Housing Discrimination

Decision Could Have Wide Impact Upon Marijuana Use By Tenants

The law on marijuana and rental housing remains clouded to say the least. And that’s no pun. This week on April 8th, the Supreme Judicial Court will consider the first of probably many cases dealing with marijuana use in rental housing. In this particular case, Boston Housing Authority v. Figgs (SJC 11532), the high court will assess whether a state housing authority may evict a subsidized tenant and terminate her federal housing benefits for the alleged possession of less than one ounce of marijuana — which is no longer a criminal offense in Massachusetts, but still a crime under federal law. With the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, the rollout of the medical marijuana dispensaries and the conflict with federal drug laws, this case may have wide-ranging impacts upon the relationships of landlords, tenants, housing authorities and even condominium owners and trustees over the use of marijuana, both recreationally and medicinally.

Oral arguments are available via live stream here. Legal briefs and filings in the case can be found here. A final opinion and ruling is expected this summer.

This case should also put the new Medical Marijuana Law into re-focus. Landlords have been increasingly anxious about how to manage and regulate tenants’ use of medical and recreational marijuana, if at all. The law not only grants qualified patients the right to obtain medical marijuana but it also allows patients the right to grow a two-month supply of marijuana at home if they cannot get to a marijuana dispensary because they are too sick or too broke. There is a bill in the Legislature granting landlords the right to prohibit medical marijuana on rental property without fear of being sued for disability discrimination.

I’ll be monitoring this new and dynamic area of the law. It will surely be a hot topic in the next couple of years.

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100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experience Massachusetts landlord tenant and real estate attorney. If you are concerned or have questions about the new Medical Marijuana Law, please contact him atinfo@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

 

 

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Where-are-you-from-512x273Innocent Small Talk Apparently Illegal, According to Boston Fair Housing Commission

The seemingly innocent question posed by a Boston rental agent to Gladys Linder when they were searching for an apartment was “Where are you from?”

“Venezuela,” she answered.

Gladys and her husband went on to find an apartment a month later without further incident. But she found the question about her national origin insulting and upsetting.

This is Massachusetts, and you know what came next.

Stokel filed a complaint with the Boston Fair Housing Commission, claiming that rental agent’s question was discriminatory and caused her to suffer fear, anxiety and sleeplessness over a three-year period.

Seriously?

Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 151B and the Boston Fair Housing Commission Regulations make it illegal for any licensed real estate broker “to cause to be made any written or oral inquiry or record concerning . . . national origin.”

Although this was the agent’s first discrimination complaint and there was no discriminatory impact on the tenants at all, the Commission found that the question itself was unlawful and issued one of the largest penalties I have seen in recent years — $10,000 in emotional distress damages, plus $44,000 in attorney’s fees and costs and a $7,500 civil penalty against the broker — a whopping $61,500 in total liability for this single question, not to mention the tens of thousands the agent had to pay for defense legal fees.

The ruling can be found here:  Linder v. Boston Fair Housing Commission, Mass. Appeals Court (Dec. 17, 2013).

Appeals Court Uses Some Much Needed Common Sense

The case went up on appeal, and fortunately the Massachusetts Appeals Court exercised some common sense and slashed the award, likely by more than half pending further proceedings. But the court let stand the commission’s ruling that the one innocuous question did indeed violate the discrimination laws. So the broker will remain on the hook for a sizable liability.

Honestly, I’m having a lot of trouble with this ruling. It appears that the broker was simply engaging in some harmless small talk by asking the applicant where she was from. There was no evidence that the broker refused to rent to her or took any other discriminatory action against them. What if the applicant had a Southern accent and said she was from Alabama? That’s not illegal discrimination, but since she is from another county, it makes the question unlawful discrimination? Unbelievable! This is one of those cases where the anti-discrimination laws result in a totally absurd result.

