Housing Court

Landlords Cry Foul Over Ruling

In a ruling which reaffirms Massachusetts’ place as one of the most landlord-unfriendly jurisdictions in the country, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled yesterday that a landlord’s minor security deposit law violation over failing to pay $3.26 in interest can be a complete defense to an eviction case even where the tenant owed thousands in rent. After this ruling, tenants will have another powerful tool to avoid eviction in both no-fault and non-payment cases. A change in this ruling would only come about through legislative action — which is usually a non-starter on Beacon Hill.

Rich’s Legal Advice: I have long advocated to my landlord clients that they NOT take security deposits. This ruling should be the nail in the coffin on that issue.

Garth Meikle v. Patricia Nurse

The Massachusetts Security Deposit Law provides a three month penalty, including payment of the tenant’s legal fees, against landlords who don’t follow its strict requirements. One of the requirements of the Security Deposit Law is that annually the landlord must pay the tenant any accrued interest on the deposit. That’s what got landlord Garth Meikle in trouble with his tenant who was three months behind in rent. Meikle brought a no-fault eviction case in the Housing Court, but the tenant raised the counterclaim and defense that she did not receive interest on the security deposit. Ruling that the landlord’s minor violation of the security deposit was not a complete defense to the eviction, the Housing Court Judge Marylou Muirhead allowed the eviction to proceed, ordering the tenant to pay the past due rent, but deducting the security deposit plus the $3.26 in unpaid interest. However, the tenant, represented by Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, appealed her case all the way up to the Supreme Judicial Court.

Statutory Interpretation

The issue on appeal was the distinction between a counterclaim and a defense for a security deposit violation. Everyone agrees that the tenant can raise a security deposit violation as a counterclaim (entitling the tenant to up to triple damages), but the question was whether such a violation could be a complete defense to an eviction, preventing the landlord from regaining possession of the rental unit. Landlords and yours truly argued that a security deposit is a separate financial matter between the landlord and tenant which has nothing to do about whether the tenant owes rent or the condition of the property.

Justice Geraldine Hines, writing for SJC, disagreed and found that a security deposit violation was within the list of defenses to an eviction. Despite quite unclear and murky statutory language, the justice was persuaded that the Legislature’s historical tightening of penalties and sanctions against landlords was indicative of the legislative intent to include a deposit violation among the list of available defenses to eviction.

So we’ll have to thank the SJC and the Legislature for sticking it to Massachusetts landlords once again. With tenant activist groups pushing “Just Cause Eviction” i.e, rent control and the Legislature’s continual failure to enact any sensible landlord-tenant reform, no wonder Massachusetts has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most tenant-friendly states in the union.

I’ve embedded the opinion below.

Garth Meikle v. Patricia Nurse by Richard Vetstein

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Judge-Timothy-SullivanGov. Baker Earmarks $1M for Expansion

The Housing Court expansion plan to have statewide coverage has been gaining political momentum, but whether the plan will receive the long-term funding it needs to make it a reality remains a question mark. The Governor’s fiscal 2017 budget proposal earmarks $1 million for the court’s expansion, which calls for its jurisdiction to be widened with the addition of a sixth division and its bench increased from 10 to 15 judges.

While supporters are pleased with the language in Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget, which authorizes the Housing Court’s structural changes through a so-called outside section, Trial Court officials estimate that the annual cost of the proposal would be more than double the earmarked sum, reaching up to $2.4 million. “The $1 million will allow us to ramp up over a period of time,” Housing Court Chief Justice Timothy F. Sullivan (shown right) told Mass. Lawyers Weekly last week. “We don’t expect it will happen overnight. We’ll have to grow into our new roles.” Meanwhile, House and Senate bills are pending that seek a larger statewide court as well, providing access to those who currently do not fall within the court’s jurisdiction — about one-third of the state’s population.

The budget and legislative proposals call for adding a Metro South Division that would encompass all of Norfolk County (Dedham) — except Brookline — plus Abington, Bridgewater, Brockton, East Bridgewater, West Bridgewater and Whitman. Four of the five existing divisions would absorb additional communities, which includes the highly populated MetroWest area including Framingham, Newton, Cambridge and the rest of Middlesex County.

Of the five new judges that would be added, two would be assigned to the Metro South Division; the circuit judge pool would grow from one to three; and the Northeastern Division would take on an additional judge.

Guarded Support

As I told Mass. Lawyers Weekly, I am a “guarded supporter” of the expansion. Most landlord groups do not consider the Housing Court a level playing field and prefer to have their cases heard in District Court. While the Housing Court’s housing specialists and mediators can help matters move quickly, the volume of cases at some courts can be a bottleneck. “You have to look at the number of cases versus the number of judges available to handle the cases. That’s going to be an important consideration,” I told MLW.

We also need to look at the pro bono legal support available to both sides of the dispute. In Boston Housing Court, for example, there is a small army of Harvard law students ready to assist tenants free of charge. There is no comparable service for small unrepresented landlords, and that’s not fair.

Doug Quattrochi, executive director of the MassLandlords.net trade group, agreed. Though the Housing Court has a process — not available in District Court — that allows landlords and tenants to mediate first and then move directly to trial if an agreement cannot be reached, his trade group would like to see some of the “lopsided, tenant-centric” laws corrected if the Housing Court is expanded, he said. “The laws build in procedural delays that tenants become more aware of in Housing Court. Let’s look at changing these laws,” Quattrochi suggested.

I would fully support the Housing Court expansion if the legislation were linked to the passing of the rent escrow bill and other reforms to make landlord-tenant laws fairer to landlords.

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meter-reader-660x370Massachusetts Water/Sewer Sub-Metering Law 

Many Massachusetts landlords are unaware that before charging tenants for hot water and sewer service, they must comply with the numerous and onerous requirements of the Massachusetts Water Sewer Sub-Metering Law, General Laws chapter 186, chapter 22. These requirements include having separate water meters for each unit, installation of low flow faucets and toilets by a licensed plumber, and certification with the local health board, among other requirements outlined below. Non-compliance with this law may result in a three month rent penalty to the landlord plus payment of the tenant’s attorneys fees.

