New Rental Housing Rights for Victims of Abuse in Massachusetts

domestic-violenceAs I have recently written about landlord/tenant issues in Massachusetts, I thought it apropos to discuss a new domestic violence law that directly affects landlords. Just last month, Massachusetts enacted a new law that gives victims of domestic violence a fairly broad right to break their leases and have the landlord change their locks. The important provisions of the new law are as follows:

  • In order to break a lease, victims are required to provide notice to landlords that they were subject to a sexual assault or rape or under imminent threat of same within three (3) months of the incident.
  • Landlords may request supporting documentation such as a police report or restraining order (which they must keep confidential).
  • Provided the tenant or co-tenant victim provides the proper notice, she can terminate her lease and be relieved of financial liability to the landlord for the remainder of the rental period. The landlord must return any last month’s rent and security deposit.
  • Victims of sexual assault or stalking may require that the landlord change the unit’s locks within 48 hours and at the tenant’s expense. If the landlord fails to act, the tenant may change the locks herself.
  • If the perpetrator of the sex crime or threat is a household member (i.e., spouse/boyfriend), the landlord may authorize changing the locks and withholding the new key from the perpetrator.
  • Landlords who make a good faith attempt to comply with the new law, and do not give a new key to the alleged perpetrator, are generally absolved from liability to the perpetrator for not providing a key.
  • Noncompliance with the new law can result in damages against the landlord equal to 3x the rental amount, plus payment of the tenant’s legal fees, which may be set off against any unpaid rent.

The bill, as finally passed, was signed off by both tenant and landlord industry groups after several years of debate. It is clearly a step forward for victims of abuse. If you are a victim of domestic abuse and you have to leave your apartment, not violating your lease is one less thing you have to worry about.  It also gives landlords a way to deal with a request by a tenant to change the locks in order to keep another tenant out.  Before this law, landlords faced with a request by a tenant to change the locks in order to keep another tenant out faced a difficult situation.  Property owners now have a clearer path to navigate a difficult situation and help a victim of abuse. It is also, as a landlord, one more thing you need know.  A link to the new Massachusetts domestic violence law can be found here. 

This article is a slightly modified version of a January 13, 2013 post by Rich Vetstein on 1/13 on The Mass. Real Estate Blog and posted with his permission. Rich writes on a variety of subjects and I highly recommend you check him out!

Becoming a Landlord – Part I: Tenant Deposits

for_rent_signBack in February, I posted on issues related to converting your home into rental property (“Converting to investment propertyFebruary 2, 2012). The current post is a continuation of the subject matter, but focuses on what I believe are the key things you need to know if you decide to get into the landlord business. The Massachusetts landlord/tenant laws are considered some of the toughest, most pro-tenant in the country. Many landlords don’t understand the requirements surrounding tenant deposits. If you are going to be a landlord, you need to know how this works.

  • What can you collect in advance?

Mass. General Laws c.186 s. 15(1)(b) specifically states that “no lessor may require[emphasis added] a tenant or prospective tenant to pay any amount in excess of the following:

(i) rent for the first full month of occupancy; and,

(ii) rent for the last full month of occupancy calculated at the same rate as the first month; and,

(iii) a security deposit equal to the first month’s rent ……

(iv) the purchase and installation cost for a key and lock…”

Notice that the exact language of the law is “no lessor may require[emphasis added]…”  Landlords who charge extra fees such as “cleaning fees,” or “pet fees,” or even “credit check” fees are in blatant violation of the law. In those cases, a tenant could later deduct those amounts from her rent, and the landlord would likely have little recourse. The trickier case is where the landlord  and the tenant work out an arrangement where the tenant pays a large portion of the entire lease, such as 6 months or a year, up front. There are situations where this is clearly desirable for both parties. For example, a tenant with marginal credit  might make an offer of six months rent up front to make the deal work. It may not, however, be a legal arrangement. If you are considering making a rental deal and taking more than first, last and security deposit, you should consult an attorney to consider the risks and benefits.

  • What to do with the security deposit and last month’s rent?

The specific requirements set out in the Massachusetts General Laws are nothing short of onerous. See also: Massachusetts Security Deposit: Last-month’s Rent Traps for the Unwary Landlord. For example, the security deposit has to be put into an account that is entirely separate from the landlord’s own funds.  The landlord must also pay the tenants the interest every year and it must be the “actual” interest or the “statutory” amount.  The logistical issues related to setting up an escrow bank account in someone else’s name is not that difficult for one single tenant, but gets much trickier for a set of tenants sharing an apartment. If you want to withhold money from a security deposit at the end of the lease, you will also have to have handled the required “condition statement” properly. Then you can only withhold money for specific repairs where you can substantiate the actual cost of repair. Last month’s rent is easier to handle as it does not need to be put in a separate escrow account. However, the landlord is still subject to the interest requirements. Very few landlords handle all of these requirements absolutely correctly, and are at some risk in the event of a lawsuit. With experience, and often trial and error, you just have to decide what works, what doesn’t, and what risks you are willing to take.