So thank you to the Boston Fair Housing Commission for making small talk illegal. Unfortunately, the lesson to be learned from this case for rental agents and Realtors: Don’t ask a client where they are from. I kid you not. Only in Massachusetts…

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100316_photo_vetstein-2.pngRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who often consults with Realtors and rental agents on their legal and ethical duties. He can be reached at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Foreclosure2-300x225.jpgHousing Courts Will Likely Face Increased Caseload

Giving an early Christmas present to distressed homeowners, the Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that a foreclosed upon homeowner may challenge a bank’s title and foreclosure sale irregularities through counterclaims in a post-foreclosure eviction in the Housing Court — rather than being forced to file a separate equity lawsuit in the Superior Court. The case is Bank of America v. Rosa, SJC-11330 (Dec. 18, 2013).

The high court also held that the Housing Court has jurisdiction to hear other counterclaims against foreclosing lenders, including fair housing, consumer protection (Chapter 93A), and HAMP related claims.

The likely impact of this ruling will be that the already busy Housing Court will now be “Ground Zero” for foreclosure related litigation. Foreclosed property owners will have more weapons to delay and prevent being evicted after foreclosures.

Overall, while the ruling seeks to protect the rights of foreclosed property owners, it has the potential to delay the housing recovery in Massachusetts. The longer folks who don’t pay their mortgages are allowed to live rent free in their foreclosed houses, the more the housing market suffers. There are plenty of creditworthy buyers and investors willing and able to buy up and rehab these foreclosed properties. Letting them sit and blight neighborhoods doesn’t help anyone in the long run. Just my opinion…

The ruling is embedded below. (Click for link).

Bank of America v. Rosa

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New Online System Enables Landlords To Screen Tenants for Prior Evictions/Problems

After years of lobbying from rental housing groups, the Massachusetts Housing Court has finally announced a powerful new and free tool for tenant screening:  public internet access to all Summary Process, Small Claims, Civil and Supplementary Process case types. Case information can be accessed via the Trial Court’s eAccess internet site at www.masscourts.org.

The site allows users to conduct searches by case type, case number or case name. Users can find detailed instructions on the Housing Court page of the Trial Court’s website. Electronic access to all publicly available case types also continues to be available at public access computers at the five Housing Court divisions and at courthouses throughout the state.

This new system will enable landlords to research whether a potential or current tenant has been a party to a previous eviction, small claims or related housing case. Obviously, a rental applicant with a lengthy eviction history would not be a good candidate for rental housing.

I would caution landlords that despite whatever information may be gleaned from the new system, the fair housing and discrimination laws still remain in place. Under Massachusetts law, a landlord cannot refuse to rent to a tenant on the basis of the tenant’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, age, marital status, religion, military/veteran status, disability, receipt of public assistance, and children (except for an owner occupied two family dwelling).

Denial of rental applications must be based on non-discriminatory reasons, and a lengthy eviction history where the tenant was found liable for nonpayment or other serious violations of a lease would arguably qualify as such.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts landlord tenant and eviction attorney. You can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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Largest Lead Paint Penalty On Record for Attorney General Coakley

Landlords with lead paint beware…enforcement of the state’s strict Lead Paint Law remains a priority for Attorney General Coakley’s office. The AG just hit a Boston area property owner with the largest fine on record — $75,000 — and ordered him to de-lead his rental units, resolving allegations that he engaged in a pattern of unlawful and retaliatory practices against tenants with young children in order to avoid his obligation to comply with state lead paint laws. The AG’s press release can be read here.

The offending landlord is Keith L. Miller, of Newton, who at the time owned and managed at least 24 residential rental units in Chelsea, Newton, Arlington, and Brighton. This is the largest fair housing settlement with a landlord that has been reached under AG Coakley.

