Lawsuits across the country are fighting an unjust war on landlords. The pandemic has brought an onslaught of lawsuits challenging an array of COVID-19 laws, from business shutdowns to prohibitions on church gatherings. While many of these harsh measures have begun to lift, governments at the local, state, and federal levels continue to extend bans on evictions. As a result, this remains a lively battlefield for ongoing court fights. Landlords have challenged several of these bans on constitutional grounds—contending that such laws trample property and contract rights.
The stories behind these lawsuits demonstrate just how unjust these eviction bans can be. Marie Baptiste, a plaintiff who challenged Massachusetts’ eviction ban, is a Haitian immigrant who rents out the first home she purchased after decades of scrimping and saving as a nurse. Her tenants haven’t paid rent since October of last year. Marie was patient, giving them multiple opportunities to catch up, even though she relied on the rent money for the mortgage on the rental home and her own living expenses. She paid for her leniency when the Massachusetts legislature slammed the courthouse doors to any eviction proceedings in April. Her tenants lived in her house for free, fully employed, beyond the reach of the law, while Marie, unemployed due to an injury, shook pennies from her retirement to cover two mortgages and her other living expenses. Thankfully, the Massachusetts governor elected not to extend the ban.
Landlords in many other cities and states, however, remain under the thumb of these wrongheaded bans. Elena Bruk, for instance, is challenging Seattle’s eviction ban in court, which is set to last at least through June 2021. Elena escaped communism in the Soviet Union as a teenager. Promises of respect for individual rights and a better life propelled her to the United States. Now retired, Elena lives in one unit of a triplex she owns; her son lives in another. She funds her retirement by renting out the third unit. But her tenant, emboldened by Seattle’s ban on eviction, hasn’t paid rent since March. She remains on the hook for two mortgages on the property, plus taxes, insurance, utilities, and maintenance. She wonders now whether the authoritarianism of her girlhood has taken root here.
Despite these compelling stories, courts to date have mostly turned a deaf ear. Marie, for instance, lost her bid for an injunction, although the Massachusetts court said things might change if the ban dragged on too long. Landlords in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Illinois, and California have met with similarly tepid responses from courts.
The fight is far from over, though. My firm, Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit legal organization that fights for property rights, recently challenged Washington’s and Seattle’s eviction bans. Both are some of the worst in the nation, prohibiting eviction even if a tenant has stayed beyond the expiration of the lease agreement. And unlike most eviction bans, Washington and Seattle not only prohibit eviction, but also bar landlords from seeking to collect overdue rent by suing for breach of contract.
Pacific Legal Foundation also recently brought a lawsuit challenging the CDC’s order barring evictions nationwide. That lawsuit argues that the CDC has overstepped its lawful authority—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not a national housing authority. We likely will see rulings in these important cases before the end of the year.
Of course, courts of law are not the only battlefield here; landlords should also take up the sword in the court of public opinion by sharing their stories. Many are small-time operations like Marie’s and Elena’s, only a few steps ahead of bankruptcy or foreclosure. Crushing them will not fix our problems. Larger housing providers use rent money to provide jobs for maintenance, management, and office staff.
Landlords aren’t monocled, mustachioed robber barons who’ve cornered Park Place and Boardwalk, fleecing anyone with an unlucky roll of the dice. They are essential service providers who regularly work with struggling tenants to make housing work for everyone. But they also have constitutional rights that policymakers must respect if we hope to stay true to our nation’s founding principles and find a path forward to recovery.
Ethan Blevins is an attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, which litigates nationwide to achieve court victories enforcing the Constitution’s guarantee of individual liberty. Founded in 1973, PLF litigates cases nationwide to vindicate the rights fundamental to a free society. With nine consecutive U.S. Supreme Court victories and counting, PLF fights on the front lines, ensuring individual liberty is secure. Donor-supported Pacific Legal Foundation (www.pacificlegal.org) is the leading watchdog organization that litigates for limited government, property rights, individual rights, and free enterprise, in courts nationwide. PLF represents all clients free of charge. For more information, visit www.pacificlegal.org, call (916) 419-7111 or write PLF at 930 G. Street, Sacramento, CA 95814.