A landlord can only charge a tenant for water/sewer service under the following conditions:

1. The tenant’s unit must be separately submetered by a separate water meter installed by a licensed plumber. A separate water meter measures the amount of water supplied to a particular unit, and enables the landlord to charge the tenant for the tenant’s own water usage. So, for example, if a building contains 4 dwelling units and a basement where water is utilized for the entire building, a landlord would need to have 5 submeters installed in addition to the primary meter that measures the building’s water use in its entirety. If the building does not have separate meters for each unit, the tenant may not be charged for water service.

2. The tenant’s obligation to pay for water usage must be contained in a signed lease, in an obvious place, and not in the fine print. Each bill for submetered water usage must clearly set forth all charges and all other relevant information, including the current and immediately preceding submeter readings and the date of each such reading, the amount of water consumed since the last reading, the charge per unit of water, the total charge and the payment due date. If the landlord bills the tenant on a monthly basis, payment of the bill by the tenant must be due 15 days after the date the bill is mailed to the tenant, but if the landlord bills the tenant at intervals greater than 1 month, payment of the bill by the tenant is due 30 days after the date the bill is mailed to the tenant.

3. A landlord may not charge the tenant for water supplied through a submeter unless the a licensed plumber has installed fully functional water conservation devices for all faucets, showerheads and water closets/bathrooms in the unit (low-flow shower heads and faucets and low-flush toilets)

4. The landlord must provide a certification under the penalties of perjury, with the board of health or health department, that the appropriate submeters and water conservation devices were installed by a licensed plumber.

5. A landlord cannot charge a tenant for water/sewer service mid-way through a tenancy or lease. A landlord can only charge a tenant for water/sewer upon the start of a new tenancy in the unit; and only if the unit is being occupied for the first time, or if the previous tenant left voluntarily, or was evicted for non-payment of rent or other breach of the lease.

6.  A landlord who engages in self-help by willfully failing to furnish water or directly or indirectly interfering with the furnishing by another of water, or transferring responsibility for payment for water to the tenant without their knowledge or consent, is punishable by a fine of not less than $25.00 nor more than $300.00 , or by imprisonment for not more than 6 months and is liable for actual and consequential damages or 3 month’s rent, whichever is greater, and the costs of the action, including a reasonable attorney’s fee.

Given these onerous requirements, my advice to landlords is to never charge the tenant for water/sewer! Just pay the bill and make it “hot water included” in the rent.

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Owens_Pinto-780x439Hundreds Cram Into City Council To Debate Controversial Petition

Hundreds of tenant activists, small property owners and landlords packed City Hall and poured over into overflow rooms last night as the Boston City Council held its first public hearing on the need for “just cause” eviction legislation, to stem the city’s skyrocketing rents. Harking back to the days of rent control, the proposal would prohibit a landlord from evicting any tenant except for certain “just cause” grounds. These grounds and their related procedural impediments to eviction, would in my opinion, make it nearly impossible (or cost prohibitive) to evict tenants, raise rents and sell occupied rental property in the City of Boston. For more specifics of the proposal, please see my prior post, Boston Tenant Activists Pushing Just Cause Eviction Proposal.

The City Council, led by Councilor Josh Zakim, heard four hours of impassioned testimony from both sides of the issue. Renters say it would create safeguards against eviction; landlords say it would slap them with thinly disguised rent controls.

“Any way you look at it, this is rent control,” Skip Schloming, of the Small Properties Owners Association, said in an interview just before the hearing started.

Lisa Owens Pinto, executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana, for the tenant side told news outlets that “this proposal would just require property owners to provide a good reason to evict someone.” Ms. Owens Pinto said her organization’s measure has three central provisions – landlords must provide a reason for an eviction; if a rent increase is sought, a landlord must first notify the city; once notified, the city must use its resources to contact and advise the affected tenant.

Gilbert Winn, chief executive of Boston-based developer Winn Companies, told the council that a new set of regulations isn’t needed and warned that any changes may have an adverse effect on housing. “You can’t attack the very thing you are trying to protect, which is the rental economy,” Winn said. His company is a major developer of affordable housing projects. Winn, the son of Winn founder Arthur Winn, also claimed the proposal would provide tenants with a potential avenue to avoid living up to their rental agreements. “If a contract between a willing renter and a willing owner cannot be adhered to, and only one party has to adhere to it, then the whole system falls apart,” Winn said.

The proposal has been a moving target. A revised draft of the group’s proposal, originally submitted as a home-rule petition, wasn’t available at the hearing, leaving several councilors perplexed as to why it hadn’t been officially filed. “We’re talking about a specific proposal and I’m finding it hard to follow because we don’t have the draft in front of us,” City Councilor Josh Zakim said about halfway through the four-hour hearing.

Prior to the hearing, tenant advocates agreed to drop one of their most controversial requests: a mandate that rent increases of 5 percent or more be subject to nonbinding mediation. Instead, they are pushing for a rule that would require landlords to notify the city of rent hikes that result in eviction, known as a no-fault notice to quit.

Mayor Marty Walsh had initially signaled support for the measure, but wanted to see how the details would be fleshed out. As they say, the devil is in the details and it’s quite possible this proposal will get significantly watered down during the legislative process, if it survives at all.

The hearing was videotaped and can be viewed on the City’s website here.

Photo credit: New Boston Post photo by Evan Lips

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DSC_0418Gov. Baker Selects Newton Lawyer For Housing Court |  Now First Trial Court With Female Majority

Maria Theophilis (pictured right in red), a 46 year old partner in the Newton law firm of Broderick Bancroft, has been selected by Gov. Baker to sit as a new judge of the Housing Court. Theophilis replaces Chief Justice Steven D. Pierce, who retired Sept. 30, 2015.

Theophilis was nominated by Governor Charlie Baker who stated to the Metrowest Daily News that “throughout her career, Maria has provided support to those seeking an outspoken advocate on their behalf. Combined with her lengthy record of proceedings before the Housing Court on behalf of both tenants and landlords, I know she carries all the requisite experience to provide sound decisions from the bench.”

Some landlords and small property owners, however, may be a bit concerned about Theophilis’ legal background. She was a staff attorney for several years with Greater Boston Legal Services, which represents tenants and advances a very liberal social agenda. She was also worked for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the Committee for Public Counsel Services — also two very left leaning public interest groups. More recently, however, she represented property owners as a partner in private practice.