The Massachusetts Lead Paint Law, one of the strictest in the U.S., imposes a mandatory obligation to de-lead if there is a child under 6 residing in the rental premises. A property owner or real estate agent cannot get around the law simply by refusing to rent to families with young children. They also cannot refuse to renew the lease of a pregnant woman or a family with young children just because a property may contain lead hazards. And property owners cannot refuse to rent simply because they do not want to spend the money to de-lead the property. Any of these acts is a violation of the Lead Law, the Consumer Protection Act, and various Massachusetts anti-discrimination statutes that can have serious penalties for a property owner or real estate agent.

The state has several lead paint financial assistance programs to help landlords pay for de-leading costs which can be quite expensive.

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alg-domestic-violence-illustration-jpgUnder the new Massachusetts Domestic Violence Act recently signed into law, victims of sexual assault and stalking have the right to break their leases without significant financial penalty, have the landlord change their locks, and other important protections. 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 victim provides the proper notice, she will be relieve of financial liability for 30 days or one full rental period of rent, plus a return of any last month’s rent and security deposit.
  • The new law applies to anyone in the renter’s household.
  • Victims of sexual assault or stalking may require that the landlord change the unit’s locks within 48 hours 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 the lock-out the perpetrator by changing the locks and withholding the new key.
  • Landlord’s who comply with the new law are generally absolved from liability to the perpetrator.
  • Noncompliance with the new law can result in damages 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. A link to the new Massachusetts domestic violence law can be found here. 

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney who frequently advises landlords on their legal obligations under Massachusetts landlord and tenant law.

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Concern Over 60 Day Supply Provision & Federal Ban On Pot

Burned up Massachusetts landlords are fuming with concern over the state’s newly passed but hazy medicinal marijuana law. The law — rolling out Jan. 1 — grants medical marijuana users the right to grow a two-month supply of weed at home if they cannot get to a marijuana dispensary because they are too sick or too broke. The new law also potentially opens landlords up to federal prosecution for violating the federal controlled substances laws.

Skip Schloming, executive director of the state’s Small Property Owners Association, expressed deep concern about the 60-day supply provision:

“You could have as many as 24 plants that are 6 feet tall,” Schloming told the Herald. “And that could cause all sorts of property damage, from water damage, to mold and humidity, to wiring issues that could cause a fire. … This has the potential to be a disaster.”

The SPOA called for a 6 month delay in implementing the law.

I hate to be a “buzz kill” for medical marijuana users, but I believe the landlords have a legitimate gripe. In the landlord-tenant context, landlords own the property and remain primarily responsible for what goes on in their apartment buildings. I’m no weed expert, but imagine a small studio apartment loaded with a veritable jungle of pot plants — a prospect which would frighten any residential landlord for a number of reasons.

First, a medical marijuana grower could be targeted for burglarization. If they are truly sick and broke enough to qualify as home growers, then they would be equally vulnerable to pot bandits stealing their stash.

Second, maintaining marijuana cultivation requires specialized equipment not necessarily compatible with close-knit apartment living. I did some research, and found this website dedicated to hydroponic growing equipment. Growing marijuana plants is fairly sophisticated. Growers need to monitor pH and moisture levels, carbon dioxide outputs and germination of seeds. Failure of this equipment could conceivably cause mold, mildew and other damage to interior units.

Bay State landlords are also concerned about running afoul of federal drug laws as marijuana remains a federally prohibited controlled substance. Landlords are begging Beacon Hill lawmakers to give them the right to refuse to rent to tenants who grow pot for medical use over fears their property could be seized. As reported in the Boston Herald, commercial and residential landlords are right to worry, drug forfeiture attorneys say, because landlords can be charged as conspirators if their tenants are targeted by the feds.

No matter landlords’ concerns, medical marijuana is here to stay in Massachusetts. It will be up to the state Department of Public Health — the same agency rocked by the highly publicized state crime lab fiasco — to enact sensible rules and regulations governing medical marijuana. Let’s hope that the DPH considers the practicalities and logistics for marijuana growing in tight-knit apartment buildings. Strict rules on home growing eligibility are a must. Same for the approval of safe, tested growing equipment. Immunizing landlords from liability for medical marijuana growing or use by tenants would be another good idea.

