Bad Landlord! (How to Protect Yourself While Renting)

A bad landlord can happen to anyone. It happened to me!

This is my tale. Dun-dun-dummmmmmmm.

Actually, I’ll spare you the details but basically my landlord started doing construction in my apartment, refused to give me details about it and the dust from the work gave me a sinus infection so I couldn’t stay there . This could not have been fair and just.

I then embarked on a journey during which I researched my rights, made calls to housing experts and learned all about what’s right and wrong in the renting world.

In my research I learned a lot I hadn’t known about my rights and I ultimately withheld rent. I know I’m not alone.

Here are some of the rights tenants have that are commonly violated by bad landlords and some of the local resources I found really helpful in creating my 14 page rent-withholding letter.

My experience led me to four different categories of information that were helpful. They are the Massachusetts Sanitary Code, Massachusetts General Law and requirements around permitting for construction and renovation, and security deposits.

I’ll start with our simplest, but most easily overlooked right:

SECURITY DEPOSIT

Landlords are most likely earning interest on your security deposit. They are supposed to let you know what bank it is being held in and, since it is your money and held only in the case that you cause damage to the apartment, you have a right to any interest earned on it. Landlords should give you this interest every year or when your security deposit is returned to you. Info here.

SANITARY CODE

Even if you live in the nastiest apartment in the city, your landlord is still required to meet the minimum of the state’s sanitary code. Decent housing, the “warrant of habitability,” is for everyone, not just fancy folk. This is the basis of a rent agreement: the landlord promises to provide you a decent place to live and you promise to pay him monthly.

Everyone has the right to have their apartment inspected, if you think there are violations you can call the Housing Inspection Department and make an appointment for an inspector to come out. If an inspector comes out and finds violations this is a huge help if you intend to withhold rent or even take your landlord to court. And besides, City of Boston Code Ordinance CBC 9-1.3 requires that units be inspected between tenants anyway.

Also, if you suspect something is a violation – take a picture of it. I did!

You can find a handy-dandy housing code checklist in the aptly named Housing Code Checklist, produced by Massachusetts Legal Help. They also provide sample letters for withholding rent and getting repairs made.

Obvious problems like holes in floors and ceilings are of course violations, but your landlord must also always supply heat, gas, running water, and smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. There is code for how hot or cold it is allowed to get, how much light you are getting through windows and how many electric lights are installed. Landlords are responsible for putting screens on all windows on the first 4 floors of a building and keeping the place free from rats, roaches and insects – in common areas and individual apartments and much more, so read up.

MASS GENERAL LAW

The Mass General Law provides protection for tenants. It assures that landlords abide by the Health and Sanitary codes mentioned above and it protects:

  • your right to quiet enjoyment (Chapter 186, section 14, “any lessor or landlord who directly or indirectly interferes with the quiet enjoyment of any residential premises by the occupant, or who attempts to regain possession of such premises by force without the benefit of judicial process, shall be punished by a fine of not less than twenty-five dollars nor more than three hundred dollars, or by imprisonment for not more than six months. Any person who commits any act in violation of this section shall also be liable for actually and consequential damages or three month’s rent, whichever is greater…all of which may be applied in setoff or in recoupment against any claim for rent owed or owing.”),
  • your right to privacy (Chapter 186, section 15B of the Massachusetts General Law states that no lessor may enter a premises unless to “inspect premises, to make repairs thereto or to show the same to a prospective tenant.” If an owner enters an apartment without permission, he is trespassing; a charge punishable by up to 30 days in jail and $100. Typically at least 24 hours notice is required but depending on the nature of reason, more notice may need to be given so that tenant may make necessary arrangements and written notice is encouraged)
  • and protects you from deceptive acts (Under the state Consumer Protection Act (CPA) Chapter 93A of the Massachusetts General Law, a landlord cannot threaten, attempt or actually use any unfair or deceptive acts against a tenant).

You can search the Mass General Law here or explore the complete chapters that these laws came from.

PERMITS

My landlord started doing construction in my apartment without my consent and without the necessary permits.

Most construction work requires a permit and permits must be displayed in the front of buildings, visible to the public. If you see work but no permit, you can check with the Inspections Services Department to see if one has been filed.

Hopefully that will help someone out there or at least keep us on our toes. These are our minimum rights, so even if we live in places that aren’t so great we are still owed these basic rights. Bad landlords will try and get away with things and use your ignorance against you. If something doesn’t seem fair, it probably isn’t and it isn’t hard to find out. A quick call to the Housing Specialists at the Housing Court gave me answers and the specific laws to refer to.

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3 Comments

  1. Good info Jessica! I had a horrible landlord experience right after college. He basically lived on the other side of MA, didn’t speak English, and did nothing except collect rent every month. We had water temperature issues, a fly infestation, a stove with missing knobs, and my roommate lost power in her bedroom for 2 months! And, you can guess, he didn’t care…until we filed a formal complaint against him via the Housing Inspection Dept. I wish I had known about those resources before it got out of hand.

    Don’t be a victim!

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