That said, Theophilis has deep experience on both sides of the landlord-tenant relationship which is very important. By all accounts, she has an excellent reputation and was voted in unanimously by the often fickle Governor’s Council which says a lot these days. Plus, she was picked by Republican Governor Baker, who is has been doing a good job with judicial appointments, in my opinion. As with any new justice, she deserves the benefit of the doubt as she steps on the bench for the first time. It’s a tough job.

Theophilis is the sixth woman selected for the Housing Court, which now has a majority of female justices. I believe that no other trial court department can claim that accomplishment.

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Updated (4/27/16): SJC Rules That Security Deposit Violation Is Full Defense to Eviction

Landlord Stopped From Evicting Tenant Over $3.26 In Interest

Massachusetts has a well-deserved reputation as being a hostile jurisdiction for landlords. With a myriad of tenant favorable laws on the books, the proverbial playing field is often stacked against landlords. Exhibit A is the Security Deposit Law which provides a three month penalty, including payment of the tenant’s legal fees, against landlords who don’t follow its strict requirements.

One of the requirements of the Security Deposit Law is that annually the landlord must pay the tenant any accrued interest on the deposit. That’s what got landlord Garth Meikle in trouble with his tenant who was three months behind in rent.

Garth Meikle v. Patricia Nurse, SJC-11859

Meikle brought an eviction case in the Housing Court, and essentially won with the judge ordering the tenant to pay the past due rent, but deducting the security deposit plus the three dollars and change in interest. However, to the tenant’s rescue came the crusading Harvard law students from Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. Representing her for free, the students have taken her case all the way up to the Supreme Judicial Court. (Why is it that landlords are not offered the same free legal aid?). The tenant posted an appeal bond so she’s allowed to stay in the apartment while paying the rent during the pendency of the case.

The SJC heard arguments this morning with third year Harvard Law student Louis Fisher arguing the case. (Damn lucky kid!).

The Harvard tenant lawyers are advancing the dangerous argument that a landlord who violates the security deposit law — even in the most minor of circumstances — cannot evict a non-paying tenant.

Scary right? If the Court accepts this argument then tenants will have yet another powerful tool to avoid eviction. The Security Deposit Law is so strict that most landlords make minor errors in holding the deposit. That’s why I have advised that landlords don’t even bother taking security deposits in the first place.

You can guess where I stand on the merits of the case. The security deposit is a separate financial matter between the landlord and tenant which has nothing to do about whether the tenant owes rent or the condition of the property. Those are the two primary issues in a non-payment eviction case. You don’t pay the rent without legal defense, you’re out. Period. Compliance with the security deposit law should have no bearing on a non-payment eviction. The Legislature did not intend otherwise, and regardless, that should not be our policy. Enough is enough already.

You know what else bothers me? These legal aid organizations take on these “test cases” to train law students and get them experience. After all when does a law student ever get to argue a SJC case? Is that really fair and just to small unrepresented landlords like Mr. Meikle who told the justices that his son and fiancee were hoping to live in the apartment?

The SJC should come out with a final ruling in the next few months. Check back here for future developments. In the meantime, I will keep on fighting the good fight for landlords.

Case Link:  Garth Meikle v. Patricia Nurse SJC-11859

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ls.jpgI will be speaking about Rental Legal Trends and Security Deposits at the monthly Boston Real Estate Investors Association meeting on November 3, 2015 at the Hilton Hotel – Dedham, 25 Allied Drive, Dedham, MA. Time:  5:30PM-9PM.

Agenda below. It is FREE for anyone who mentions my name!

5:30 PM –  “Meeting Before The Meeting” – Multifamily Investing with Charles Dobens

6:30 PM – Registration & Vendor Area Open

7:00 – 7:30 pm – Announcements, Deal Making, Speed Networking

7:30 – 8:00 pm –  What You Need To Know BEFORE Placing An Offer. Lee Abdella of Walsh Home Inspections will address what you should look for before putting an offer in on a house or before waiting your home inspection!

8:00 – 9:00 pm  – Mass Security Deposit and Rental Law with Richard D. Vetstein Esq.

Boston Real Estate Investors Association on Facebook

I look forward to seeing you next week!

-Rich

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Restricted-Access-Signs---Industrial-43894BBHPLYALU-baBy-Pass Housing Court For Expedited Superior Court Restraining Order Procedure

I recently handled an interesting case involving an unauthorized family member taking up residence in my client’s rental unit. My client, a doctor, owns a very nice condo unit in the Theatre District in Boston. He and his family live next door in the adjacent unit. The client signed a one year lease with a wealthy foreign national from Jordan, a middle aged lady. Per the lease, the tenant was the only authorized occupant for this 1BR unit. There was no discussion about family members being authorized occupants, and my client would not have agreed to it.

My client comes to find out that the tenant’s 20-something year old son, who attends a local college, has taken up residence in the unit. To make matters worse, the kid hosts several loud late night parties reeking of marijuana and cigarette smoke. My client is incensed, and to add insult to injury, he is fined several thousand dollars for noise and lease violations by the condo association. My client attempts to take action against tenant and son, but they hire a well known tenant’s rights attorney who stonewalls the two attorneys hired by the client. The client finally hires me.

Typically, this type of case would be filed as a standard eviction case in busy pro-tenant Boston Housing Court. The tenant’s attorney is also well known there. Accordingly, I needed to find a way to bypass Housing Court and take away this lawyer’s home court advantage.

So I came up with an creative approach. I filed a restraining order application in Superior Court to remove the son as an illegal trespasser. Although Superior Court typically handles major civil cases, it does share jurisdiction with the Housing Court over trespass cases requesting equitable relief. I served the interloper with a formal trespass notice, then filed the Superior Court application a few days later. The judge granted the move out order, after which my client and I had the pleasure of taking a victory walk down Tremont Street to serve the move out order. We were able to have the management company immediately change the locks and remove all the kid’s possessions. He is now permanently barred from entering the building. And the best part was that he left his wallet and passport in the unit! My client is now preparing the unit for rent to a better tenant. 

As the saying goes, “possession is 9/10ths of the law”!!!