We will see how it all plays out on Beacon Hill…

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney who handles landlord-tenant matters and evictions throughout the state. He can be reached at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

 

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Worcester Diocese Allegedly Pulled Out of Deal Over Possibility Of Gay Marriages at Mansion

James Fairbanks and Alain Beret, married business partners from Sutton, had been searching for the perfect property for nearly two years when they discovered Oakhurst, an aging mansion on 26 beautiful acres in Northbridge. The former retreat center, which was affiliated with the Diocese of Worcester and had been on the market for some time, would be the ideal spot for their next venture: an inn that would host weddings and other big events, as reported by the Boston Globe. When the Diocese of Worcester unexpectedly dropped out of negotiations with them in June, Fairbanks and Beret were shocked — and flummoxed. Then, they say, a church attorney inadvertently forwarded their broker an e-mail from Monsignor Thomas Sullivan, chancellor of the diocese, advising a church broker that he was no longer interested in selling to Fairbanks and Beret “because of a potentiality of gay marriages” there.

Sullivan wrote: “I just went down the hall and discussed it with the bishop.  Because of the potentiality of gay marriages there, something you shared with us yesterday, we are not interested in going forward with these buyers. I think they’re shaky anyway. So, just tell them that we will not accept their revised plan and the diocese is making new plans for the property. You find the language.”

Today, the gay couple filed what could be a landmark lawsuit in Worcester Superior Court against Sullivan, the bishop, the church’s real estate agent, and the nonprofit retreat center, the House of Affirmation, alleging they discriminated against Beret and Fairbanks on the basis of sexual orientation in the course of a real estate negotiation, violating state law. A copy of the Complaint in Fairbanks, et al. v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Worcester, et al. is embedded below.

A spokesperson for the church told the Globe that the church, as a matter of policy, will not sell properties where Masses have been celebrated to people who plan to host same-sex weddings. The church will not sell to developers who plan to transform them into abortion clinics either, he said — or to bars, lounges, or other kinds of uses that church officials deem inappropriate. “We wouldn’t sell our churches and our properties to any of a number of things that would reflect badly on the church,” he said. “These buildings are sacred to the memory of Catholics.”

In an even more ironic twist, the Diocese previously used the mansion for a retreat center for pedophile priests, according to Banker & Tradesman.

Watching this case play out will certainly be very interesting both from a legal and political perspective. Massachusetts — the birthplace of gay marriage — is one of the few states in the country which outlaws housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. One of the questions will be whether the Church is covered under the anti-discrimination law given their historical stance against homosexuals and gay marriage.

Also, as I pointed out to a reporter covering this story, the church could have negotiated a restriction on the future use of the property, which is common for sales involving open space, recreational use and such. It appears that the church did not do this, but instead came up with a pre-textual reason after the fact to support their decision not to proceed with the sale due to the gay marriage issue. We will be monitoring this interesting case!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney with offices in Framingham and Needham, Mass. He can be reached at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

Complaint | Fairbanks v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Worcester, Mass.

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School is back and summer is over. September 1 and the start of the new rental cycle is right around the corner. It’s time to review my best practices to get trouble-free, paying tenants in your Massachusetts rental property.

Screening Prospective Massachusetts Renters: What You Can and Cannot Ask

Landlords can legally ask prospective renters about the following:

  • income and current employment
  • prior landlord references
  • credit history
  • criminal history

Your rental application should include a full release of all credit history and CORI (Criminal Offender Registry Information). Use CORI information with caution, however, and offer the tenant an opportunity to explain any issues. Landlords should also check the Sex Offender Registry as they can be held liable for renting to a known offender. Use the rental application and other forms from the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

Landlords cannot ask about the following:

  • race, color, national origin, ancestry, or gender
  • sexual orientation
  • age
  • marital status
  • religion
  • military/veteran status
  • disability, receipt of public assistance
  • children.

