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The time has come for landlord-tenant legal reform

Posted by Rona Fischman May 16, 2012 02:05 PM

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Today Attorney Richard D. Vetstein begins a two-part discussion of the state of law regulating residential rental properties and what he thinks of them.

For landlords, navigating Massachusetts landlord-tenant law is like walking barefoot through a IED-filled field in Afghanistan. At some point, you’ll likely blow off a leg. Massachusetts has a well-deserved reputation of being one of the most unfriendly places to own rental property. Allow me to outline just a sampling of these Draconian laws and the penalties for landlords’ non-compliance:

Breach of implied warranty of habitability: The first thing a savvy tenant will do after receiving an eviction notice is call the board of health to get the owner cited for code violations. Any violation, however minor, effectively enables the tenant to live rent-free during the case by withholding rent, and the owner will be compelled to make the necessary repairs while the eviction is pending. There have been many instances where tenants have intentionally inflicted property damage to claim code violations. Other penalties: reduction or elimination of rent owed; tenant cannot be evicted; triple damages; payment of tenant’s attorneys’ fees.

Breach of quiet enjoyment: This is another tenant favorite claim. It used to be for when slumlords would shut off utilities to tenants, but that rarely happens anymore. I’ve seen this used repeatedly when tenants are “inconvenienced” by landlords’ repeated attempts to access the premises to make repairs. Penalties: tenant gets to stay in possession; up to 3 months’ rent or actual damages, whichever is more; payment of tenant attorneys’ fees.

Retaliation: Even though a landlord can evict a tenant at will for any reason, under an illogical law an eviction is doomed if it is deemed in “retaliation” for tenant complaints about property conditions. This is why tenants will immediately start squawking about property issues when faced with eviction, because the retaliation law will protect them even though they are not entitled to lifetime occupancy. Penalties: tenant gets possession; up to 3 month’s rent in damages; payment of tenants’ attorneys’ fees.

Security deposit/last month’s rent violations: Oh, where do I start on this one. As I’ve written about extensively here, Massachusetts landlords need a Master’s degree in Accounting to comply with the Security Deposit law and all of its procedural traps. From giving a special receipt and statement of condition, to putting the money in a special separate account, to paying interest every year, even one minor slip up will subject the landlord to mandatory triple damages and payment of tenants’ attorneys’ fees. This can torpedo an eviction case from the get-go.

Consumer Protection/Chapter 93A: If all these minefields weren’t bad enough, at the end of the day, tenants are allowed to claim that any of the above warrants an award of triple damages and attorneys’ fees under the Mass. Consumer Protection Act.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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Scott Van Voorhis is a freelance writer who specializes in real estate and business issues.

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