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gill08900Court Halts Eviction For Distressed Homeowner, Validity of Foreclosure In Question (Wells Fargo v. Cook, Mass. Appeals Court May 19, 2015)

In response to the foreclosure crisis, HUD enacted regulations requiring lenders to provide distressed borrowers with a meaningful opportunity to settle their FHA-insured mortgages and obtain a loan modification during a face-to-face interview. In an effort to accommodate the hundreds of Wells Fargo clients facing foreclosure in Massachusetts, the San Francisco based lender held a mass “homeowner’s workshop” at Gillette Stadium in August 2008.

Three months behind on their Mattapan mortgage, Nancy Cook and her daughter showed up to the stadium with a little over $10,000 in cash, in anticipation of signing a repayment plan. After waiting in a long line, Cook received a ticket and sat down with a bank representative. Despite HUD guidelines requiring that loan representative have actual authority to settle accounts and enter repayment plans, the Wells Fargo representative said that he was unable to accept any payments at the event. The counseling session lasted only 15 minutes, but the reprepresentative promised that Ms. Cook would receive a loan modification package in the mail.

Ms. Cook did receive a Special Forbearance Agreement in the mail, which she accepted, and made the first three payments under the agreement. When she went to make the fourth payment, Wells Fargo rejected it, claiming that Cook owed it $2000 more than the scheduled payment. Wells Fargo then issued a default notice, accelerated Cook’s debt, and foreclosed her home.

Several years after completing the foreclosure sale, Wells Fargo brought an eviction case against Cook and her daughter, who at this time were represented by lawyers from Harvard University Legal Aid. (The reason for the long delay is unclear). Boston Housing Court judge Marylou Muirhead ruled against Cook, clearing the way for her eviction.

On appeal, Appeals Court Justice Scott Kafker halted Cook’s eviction, ruling that the Housing Court judge should reconsider whether the Gillette Stadium mass counseling event complied with HUD guidelines. Justice Kafker noted that a reoccurring theme of the HUD rules is to provide personalized consideration for each homeowner. That apparently was not done, said the justice, or at least there is a dispute as to whether the mass Gillette Stadium event could satisfy that guideline.

Of particularly interest to the real estate conveyancing community, the Court held that if the lower court ultimately rules that the counseling session was insufficient, the lender could be found in noncompliance with the mortgage terms and foreclosure power of sale, and its foreclosure could be deemed defective and invalid. A court holding to this effect could potentially invalidate completed foreclosures of FHA insured mortgages over whether the lenders complied with the face-to-face meeting requirements of the HUD guidelines. Ensuring a lender’s compliance with HUD rules is not typically part of a title examiner’s scope of examination. Lenders would need to provide an affidavit certifying that all pre-foreclosure counseling requirements were complied with. Accordingly, this is yet another reason why obtaining an owner’s title insurance policy is a prudent choice for all buyers of foreclosed properties.

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MRHAI am honored to be one of four fantastic speakers at the Massachusetts Rental Housing Association (MRHA) Annual Meeting and Conference on Saturday, May 30, 9AM-1PM at the Embassy Suites, 550 Winter Street, Waltham, MA.

My presentation will be “War Stories from the Eviction Court Trenches.” I will retell some colorful stories from my career handling over 5,000 evictions throughout the Commonwealth, as well as talk about my thoughts for fixing the system going forward.

Other speakers include:

Jamie Williamson, Commissioner, Massachusetts Commission on Discrimination(MCAD)Fair Housing Laws and How to Avoid Lawsuits

We have all heard of the large penalties inflicted upon unsuspecting landlords who are not aware of fair housing  laws, protected classes of people and discrimination red flags. Ms. Williamson is a Commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission on Discrimination(MCAD) and her presentation is not to be missed.

Marcus Papajohn, Financial Planner, www.MarcusPapajohn.comThe Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Estate Planning for Landlords 

How do you plan your estate of  income properties? Whether your properties total $200,000 or $2,000,000, whether you are  25 years old or 52 years old or 82 years old, whether you have children or not, you are wise to have an estate plan. Mr. Papajohn is a financial planner who has worked with MRHA for many years.

Mark Leger, MRHA Legislative Chair

Do you charge late fees? Have you had the “free rent” trick played on you? If “survivors of domestic abuse” become a protected class, will you be able to evict them? Mr. Leger explains landlord bills before the Massachusetts legislature that will effect the way you conduct your rental property business.

Click here to Register for the Conference. 

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cls-6State House Hearing Set For May 12, 1pm, Joint Committee for Judiciary Hearing Room A-2 

For the last decade, Massachusetts landlords have been lobbying for a tenant rent escrow bill which would prevent tenants from using the infamous “free rent trick” in evictions. The free rent trick works like this:  Tenant stops paying rent for various reasons, such as economic hardship or by design. After receiving a 14 day notice to quit for non-payment of rent, the tenant will immediately call the board of health to get the owner cited for minor or cosmetic code violations such as a hole in a window screen. Under current Massachusetts law, any code violation cited, however minor, allows the tenant to withhold rent until the eviction case is resolved. What usually happens is that the tenant skips out of town or agrees to a move out but never pays the months of accrued unpaid rent, leaving the landlord stuck with thousands of lost income to pay their mortgage and expenses.

Even the liberal Boston Globe recently published a compelling piece on how the Massachusetts legal system unfairly penalizes small landlords in these situations.

Unlike most other states, there is no requirement in Massachusetts that the tenant post the withheld rent into some form of escrow account. There have been many instances where tenants have intentionally inflicted property damage to claim code violations or just made them up altogether.

Bill Would Level Playing Field Between Small Landlords and Tenants

Hopefully, this will finally be the year that the Legislature passes this much needed reform to curb tenant abuses of the eviction process. Three bills will be discussed, H.B. 1654H.B. 1663 and H.B. 1664. Landlords are urged to come and testify before the committee and otherwise support the bill by contacting their local representatives and senators.

A mandatory rent escrow law would require any tenant who exercises their right of rent withholding to pay the withheld rent into an escrow account until the unsafe conditions or code violations are repaired. After repairs are done, either the landlord and tenant agree on how the escrowed rent should be divided, or a judge orders a fair settlement. In most cases, the owner will get back most of the withheld escrowed rent. But the most important impact of a mandatory rent escrow law is that those nonpaying tenants who do not escrow can be promptly evicted for nonpayment of rent. Although nonpayment evictions will still take on average three months to resolve, much-longer-delayed evictions and the free rent trick will be stopped.

