and a broker’s fee at signing. Security deposits and broker’s fees are traditionally tied to the price of the housing unit and often are equivalent to one month’s rent. The median rental price for a one-bedroom apartment in Boston (certainly the state’s most expensive large housing market) is above $2,900, meaning that a renter must find $11,600 to move—likely before they’ve received their previous security deposit back.
The remainder of the bill provides for municipalities to adopt, should they so choose, rent stabilization regulations, standards for just cause eviction protection, condominium conversion ordinances, prohibitions on immediate rent increases in response to the bill, anti-gentrification displacement protections, and regulations of fees. Each provision has its merits and deserves its own full analysis not available in this article.
While the bill before the Housing Committee allows for different municipalities to adopt different policies, the state’s goal of new housing would be better served by prohibiting the practice of broker's fees. In the modern housing market, tenants are often looking for units through online platforms and only being connected with brokers after inquiring into specific properties. However, nothing prevents multiple brokers from presenting the same listing because landlords can provide their listing to multiple brokers. Under such a model prospective tenants must pay the vendors that their landlord contracted with, making renters captive consumers, which distorts natural market forces and contradicts the needs of the broader housing market and tenants’ interests.
Other cities and states have recently tried to put forward similar provisions to varying results. Often such proposals face significant pushback from broker-related interest groups. The housing market inefficiency is a case study in the challenge of making reforms in circumstances of concentrated interests and diffuse costs. While renters may feel aggrieved about their new apartment costs, they likely only face the additional expense no more frequently than once per year. Meanwhile, brokers reap substantial benefit from a captive market and thus have every incentive to ensure no progress or changes are made to their outdated role in a modern market. The housing shortage allows landlords to deflect the cost onto tenants because tenants have so little choice in the current shortage; thus, no competitive price pressure, by either landlords or tenants, are exerted on brokers to provide competitive fees or better services.
Broker groups have suggested that prohibitions on tenant-paid fees will increase rents by requiring landlords to cover the costs. They are likely correct; though it is likely of little consequence. Assuming that the one-month’s-rent broker fee is a competitively derived price for services rendered and assuming that brokers are actually required in modern apartment leasing (two generous assumptions): if a landlord is instead required to pay the $2,900 broker fee for a broker finding a tenant for a median one-bedroom Boston apartment, we could expect that they would raise the rent of the apartment by as much as $247.44 (spreading the $2,900 expense with 5% annualized interest over 12 monthly payments), an 8.5% increase. While an 8.5% increase in rent sounds substantial, (all assumptions holding constant) the tenant’s housing costs over the same first twelve months has increased only 0.002% while the cost of relocating has decreased by 18.6%. The substantial reduction in cost to relocate to a new apartment (which, albeit, doesn’t include moving expenses, i.e. boxes, truck rental, moving company, favors and pizzas for friends) increases tenants’ ability to more successfully exert their demand force as consumers, which requires the market to respond proportionately, through a reduction in rental costs or an increase in the quality or quantity of housing.
The flaw in such an analysis is the omission of any future years’ rents based off the initial absorption of the broker fee. That is to say, even assuming the rent does not get raised after one year, the tenants will be paying that additional $247.44 each month of every year after the first. So over two years the housing costs would increase by 4.2%. It is worth noting however, that the two listed assumptions are not the legal reality in a number of competing states. Accordingly, any such reactionary rise in rent prices is not a given, and certainly not an increase of 8.5% as discussed above. Additionally, such a calculus does not consider the prohibition on immediate rent increases elsewhere in Senator Eldridge’s bill. Nor does it account for other provisions not yet proposed. For instance, California does not allow landlords to request or accept last month’s rent, and the justification for continuing to require Massachusetts residents to makes increasingly little sense in the present shortage.
The current fee-shifting model onto tenants provides perverse and inefficient market incentives for the actors in the field. With inadequate housing stocks, landlords are able to defer screening and application costs onto brokers and are not incentivized to make applying more efficient for tenants. Nor is there substantial incentive to add to or improve the available housing stock. Brokers, because there are is no expectation of exclusivity, have no increasing marginal interest in providing additional efforts to find tenants as another broker may fill a vacancy before they can, especially as most tenants locate apartments through non-broker-affiliated online platforms in the modern market. Nor are brokers incentivized to provide competitive fees as the industry has agreed upon the equivalent of one month’s rent, the price-fixing characteristic central to the economic definition of a cartel.
Meanwhile, throughout the process, tenants have limited selection and face rental prices inflated by the squeeze of the housing shortage. Even tenants who don’t move are harried by the practice as sizable year over year rent increases are unavoidable because of the exclusionary capital required to move elsewhere. Currently, to avoid a rent increase and move requires having on-hand the equivalent of four month’s rent. Which is a cruel absurdity given that 44.5% of households in the Greater Boston area in 2022 were cost burdened according to the Boston Foundation’s Greater Boston Housing Report Card, that is spending more than 30% of their income on rent. The same report showed that nearly half of those cost burdened, 22.7% of households in the Greater Boston area, are severely cost burdened, spending more than 50% of their income on rent. To bind families in a Catch-22 that they cannot seek less expensive housing unless they save the equivalent of four months rent while they are currently paying more than half of their income towards their current rent leaves countless Massachusetts residents teetering at the edge of housing insecurity.
Any adjustment to the current fee scheme, let alone a blanket prohibition on the practice, will activate lobbying efforts from the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, whose End of Session Legal Update in 2022 noted that they “successfully blocked rent control, eviction moratoria, [and] broker fee shifting….” Accordingly, any successful legislation will need to mobilize tenant organizations and various community grassroots organizations to advocate on behalf of lowering relocation prices and diffusing the benefit.