If you deny a renter’s application, it should be based on financial reasons, such as questionable credit, income or rental history. Stay away from reasons related to children, public assistance and the like. Be aware that this time of year the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and Attorney General’s Office send out dummy rental applicants in an attempt to catch unwary landlords who deny housing for discriminatory reasons.

Students, especially undergraduates, often create problems for landlords. It’s important to meet with students personally before signing the lease and firmly explain a “no tolerance” policy against excessive noise, parties and misbehavior. Remember, under a two year old Boston zoning ordinance, no more than four (4) full time undergraduate students may live together in a single apartment.

Careful screening of tenants is far less expensive than the cost of evicting a problem tenant.

My Property Has Lead Paint. Can I Refuse To Rent to Tenants With Small Kids?

The answer is no, but many landlords do so (unlawfully) under the guise of financial reasons. The Attorney General has been cracking down on these practice:  Two Local Real Estate Firms Fined By Mass. Attorney General For Lead Paint Housing Discrimination.

Under the Massachusetts Lead Paint Law, whenever a child under six years of age comes to live in a rental property, the property owner has a responsibility to discover whether there is any lead paint on the property and to de-lead to protect the young children living there. A property owner or real estate agent cannot get around the legal requirements to disclose information about known lead hazards simply by refusing to rent to families with young children. They also cannot refuse to renew the lease of a pregnant woman or a family with young children just because a property may contain lead hazards. Landlords cannot refuse to rent simply because they do not want to spend the money to de-lead the property. Any of these acts is a violation of the Lead Law, the Consumer Protection Act, and various Massachusetts anti-discrimination statutes that can have serious penalties for a property owner or real estate agent.

For more information about Massachusetts rental screening, landlord-tenant law and evictions, please read these articles or contact me below. I would be happy to help you get good tenants.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate and eviction attorney. For more information, please contact him at 508-620-5352 or info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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By Karen Rabinovici, UConn Law ’12

It seems more outdated than hair scrunchies, something we witnessed years ago: discrimination against pregnant women seeking mortgage loans. Apparently it’s still going on and worse than ever which is why the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is investigating numerous cases of alleged pregnancy discrimination in lending. The New York Times recently wrote about it: Seeking a Mortgage, Don’t Get Pregnant.

Spurred by the financial crisis, lenders have created more stringent guidelines for granting loans to borrowers looking to buy homes, and have zoned in on pregnant women, essentially deeming them to be liabilities. Lenders are equivocating maternity leave with unemployment, which results in automatic disqualification or reduced buying power for a loan. Although some women on maternity leave can be entitled to temporary disability insurance, this disability insurance may not be used as qualifying income because it is allocated for a period of time less than three years. Women who are on maternity for only a few weeks are also affected, so the range of women denied loans is vast.

In the past, maternity leave was considered a break from work and was not taken into account when considering whether or not to grant a loan. In this financial climate, however, maternity leave has come to be viewed differently – as complete unemployment. So, lenders will not approve a loan until the mother is officially back at work. This subjects women to more red tape:  providing documents from their employers specifying the length of their maternity leave and the date of their return to work, as well as letters from their doctors, and other information deemed relevant.

These new guidelines have resulted in too many claims of discrimination from pregnant women to ignore, and thus has resulted in the HUD investigation. If HUD concludes that discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers is indeed taking place, this could be a violation of the Fair Housing Act, one purpose of which is to protect families.

Some results of all this are that families are forced to wait until the mother returns to work (possibly rushing maternity leave), families are altogether giving up on buying homes, or families are purchasing homes that they can afford on one salary.

Families are feeling punished for having babies, and the irony that most families are buying new homes in the first place because they are expecting children does not fail to come through.

While tougher standards for approving loans have become an obvious step to take by lenders, these types of resulting consequences walk a dangerous line between what needs to be done, and unfair treatment towards one group of people. In either case, the allegations of discrimination against pregnant women reek of the sexism that was rampant in the professional world decades ago.