The bills will most benefit small landlords and owners-occupants of multi-family residences who rent out apartments. These property owners are typically on strict budgets, and any lost rent and attorneys’  fees will prevent them from paying their mortgages, real estate taxes and property expenses, potentially leading to default and foreclosure.

For more information on how you can support these bills, please contact the Massachusetts Rental Housing Association and the Massachusetts Small Property Owner’s Association.

________________________________________

100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a vocal advocate for Massachusetts landlord rights and can be reached at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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917BdkbVovL._UX250_Elizabeth Gerhman, a writer for the Boston Globe Magazine and owner of two rental units, is fed up with how the Massachusetts legal system favors tenants over landlords.

In her article Think It’s Tough to Rent? Try Being a Landlord, she describes that

“In just five years as a rental, the other [unit] — which has hardwood floors, granite countertops, and a $1,200 dishwasher — has been a nightmare, with tenants who bounced checks, didn’t pay their rent, and threatened to call the building inspector over, among other things, a loose toilet seat, a missing outlet cover, and, I’m not kidding, a bedroom that is allegedly 0.389 of an inch too small. The tenant who detailed these horrific, slum-like conditions also threatened to take me to court over some food that had spoiled when the refrigerator broke — which is what prompted the intimidation tactics in the first place.”

As landlord groups have been arguing for years, one of the major problems with the current system is that Massachusetts has no rent escrow law. Under the present system, a tenant can withhold months of rent for any cosmetic or minor problem with the unit until the eviction case is resolved, leaving the landlord unable to pay their mortgage. We call that the “free rent trick.” As Ms. Gerhman correctly points out, “with an average judgment of about three months’ rent, this can be a real hardship for house-poor landlords. And once a landlord does evict a tenant who owes back rent, he or she must pay to move the tenant’s belongings out of the apartment in addition to three months’ storage costs.” As I was quoted in the article, many landlords opt for “cash for keys” deals to avoid huge losses during an eviction.

A rent escrow law would require any tenant who withholds rent to simply pay it into an escrow account until the unsafe conditions or code violations are repaired and the eviction case is resolved. After repairs are done, either the landlord and tenant agree on how the escrowed rent should be divided, or a judge orders a fair settlement. The “free rent trick” would be gone and landlords less likely to get left holding the money bag.

Sounds fair? Tell that to your state legislators who have been sitting on rent escrow bills for over a decade.

New rent escrow bills return to the Legislature this session as House Bill 1654 sponsored by Rep. Chris Walsh and House Bill 1112 sponsored by Rep. Brad Jones. Both bills are expected to get hearings at the State House this spring. I will keep you posted.

Personally, I think a fair legislative compromise would be for landlord groups to support the Housing Court Expansion bill under the condition that a Rent Escrow Bill is passed along with it. That would be a win-win for both sides.

In the meantime, please email and call your local state rep and senator and tell him or her you are in favor of these bills. If you have any tenant horror stories, make sure you include those as well. Also, consider joining your local chapter of the Massachusetts Rental Housing Association or Masslandlords.net. Both organizations will be coordinating legislative efforts on the rent escrow bill and other landlord legislation. Lastly, please share this article and the Globe Magazine article on your Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and email blasts!

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City Universities Providing ISD With Addresses of Student Apartments

In the coming weeks, some Boston college students living off-campus and their landlords may be greeted by city inspection officers at their doors. Shrugging off privacy concerns, pursuant to a new city ordinance, the city’s 31 local colleges and universities have sent the city’s Inspection Services Department the addresses of their students who live off-campus. Of the 25,000 addresses it received, ISD will pay visits to the 580 it deems to be suspect of violating zoning codes. Boston.com reporter Julie Xie in her article “City Will Inspect Off-Campus Student Apartments, And It’s Legal” reported this new development.

They’ll primarily be looking for issues related to overcrowding. There are over 45,000 undergraduate and graduate students living off-campus in Boston, according to The Boston Globe . A 2008 city ordinance prohibits more than four undergraduates living together in one apartment.

The city’s crackdown comes in the wake of BU senior Binland Lee’s tragic death in 2013 from a fire in her overcrowded Allston apartment. Flames blocked the staircase from the third floor — her only egress. Scofflaw landlords and poorly managed units unsafe for students were the subject of the Globe’s “Shadow Campus” investigation last year. Now, an ordinance requires colleges to provide a list of where students live off-campus every semester. Another requires private rental units to register their properties annually, and inspections are performed every five years.

There is no question that some Boston landlords catering to the huge undergraduate population have skirted the law, creating dangerous living spaces for far too long. Regardless of the issue of occupancy limits, landlords need to comply with the sanitary and building codes so they don’t create fire traps for housing.

However, I have always had issues with the legality of the 4 undergraduate rule. I’m quoted in the article as saying that the no-more-than-four rule has always been somewhat suspect, arbitrary, and tough to enforce. Though neighbors do complain about late-night parties and loud college students, not all undergrads are troublemakers.” “Undergrads are not a protected class under any discrimination laws, and they’re transient, so it’s not like they’re going to come up with a lobbyist or fight for their rights in that way,” I’m quoted. “Colleges don’t want to get in trouble and they know they won’t get much pushback from Boston’s student body.”

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massachusetts condominium super lienWe had another interesting year in Massachusetts real estate law. From that controversial $60,000 discrimination penalty for asking a prospective renter “where are you from?”, to the influx of Airbnb rentals, to the tragic murder of Realtor Beverly Carter during a showing, and finally Gov. Patrick’s disappointing scuttling of the title clearance bill.

With pro-business Charlie Baker in the Governor’s Office, the fate of the independent brokerage model with the Supreme Judicial Court, and significant regulatory changes to title and closing services, we should expect another eventful year in 2015. Without further ado, I give you my outlook for 2015:

The Charlie Baker Effect

Gov. Deval Patrick was no friend to the real estate industry, often kowtowing to ultra-liberal activists. Case in point was when he killed the title clearance bill which had broad support within the Legislature and would have helped hundreds of homeowners get out of toxic titles. A new era is here with Republican and former CEO, Charlie Baker. Hopefully the Governor Elect will be more supportive of homeowners, developers, real estate agents, lenders and others in the industry. On the legislative table this year will be comprehensive “smart” zoning reform (including 40B affordable housing development reform), another effort at the title clearance bill and maybe even landlord-tenant legal reform.