Massachusetts’ housing shortage will require the efforts of policy makers, stakeholders, and community members. The one thing that we can be confident won’t solve the state’s housing shortcomings is not altering the forces that created the problem. The current fee scheme operates as a state-sanctioned cartel that makes relocating markedly more difficult and thus suppresses proper demand and supply influences, further distorting the housing market in the Commonwealth. While it is not a panacea, tenant-paid broker fees should be consigned to the curb with the rest of waste.
[i] “(g) In addition to the powers granted to a city or town in this section and notwithstanding section 87DDD½ of chapter 112, a city or town may by local charter provision, ordinance or by law regulate, limit or prohibit the business of finding dwelling accommodations for a fee.”
Housing courts are overburdened. Tenants do not know their rights and are rarely represented. And as a consequence, many people lose their homes. To address these failings, some advocates call for “Civil Gideon.” The famous Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright held that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel requires the government to appoint counsel for indigent criminal defendants, at no cost to the defendant. Since Gideon, some advocates have called for Civil Gideon, or the right to counsel in civil cases. The movement has now, more accurately, deemed the idea “right to counsel” because it does not suggest that the government should appoint counsel for all civil litigants and advocates do not wish to replicate the indigent defense system’s flaws. Instead, the intended scope for the right to counsel movement is civil cases concerning basic human needs like housing, safety, and custody. The argument is simple. If someone is entitled to free legal representation when they are charged with a minor crime that carries little to no prison time, they should also be entitled to legal representation when their housing or child could be taken from them. Here, I specifically focus on right to counsel in housing cases as a solution to the housing crisis and the current disfunction of housing court. California’s Shriver program provides a case study to evaluate one right to counsel program.
There is a lot at stake in housing court. Tenants can lose their homes and find themselves homeless or forced to move into overcrowded housing. And an eviction makes it harder to find housing down the road. Therefore, it is a serious problem that roughly 90% of landlords in housing court are represented by legal counsel, while 90% of tenants are not represented by legal counsel. Individuals who cannot afford to pay an attorney may find themselves in court more often than they expect. Data suggests that low-income households are more likely than wealthier households to face legal problems.
A Smart Investment
Evictions are expensive—both for tenants and the state. Therefore, it makes sound economic sense to invest in preserving tenancies. A Boston Bar Association study found that for every dollar Massachusetts spent on representation for people in housing court, the state would save $2.69 in other services like emergency shelter, health care, foster care, and law enforcement.
Currently, eight states have some qualified appointment of counsel in eviction cases. To view which states have programs to provide counsel for at least some of their tenants, visit http://civilrighttocounsel.org/map and select subject area “housing- evictions.” Note that some states are highlighted due to city-run programs in their state. Also, note that Massachusetts is highlighted as having a qualified appointment of counsel, but this right is very limited and arose out of a case where there was a parallel criminal case pending.
California Case Study
In 2009, the California legislature passed the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act (AB 590), which set up right to counsel pilot programs. California made the program permanent in 2016 after measured success. Through the Shriver program, nonprofit legal services organizations provided legal services for pro se low-income parties in civil matters that involved issues of housing, child custody, domestic violence, and other critical issues. Here, I analyze its services in eviction cases. In housing matters, a little over half of the clients served received full legal representation, while the rest received unbundled services like brief counsel or help filing an answer. The program also established court-based services like mediation services. With full representation, cases were more likely to settle and not go to trial, and while most clients still moved out of their homes, fewer had formal evictions entered against them and more found stable housing afterwards.
Three of the Shriver pilot programs participated in a random assignment study in 2015 and 2016. The goal was to see if the program truly was causing better results. A randomly selected group of tenants who met income eligibility criteria and faces a landlord with an attorney received full representation by a Shriver attorney. The other group received no legal services. While it is unfortunate that the program could not help all who qualified, this study provided a unique opportunity to assess the program. The defenses that tenants raised demonstrated a stark contrast between represented and unrepresented tenants. For example, 84% of the represented tenants raised the defense of defective notice, while only 28% of unrepresented tenants did the same, and 65% of represented tenants raised a habitability defense, while 37% of unrepresented tenants did so. Shriver-represented tenants also settled more often and avoided trial—67% of represented tenants settled and only 3% went to trial, while 34% of unrepresented tenants settled and 14% went to trial. However, Shriver fell short when it came to the ultimate goal: keeping tenants in their homes. In both groups, 75% of landlords were awarded possession. This finding casts doubt on the program’s efficacy. Yet, when tenants had to move out, those with Shriver representation had, on average, two weeks longer to move out. Additionally, represented tenants saved money, as they were less likely to be ordered to pay the landlord. Shriver-represented tenants were also more likely to receive favorable terms like the landlord agreeing to give neutral references or not report the case to credit agencies.
Shriver staff’s accounts of the challenges they encountered show where other programs may improve upon Shriver’s model. Shriver staff reported that their clients frequently needed other social services and found themselves acting as untrained “semi-social workers.” Social service coordinators would free up attorney time and help clients get the services they need—services that may even solve the landlord-tenant dispute. Additionally, staff reported that many tenants needed their services but either never accessed them or were above the income limit of 200% FPL and therefore unqualified.
The Shriver program demonstrates that some of the greatest benefits of counsel in eviction cases include settling more often and negotiating better terms that will save the tenant money and help them find new housing. It also illustrates the need for other supportive social services. While everyone deserves legal help when facing eviction, sometimes social services can better solve the underlying problem.
It is important to remember that a pilot program serving only a small subset of tenants facing eviction is fundamentally not right to counsel. Right to counsel in eviction cases would look like every tenant having legal representation. It would look like equity.