What do you think? Are pregnant women being treated unfairly, or are they indeed a liability to lenders because of the income gap resulting from their maternity leave?

Related Articles:

Pregnant Women Losing Out On Home Loans, Change.org

Pregnant Women Denied Loans? Realtor.com

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In a few weeks, the *quiet* streets of Allston, Brighton, Cambridge, Boston and other Massachusetts tenant friendly cities will turn into the zoo that is known as student moving week. So it’s time to review frequently asked questions for Massachusetts landlord tenant rental law.

Screening Prospective Tenants

Landlords can legally ask about a tenant’s income, current employment, prior landlord references, credit history, and criminal history. Your rental application should include a full release of all credit history and CORI (Criminal Offender Registry Information).  Use CORI information with a great deal of caution, however, and offer the tenant an opportunity to explain any issues. Landlords should also check the Sex Offender Registry to ascertain whether a potential tenant could be a safety risk to others nearby. Use the rental application and other forms from the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

Under Massachusetts discrimination laws, a landlord cannot refuse to rent to a tenant on the basis of the tenant’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, age, marital status, religion, military/veteran status, disability, receipt of public assistance, and children. It’s best to stay away from asking about these topics.

The Boston Undergraduate Rule

Update: Dec. 2011Renting To 4 or More College Students Considered Illegal Lodging House. Click Here to Read More.

Under a two year old Boston zoning ordinance, no more than four (4) full time undergraduate students may live together in a single apartment.  The rule does not apply to graduate students or fraternity/sorority houses. The fines for violating this ordinance are stiff; don’t do it.

While on this topic, landlords should ensure that all roommates are signatories to the lease and are “jointly and severally” liable for rent. That way, if one tenant skips out, the remaining tenants remain liable for the full rent.

Students often create problems for landlords. Meet with students personally before signing the lease and firmly explain a “no tolerance” policy against excessive noise, parties and misbehavior. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure here.

Pets

Subject to some restrictions, landlords may prohibit pets altogether or use reasonable rules to control them on rental property. Under federal law, a landlord cannot prohibit a qualified disabled tenant from using a service pet such as a seeing eye dog. There are also restrictions on prohibiting household pets for federally subsidized elderly and disabled housing project.

More topics, including last month/security deposits and illegal lease clauses, to follow next!

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Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley today announced that her office has settled 20 cases against landlords and real estate agents accused of violating state anti-discrimination laws across Massachusetts. The companies allegedly made discriminatory statements in online rental advertisements on Craigslist.org which stated “no children” or “no Section 8.” Section 8 is a rental subsidy program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Under Massachusetts law, landlords and realtors cannot refuse to rent to families with children under the lead paint law or because someone receives a housing subsidy to aid in paying their rent. Both the settlements and lawsuits came as part of a statewide investigation into reports of widespread discriminatory internet advertising. The case involved properties in Suffolk, Middlesex, Norfolk, Essex, Bristol, Plymouth, and Hampden counties.

Housing discrimination is a serious problem in Massachusetts. Particularly as more families face tough financial times and have no choice but to rent, landlords and real estate professionals must recognize that the rental market is a regulated industry and compliance with our anti-discrimination laws is among their most important obligations, Coakley said. While we hope that this enforcement initiative will have a deterrent effect, our office will continue to monitor Craigslist and take action against persons and entities that violate the law.

The property owners and real estate agents are collectively required to pay Massachusetts $18,250 with $8,750 suspended pending compliance with the agreements. They must also attend trainings on state and federal fair housing laws and remove lead paint hazards from rental units. The defendants are also required by the agreement to advertise any future rental property as “Equal Housing Opportunity” properties, to maintain a record of rental applicants submitted by prospective tenants and to to report all discrimination complaints received to the attorney general’s office. The defendants will also place more than 60 postings on Craigslist to inform the website’s uses that the attorney general monitors the site for discriminatory advertising and that it is against Massachusetts law to state a discriminatory preference against families with children or against recipients of housing assistance subsidies.