Will Realtors Be Treated As Employees or Remain Independent Contractors?

The SJC should decide the closely watched case of Monell v. Boston Padsa class action brought by a group of disgruntled real estate agents at Jacob Realty claiming they should be treated as employees instead of independent contractors. Hanging in the balance is the fate of the historically independent, commission based real estate brokerage office model. An unfavorable result at the SJC would essentially turn this model upside-down, requiring brokerages to pay their agents minimum and overtime wages and provide all the statutory benefits afforded to employees. The real estate office as we know it today would likely cease to exist.

CFPB Compliance: New HUD-1 Statement, GFE, TIL, Back Office Procedures

The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rules, which go into effect this summer, have the potential to drastically change how loans are disclosed and transactions closed, affecting loan officers, Realtors and closing attorneys alike. Gone are the Good Faith Estimate, Truth in Lending Statement (TIL) and HUD-1 Settlement Statement, replaced with a longer Loan Estimate and Closing Disclosure. The disclosure timetables will be much, much stricter — the final Closing Statement must be given to the borrower no later than three business days before closing. Lenders and closing attorneys will have to work more efficiently and quicker to meet these new deadlines. Closing attorneys who are ALTA Best Practices Certified will have a competitive advantage over those who aren’t. Smaller firms could fall by the wayside.

Housing Court Expansion

This year will likely see the expansion of Housing Court jursidiction state-wide including in Middlesex, Norfolk and Barnstable counties. The Housing Court will be available in high density rental towns including Cambridge, Framingham, Brookline, Waltham, Dedham, Malden and Somerville.

I hope you all have a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!

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computer-searchLandlords Get Useful Tenant Screening Tool for Massachusetts District Court Records

In a much anticipated announcement, expanded online court docket information is now available for all district courts in Massachusetts including records on evictions, small claims, civil, and supplementary process (collection actions) cases. The website is Masscourts.org. It is free to use.

Using this site, landlords can check to see if prospective tenants have been involved in any prior evictions or have been sued by creditors. Housing Court dockets have already been available for about a year.

The only downside to the site is that users must search each individual court separately. My advice for landlords is to match the court with the prospective tenant’s former address and check to see if they were previously involved in any summary process or debt collection lawsuits.

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South_Boston_Ma.jpgSorry for the late notice, but I will be giving a presentation on Massachusetts landlord-tenant law to the Waltham Rental Housing Association, December 2, 2014, starting at 7PM at the Waltham Public Library, 735 Main Street, Waltham, MA, Trustee’s Room on the third floor. All are welcome. No charge.

Topics I will cover include:

  • Legislative Updates
  • Medical Marijuana
  • Housing Court Expansion Proposal
  • Rental discrimination
  • Best practices for tenant screening
  • Evictions
  • Up Front Fees

My talk will be about 45 minutes long, after which I will have a question and answer session. Light refreshments will be served. Look forward to seeing you!

Update:  I’ve embedded my slideshow handout below. Please contact me if your organization would like to host a Free Landlord Tenant Law or Other Real Estate Legal Presentation!

Waltham Landlords 12.2.14 Handout Version No Images by Richard Vetstein

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80140012Legislation Set To Expand Housing Court Statewide

About 30% of people in Massachusetts do not have access to the state’s Housing Court — one of Massachusetts’ specialized courts handling landlord-tenant disputes, evictions and sanitary code enforcement. The unserved areas include the largest county in the state, Middlesex County and most of Norfolk County, with high density rental towns including Cambridge, Framingham, Brookline, Waltham, Dedham, Malden and Somerville. Also unserved by a Housing Court is all of Cape Cod and the Islands and Chelsea.

Under a plan touted by Supreme Judicial Court Justice Ralph Gants, the Housing Court would be expanded to cover the entire state by July 1, 2015. “We believe that all residents of the Commonwealth, regardless of where they live, should have the opportunity to have their housing case heard by a Housing Court, and benefit from its specialized expertise in residential housing matters,” Gants said in a statement.

As an eviction and landlord-tenant attorney who practices quite a bit in both Middlesex County and in the Housing Court, I can say positively that this is a great idea. In Framingham District Court, for example, the Thursday eviction session can be standing room only with landlords and tenants often spilling outside into the hallway. The busy court is already swamped with criminal matters, and getting a trial date in an eviction case can take upwards of several months — certainly not “just, speedy and inexpensive” as mandated by the Uniform Summary Process Rules.

The Housing Court would be able to take the burden off the local, overworked district courts. With a few more full time judges and already with one of the lowest cost-per-case ratios of any court, they should be able to handle the increase in cases. The “X-factor” will be the overall cost, of course.

The Legislature is set to take up the proposal in early 2015. I’ll keep tabs on any developments.

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Cannabis-BankCourt Side-Steps Whether Sec. 8 Tenant Can Be Evicted For Possession of Under 1 Oz. of Marijuana

In the first of what should be many cases dealing with marijuana use in rental housing, the SJC ruled last week that a Section 8 tenant could be evicted for an undetermined amount of marijuana combined with allowing her live-in boyfriend to deal marijuana and possess a gun at the leased premises. The court overruled Boston Housing Court Justice Jeffrey Winik’s prior decision stopping the eviction of the tenant. Judge Winik was unconvinced that a public tenant could be evicted for marijuana possession unless it was over 1 oz. which makes it a crime in Massachusetts, whereas possession of under 1 oz. is merely a civil infraction.

The case is Figgs v. Boston Housing Authority (SJC 11532). A link to the opinion can be found here.

Based on oral arguments and briefings, court watchers were expecting the justices to address the interplay between the recent Mass. law decriminalizing the possession of under 1 oz. of marijuana and federal public housing eviction laws. The justices, however, side-stepped the weight issue, ruling instead that there was more than sufficient evidence of drug dealing at the apartment to warrant eviction based on a serious violation of the lease and criminal activity. Police found a small amount of marijuana, plastic baggies, cash and a firearm in the bedroom of the tenant’s boyfriend, charging him with possession with intent to distribute and unlawful possession of a loaded firearm.

