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MAY 10TH, 2013 THE COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS - BOSTON ISSUE 02

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS:
BAD LANDLORDS

Common Boston landlord scams and how to deal with them / by Ethan Ethan

I moved into my first collective house in the fall of 2010. At first, the house seemed ideal: it was in a great part of Inman Square, there were enough rooms for all eight of our roommates, there were hardwood floors, the kitchen was big, and most of all it had a perfect, spacious stoop.

But shortly after moving in, we realized the house was falling apart around us. The basement flooded repeatedly, leading to an unmanageable amount of mold. There were mice everywhere. The doors were falling off the hinges. The landlord had essentially no interest in fixing anything, would routinely say that she had no money to make the repairs. We later found out she was starting a biotech company.

If you've spent any time in Boston, you or someone you know has probably dealt with a similarly shady landlord. It’s all too common: the expensive one-year leases in Allston, the overpriced punk houses falling apart around the tenants, the unresponsive landlords taking advantage of college students. Oftentimes, larger property management companies and smaller landlords alike assume that young tenants have no knowledge of their rights under Massachusetts' amazing housing laws. Oftentimes, they are right.

While the majority of our tenancy at the Inman Square house was lived in sub-par, unsanitary living conditions, having an absentee slumlord and a hostile property management company provided an excellent learning environment for asserting a few tenants rights. I started reading up, and learned that Massachusetts is actually one of the best states in U.S. for tenants. Quickly briefing yourself on our housing law and common landlord scams can improve your housing situation drastically.

SECURITY DEPOSITS

Most houses and apartments in Boston require a security deposit. This deposit is usually the price of one month’s rent. Legally, it cannot exceed the first month’s rent. Within 10 days of the start of the lease, your landlord must provide you a statement of condition of your home. Oftentimes, landlords will not do this. Bug your landlord for a statement, or even better, write your own statement. Go through your house and document any damage, no matter how small. Send this list to your landlord along with pictures. It's also worth determining which damages you want repaired. (More on that later.) At the end of your lease, if you feel you didn't get enough of your deposit back, or you didn't receive a deposit back at all, here are some things to know:

1) Your deposit or a detailed record of damages with evidence such as receipts or estimates for repairs to damage (directly caused by the residents or their guests) must be returned within 30 days of the end of your tenancy. If you don't receive either of these things within 30 days, in court you are entitled to your entire deposit back (or more). If your landlord has threatened to not return your deposit verbally, it may be worth waiting 30 days after you move out to ask for it back. This way if documentation isn't provided you will automatically be entitled to your whole deposit back. Be strategic about when you assert your rights.

2) Your landlord must hold your deposit in a separate interest-bearing account. If your landlord can't provide you with records that your money was kept in one of these accounts, they had no right to hold your money in the first place and you are entitled to your entire deposit (or more) back. The interest is yours, so make sure it's accounted for.

3) The security deposit is for damage and unpaid rent. The security deposit isn't for routine maintenance or reasonable wear and tear. While a broken window caused by a tenant can be deducted from the security deposit, peeling paint, basic cleaning, or a squeaky floorboard can't be deducted.

ILLEGAL LEASE CLAUSES

Another common landlord scam is to attempt to pass the responsibilities of the landlord to the tenants through illegal lease clauses. Luckily, in Massachusetts, you aren't allowed to make contracts that violate state laws, so even if you sign a lease with an illegal clause, you don't need to follow it. For example, some leases contain clauses that say any issues with the plumbing (such as clogged toilets) are the responsibility of the tenants to fix. This goes against the state sanitary code that clearly states,

"The owner must adhere to accepted procedures and standards such
as the state plumbing and electrical codes when installing plumbing,
heating and electric facilities and appliances and must maintain them
free from leaks and obstructions [410.351]".




If you feel your landlord is trying to hold you accountable for a repair that they should be making, a good place to look is the state sanitary code. Anything that is in violation of the state sanitary code is your landlord’s responsibility to fix. In addition to these types of lease clauses being invalid, they are also illegal under section 93a of the Consumer Protection Act, which entitles you to three times any damages you suffer from complying with any illegal lease clause. If you decide to bring up the law with your landlord make sure to mention section 93a of the consumer protection act. They know what it is. 93a covers many unfair practices including issues around security deposits. (Getting a 3 security deposit checks back is pretty cool, right?). Do some research (or ask a lawyer) and find out if your issue is covered under Massachusetts' consumer protection act and what you need to do to receive such protection.

HEAT AND WATER SCAMS

Another common theft is heat and water. Unless your apartment has it's own meter, then heat and water is your landlords financial responsibility. Your landlord can't force you to pay for instance, one-quarter of the water for your four-unit building. There are a few other requirements for charging for water including that every shower needs to be equipped with a low flow showerhead.

OTHER ILLEGAL FEES: IMPROVEMENTS, NOISE, ETC.