We’ll have to file this one under “I told you so!” In my prior post, Massachusetts Landlord Tenant Law: A Legal Refresher Course For Landlords, I warned landlords about the consequences of an illegal policy of refusing to rent to families with children or to tenants receiving federal or state rent subsidies. I’m disappointed these landlords are apparently not avid readers of the Massachusetts Real Estate Law Blog!

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istock_000008947813xsmall-300x223.jpgWith the impending influx of renters and students invading the Greater Boston area soon, let’s review some often asked questions concerning Massachusetts landlord tenant law to assist landlords in navigating the rental process.

Screening Prospective Tenants: What You Can and Cannot Ask?

Landlords can legally ask about a tenant’s income, current employment, prior landlord references, credit history, and criminal history. Your rental application should include a full release of all credit history and CORI (Criminal Offender Registry Information).  Use CORI information with a great deal of caution, however, and offer the tenant an opportunity to explain any issues. Landlords should also check the Sex Offender Registry as they can be held liable for renting to a known offender. Use the rental application and other forms from the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

Under Massachusetts discrimination laws, a landlord cannot refuse to rent to a tenant on the basis of the tenant’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, age, marital status, religion, military/veteran status, disability, receipt of public assistance, and children. It’s best to stay away from asking about these topics.

Students, especially undergraduates, often create problems for landlords. Meet with students personally before signing the lease and firmly explain a “no tolerance” policy against excessive noise, parties and misbehavior.

Careful screening of tenants is far less expensive than the cost of evicting a problem tenant.

Security And Last Month’s Rent Deposits:  Should I Take One?

I advise landlords not to take security deposits because any misstep, however innocent, under the complex Massachusetts security deposit law can subject the landlord to far greater liability than the deposit. Among other requirements, the security deposit law provides:

  • a landlord must give the tenant a written receipt with information as to where the deposit is being held;
  • a landlord must hold a security deposit in a separate interest bearing account, and pay interest to the tenant yearly;
  • at the beginning of the tenancy, a landlord must provide the tenant with a written “statement of condition” of the rental unit detailing its condition and any damage;
  • the tenant may note any damage on the statement of condition
  • At the end of the tenancy, if the landlord desires to deduct repair costs from the security deposit, it must provide the tenant with written notification and copies of all estimates within 30 days of the tenant’s move-out.

Under the law, any slip-up on these requirements can subject the landlord to liability for 3 times the deposit plus the tenant’s attorneys’ fees. That’s why I advise my landlord clients that security deposits aren’t worth the money. If you need a deposit, take a last month’s deposit, the requirements of which can be found here in the Massachusetts last month’s deposit law.

Due to the high interest in security deposits, I wrote a full post on the topic.  Click on Massachusetts Security Deposits to view the article.

My Property Has Lead Paint, What Do I Do?

Under the Massachusetts Lead Paint Law, landlords (and real estate agents) must disclose to tenants the presence of known lead paint for property built before 1978. The property must be de-leaded if a child under 6 will live there. That means if a young couple moves into a unit, then has a baby, the landlord must de-lead the property. There is no way around de-leading other than risking a discrimination claim for not renting to families with small children which is illegal. (Of course, many landlords unlawfully reject families with children). Exposing children to lead paint puts a landlord at huge legal risk.  Financial aid and tax credits for de-leading are available to qualified property owners. For all Massachusetts rental property built before 1978, landlords must provide all tenants regardless of family composition with a Massachusetts Tenant Notification and Certification form, and all lead inspection reports and testing information, if available.

Can I Take A Finder’s Fee?

Only a licensed real estate broker can lawfully collect a finder’s fee for bringing together a landlord and a tenant.  Landlords who don’t work with brokers cannot charge a finder’s fee.

For more information, I recommend reading the Landlord’s Guide To the Law by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts landlord tenant and eviction attorney. Please contact him with any questions.

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