Although the question of whether a tenant can be evicted for possession of a recreational sized amount of marijuana (and medicinal marijuana) will be left for another case, the Figgs decision can be used to hold tenants responsible for the drug and criminal activity of their household members, including boyfriends, husbands, children and guests. This should be a helpful tool to enable public housing authorities and private landlords to keep drugs and guns out of rental housing.

 

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airbnbLaw Catching Up With Popular Airbnb Room Rental Website

With the promise of relatively easy money, Airbnb (Air Bed & Breakfast) is making innkeepers of many Greater Boston homeowners who are taking advantage of the popular website’s rental listing service. For those who don’t know already, Airbnb is a website where you can rent out one or more rooms in your home, condo or apartment for a nightly, weekly or monthly fee. But with some homeowners earning upwards of $20,000/year on rental income, Airbnb raises a multitude of thorny legal issues in Massachusetts, including whether an innkeeper or rooming house license is required, whether it violates condominium rules and regulations, and whether guests qualify as tenants. For example, in a recent case, a Back Bay condominium fined a unit owner over $9000 for unlawfully renting his unit out through Airbnb in violation of the condominium rules.

According to a recent Boston Globe article, Airbnb’s website currently lists nearly 3,500 properties for rent in the Boston area — a 63% increase since July 2013. Some of the lodging arrangements offered cost less than $50 per night and involve little more than a bed, a key, and zero conversation. Others offer entire homes, bed-and-breakfast-intensity chitchat, and prices that can top $800 per night. Aspiring innkeepers are everywhere, from Dorchester to Revere, Boston to Somerville, advertising “treetop views,” “steps to the T,” “cozy penthouses,” even “lovely puppies.”

But with success has come negative attention from cities and towns that want to tax the lodging arrangements as they do hotels, from landlords with leases that prohibiting sublets, and from neighbors who don’t want strangers traipsing through buildings. There are also some horror stories popping up with Airbnb guests turning into squatters and refusing to leave. In New York City, the Attorney General is waging a publicized legal fight to get Airbnb host names and recover unpaid hotel taxes. Last year, a group of Brookline residents dropped a dime on a local homeowner who rented out rooms to foreign exchange students via Airbnb. According to Brookline Building Commissioner Dan Bennett, an owner may rent up to two rooms to two lodgers as of right, as long as there are no separate cooking facilities. If an owner wants to have another lodger, they would require relief from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Licensing and Registration Requirements

From a legal perspective, there is no doubt that Massachusetts municipalities will eventually be considering whether Airbnb qualifies as a rooming or lodging house, bed and breakfast or hotel for purposes of both regulation and taxation. Hey, you think cities will pass up a golden opportunity to increase tax revenue? No way.

The state Executive Office of Health and Human Services recently opined in a memo that lodging of this type is subject to local licensure as a bed and breakfast. For now, the City of Boston Inspectional Services Department has issued a temporary policy that they will not issue citations to homeowners while an internal group works on recommendations. A city policy is expected this fall, and as yet, no per-bed fee rate has been set.

The Licensing Board for the City of Boston requires a lodging house license if lodgings are rented to four or more persons not within the second degree of kindred to the person conducting the lodging. This license is an annual requirement and a lodging house is further required to keep, in permanent form, a register of the true name and residence of occupants for a period of one year. Lodging house license may require upgrades with smoke detectors and fire prevention systems which may be cost prohibitive for any Airbnb host.

The Boston Inspectional Services Department requires that a property be registered if it is to be occupied without the owner of the property present. This registration is done on an annual basis and inspection of the property is required on a five (5) year cycle by the Inspectional Services Department. This regulation applies to “a non-owner occupied room or group of related rooms within a dwelling used or intended for use by one family or household for living, sleeping, cooking and eating.” More information is available here.

In the suburbs, Airbnb may also run afoul of zoning by-laws which regulate whether a home is a single family or multi-family dwelling.

Taxes. The City of Boston excise and convention center taxes (together known as room occupancy taxes) may apply to an Airbnb listing. Refer to the Massachusetts Room Occupancy Tax Guide for more details. In addition, the Massachusetts excise tax may also apply. Refer to Section 64G(3) of the State Tax Code.

Guests Considered Legal Tenants?

Airbnb offers rentals for a daily, weekly or monthly charge. Whether a guest would be considered a legal tenant entitled to the vast protections under Mass. law depends primarily on the length of the tenancy. Under state law, if the premises is deemed a rooming house or lodging house, a rental for three consecutive months constitutes a tenancy at will which can only be terminated with a rental period notice of at least 30 days. Occupancy of a dwelling unit within a rooming house or lodging house for more than 30 consecutive days and less than three consecutive months may be terminated only by seven (7) days notice in writing by the operator of the rooming house or lodging house to the occupant. A daily rental is a grey area and would likely be considered a mere license. However, in all instances, the host must use court eviction proceedings to evict the guest, and cannot resort to self-help such as changing the locks, lest they be subject to liability.

Apartments

If you have the chutzpah of renting out a room in your leased apartment via Airbnb, the rental will likely violate your lease’s provision against sub-leasing and your landlord will not be happy. Most standard form apartment leases provide that any sub-lease must have the written consent of the landlord so the landlord can control who occupies the unit. Most landlords I know will not approve of an Airbnb rental situation, unless they are getting income and are assured of the security and safety of the situation. Renting out your apartment through Airbnb can violate your lease and subject you to a quick exist via eviction. From one legal question and answer website, tenants are already facing eviction for using Airbnb.

Condominiums

If you are renting out a room in your condo, Airbnb rentals may also conflict with condominium rules and regulations, many of which prohibit short term rentals, business use of units, or both. I highly doubt your condominium association and fellow unit owners would be happy if a unit were turned into a revolving door of bed and breakfast guests. Most condominium documents provide for rules governing the type and length of rentals of units. Unit owners who violate these rules can be subject to fines, penalties and court action. These cases should be popping up more and more.

Mortgage and Homeowner Insurance Policy Ramifications

Most conventional single family and condominium Fannie Mae compliant mortgages contain a provision where the owner agrees that the mortgaged property will remain the borrower’s principal place of residence and not an investment property. Investment property mortgage typically carry a higher interest rate and are sold in a different category in the secondary mortgage market. Homeowners who make a practice of using Airbnb may unknowingly be violating their mortgage agreements by converting the property into in essence a rental property. The same holds true for a standard homeowner’s insurance policy. Turning your home into a bed and breakfast certainly raises a host of new risks for both the homeowner and the insurance company underwriting those risks. If there is an unfortunate accident involving an Airbnb guest, watch out because the insurance company could deny the claim due to converting the character of the insured property into a rental property.

