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Rental Handbook: Tenant's Rights

This is my fourth entry in a series of nine blog posts aimed at helping renters (and landlords) in the Boston area understand the rights and obligations of tenants (sometimes referred to as renters or lessees). In this Handbook, I will approach issues that you may face in dealing with a rental in the city, or in the surrounding towns of Newton and Brookline.

Today, we will cover your Rights as a Tenant so that you understand in a more nuanced way how they apply to you in the City of Boston. We will break this section down further than in previous posts, because there is a lot to it. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but is meant to cover the most common issues I’ve come across. We will cover the right to a habitable environment next week but tackle the other issues now.

When applying for tenancy, you have rights against unlawful discrimination

Massachusetts law, in conjunction with the Federal Fair Housing Act, prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, religion, national origin, age, ancestry, military background or service, sex, sexual preference, marital status, blindness, deafness, or the need of a guide dog, except in owner-occupied two family dwellings. No landlord can refuse to rent you an apartment because you receive a rental subsidy. Landlords have an obligation to abate lead hazards if a child under the age of six lives in a unit and landlords may not reject a family to avoid their obligations under the lead paint laws. With very limited exceptions, it is also illegal to refuse to rent to someone with children. The Massachusetts Antidiscrimination Law prohibits discrimination in advertising, public housing, and actions taken by realtors, landlords, mortgage lenders, and brokers.

You have the right to a non-coercive lease

Just as every rental agreement must have certain terms outlined therein, MA law prohibits owners from utilizing certain other terms meant to be coercive in nature. Items that are expressly prohibited from use are as follows:

  • The tenant must pay for the cost of repairing ordinary wear and tear to the apartment.

  • The tenant must pay for repairs to parts of the building beyond the tenant's apartment.

  • The tenant may not sue the landlord or report violations of the Sanitary Code.

  • The tenant may not join a tenants’ union.

  • The tenant must pay a late fee if a rent payment is even one day late (anything less than 30 days is not legal).

You have rights against unreasonable entry

A landlord should be reasonable and attempt to arrange a mutually convenient time to visit your apartment if they need entry. Reasonable may be considered giving you a few hours of notice via text or email, but they cannot enter the unit without notice unless under emergency circumstances. Your landlord, or an agent for your landlord, may enter your apartment with notice for the following reasons:

  • To inspect the unit

  • To make repairs

  • To show the apartment to a prospective tenant, purchaser, mortgagee or its agents

  • In accordance with a court order

  • If the premises appear to be abandoned

  • To inspect the premises within the last 30 days of tenancy to determine the amount of damage to be deducted from the security deposit.

If the landlord insists on entering your apartment in an unreasonable fashion, you may file for a temporary restraining order at your local district court.

You have rights against retaliation

Although a landlord has the right to terminate a tenancy or raise the rent under certain conditions preciously outlines, they cannot do so in response to your exercising your legal rights. If the landlord tries to raise the rent or terminate your tenancy within six months of you contacting the Board of Health, joining a tenants’ organization, or exercising other legal rights, the landlord's action will be considered retaliation against you. The landlord will have the burden to prove that your tenancy was changed for reasons other than you having exercised your rights.

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