While some Landlords try to get you to pay for upkeep and improvements on their houses, others will simply charge you illegal fees. If your landlord asks for a rental fee or a cleaning fee to move in, this is illegal. The best way to deal with this is to pay any fees that are required for move in and then deduct them from your next rent payment with a note saying that you found out the fees were illegal. At this point you've moved in and your landlord will have a hard time evicting you for taking your money back on an illegal fee. Fees for late rent (pre-30 days late) are illegal, though your landlord could in theory attempt to evict you for paying rent even one day late. Your landlord also isn't allowed to fine you for things like being on the roof or making too much noise. Don't let your landlord act as if they are the courts or law enforcement. While most fees are illegal, your landlord may charge you a fee for changing the locks and keys (if they do so).

GETTING REPAIRS MADE

If you want something fixed in your house there's a good chances it's a code violation. Look through the state sanitary code and hopefully there is a section that categorizes the repair you need. If you don't feel like looking through the whole state sanitary code, many repairs can easily fit into section 410.500 which states:

"Every owner shall maintain the foundation, floors, walls, doors, windows,
ceilings, roof, staircases, porches, chimneys, and other structural elements of
his dwelling so that the dwelling excludes wind, rain and snow, and is rodent-
proof, watertight and free from chronic dampness, weathertight, in good repair
and in every way fit for the use intended. Further, he shall maintain every
structural element free from holes, cracks, loose plaster, or other defect where
such holes, cracks, loose plaster or defect renders the area difficult to keep clean
or constitutes an accident hazard or an insect or rodent harborage."




Once you establish that a repair you need is a code violation, politely bring up to your landlord that the issue is indeed a code violation and their responsibility to fix in a timely manner.

If the repairs continue to not happen you have several options.

If you are serious about getting a repair done (and not so serious about your landlord liking you or being a good reference to future landlords), call inspectional services and request an inspection: 617-635-5300. The city of Boston will inspect your house and notify the landlord of any issues that need to be fixed. Once code violations are documented you can also legally rent strike or make the repairs yourself and deduct them from your rent (up to the value of 4 months rent). If you choose to withhold all or a portion of your rent, notify your landlord that your are doing so until the repairs are made. Be prepared to actually pay the back rent once the repairs are made. Try negotiating with your landlord to knock a few bucks off your rent for living in a house with code violations.

An alternative to this is simply paying someone out of pocket to make the repairs, sending your landlord the receipts, and deducting the amount from the rent. In these situation (and all other similar ones) all communication with your landlord should be written (email is easy). If your landlord has your phone number, don't pick up and instead email or text them saying you can't talk on the phone. You can make up a vague excuse like you're at work or sick. Not only does this make your life easier in that you don't need to listen to your angry landlord yell at you on the phone for half an hour, but it also provides provable records in case your landlord says anything illegal. Both these steps are very aggressive tactics and it may be worth contacting a lawyer to make sure you are doing everything right.

RETALIATION LAWS

In Massachusetts, it is illegal to retaliate or threaten to retaliate against tenants in any way for asserting any legal rights they have including contacting inspectional services or withholding rent. The penalty for a landlord doing so is a fine to the tenants of between 1 and 3 months rent or damages if they are higher.

It is still retaliation if directly after you assert your rights your landlord threatens to evict you for unrelated issues. For example if you called inspectional services and a week later you get an eviction notice for having a messy yard, this is retaliation. In fact, if you can document a complaint about living conditions such as a call to inspectional services in court, any attempt at eviction within six months of such complaint is considered to be retaliatory unless the landlord can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it is unrelated to your complaints.

While oftentimes you can scare your landlord into complying with your demands by citing the laws and saying “my (nonexistent) lawyer has advised me that...”, if you think there is any chance an issue will end up in court, it's definitely a good idea to contact a real lawyer. While knowing the laws is a great first step, knowing how to navigate the court system is oftentimes much harder.

USING COMMON SENSE

While knowing the laws can help you in a lot of situations, it's usually best to use them as a last resort. It's far easier for everyone if you and your landlord have a good relationship, and jumping straight to the state sanitary code when you could've just asked nicely probably isn't a winning strategy.

In Boston many people are under year leases or month-to-month leases. Your landlord is under no obligation to continue renting to you after the terms of your lease are up, so if you plan on staying in your home past when your lease entitles you to, asserting your rights strongly lowers your chances of staying where you are. Trying to get minor repairs like a leaky faucet fixed might cause you and your roommates more trouble than you want to deal with.

In all landlord interactions, be sure to think through all the possible ways of addressing the issue as well as all the possible outcomes. Decide before hand if you are willing/able to go to court, and what level of energy you and your housemates have for dealing with such issues.

There is far more to learn about tenant’s rights. Collectively we can force those who profit off of our survival to actually deliver their end of the bargain.

Shout out to Allston-State Sanitary code 410.550 for mice, rats, and bedbugs.


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