What’s Next?

Airbnb is certainly a game-changing technology in the rental space. As is common with any new distruptive technology the law is just catching up. But the law will catch up and Airbnb hosts and guest must pay attention and comply with whatever regulations and law that are passed. Check back here for more developments as I will be monitoring the situation.

 

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eviction-notAvoid Being Dead On Arrival In Eviction Court

The first step in evicting any Massachusetts tenant is issuing a notice to quit which is a legal document formally notifying the tenant that his tenancy is being terminated for a particular reason and giving him the date upon which he must move out. There are very specific rules as to how the notice must be drafted, what it must say, and how it must be delivered. Any mistakes in providing a proper notice to quit can torpedo your eviction case before you even see a judge. Needless, to say I recommend hiring an experienced Massachusetts eviction attorney to handle drafting and serving the notice to quit. Here are all the various rules and considerations for sending out a notice to quit.

A.      Non-payment of Rent

One of the most common reasons for starting an eviction is for non-payment of rent. Whether the tenant has a written lease or is a tenant at will the landlord must send the tenant a 14 day “notice to quit” before starting the eviction process. The notice to quit will typically provide as follows:

Dear Mr. Tenant: This office represents your landlord, Mr. Landlord. You are hereby notified that your tenancy is terminated and to quit and deliver up and move out of the premises you now rent namely: 123 Main Street, Anytown, MA and all appurtenant uses thereto 14 days after your receipt of this notice. The reason for this notice is that you have failed to pay the rent due as follows: Total Owed: $7,200.00.

1. Service of the Notice

Many landlords believe that a notice to quit should be served by certified/registered mail. This is a very bad practice because the tenant can always avoid the mailman. In court, the landlord has the burden of proving that the tenant received the notice. The best practice is to have the notice to quit served by a constable or sheriff to ensure proof of delivery. Under the court rules, service by a constable or sheriff is “good service” whether the tenant is served in hand or the notice is left at the premises.

2.  Tenants At Will

If a landlord is sending a 14 day notice to quit for nonpayment to a tenant at will (as opposed to a tenant with a written lease for a set term), the notice must also include the following language:

 “If you have not received a notice to quit for nonpayment of rent within the last twelve months, you have a right to prevent termination of your tenancy by paying or tendering to your landlord, your landlord’s attorney or the person to whom you customarily pay your rent the full amount of rent due within ten days after your receipt of this notice.”

3. Calculating Notice Date

The next trap for the unwary is calculating the notice date. You cannot start the eviction until 14 days have elapsed since the tenant is served with the 14 day notice to quit. So you need to know exactly when the tenant was served so you can properly calculate the date upon which you can start summary process. If you start the eviction too early, the case will get dismissed.

4. Cure Rights

Landlords should also be aware that under tenant-friendly Massachusetts law, a tenant at will can cure and reinstate his tenancy by paying the outstanding rent (plus court costs if claimed) up to the Monday answer date in the eviction case — and most judges won’t evict any tenant who shows up to court fully paid up.

Sometimes, landlords make the mistake of accepting rent from a delinquent tenant without endorsing the check the proper way in order to avoid reinstating the tenants. If you receive a rental payment after a notice to quit is issued, you must endorse the check as follows:

“Accepted for use and occupancy only and not for rent”

Your notice to quit should also have the following non-waiver language:

If your tender of rent or payments does not comply with the requirements noted above or otherwise cure or excuse the breach as provided by law, any funds paid by you after the date of this notice shall be accepted for use and occupancy only and not for rent, shall not waive this notice or any subsequent eviction proceedings, nor shall it create or reinstate any tenancy.

B.      Termination of Tenancy At Will

Sometimes landlords just want to move on from a problematic tenant at will, raise their rent or change the lease terms. In these situations, landlords must serve a notice terminating tenancy at will. This is sometimes called a 30 day notice, but this is actually inaccurate because almost always more than 30 days notice is required to be given. It’s really a rental period notice.

Generally, at least a full rental period of notice must be given to a tenant at will, but the termination date must be at the end of the following rental period, or 30 days whichever is longer. For example, if you are terminating a tenancy at will on June 10, the notice must provide that the tenant must vacate by the following July 31. Terminating a tenancy at will in February will also be problematic.

In practice, judges will often give tenants in no-fault evictions a bit more leeway in terms of vacating the premises.

C.  Non-Renewal of Lease/Offer of New Tenancy

Most landlords get tripped up in the situation where a written lease self-extends but the landlords wants to raise the rent, change the lease terms or move on from the tenant. In this situation, a notice terminating tenancy must be issued to formally terminate the tenancy, coupled with an offer of a new lease/tenancy. If the tenant does not accept the offer of a new lease/tenancy, the tenancy will end on the date provided in the notice. If the landlord wants the tenant to move out, he doesn’t need an offer of a new tenancy obviously.

D.      For Cause Situations

“For cause” evictions encompass a wide range of bad behavior by tenants in violation of lease provisions or the law. It could be illegal activity, drug use, excessive noise, uncleanliness, harassment of other residents, non-approved “roommates” and the like. Like all other evictions, the landlord must issue a notice to quit to the tenant stating the specifics of the offenses. If the tenant has a standard form lease, the notice to quit will typically be a 7 day notice. For tenants without a written lease, it’s a gray area, but I would use a 30 day notice. For drugs and other illegal activity, Massachusetts also has a special expedited eviction process where you can go to court right away without any prior notice to quit, but the tenant is entitled to notice of the court proceeding and an opportunity to contest it and cross-examine witnesses.

Sending a proper notice to quit is merely the first step in the eviction process, but a very important one as it can get your case dismissed before a judge hears the merits of the case. There are so many other procedural traps for the unwary which follow during an eviction case. Again, if you are considering evicting a tenant, do not attempt to do it yourself.

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100316_photo_vetstein-2.pngIf you need assistance drafting and serving a notice to quit and evicting a tenant, please contact Attorney Richard Vetstein via email at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or telephone at 508-620-5352.

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