Landlord Tenant Law

Bill Sent to Study Committee, Effectively Killing It

After intense lobbying on both sides by property owner groups and tenant rights activities, lawmakers sent the Jim Brooks Community Stabilization Act to study effectively killing it for this legislative session. The Act, a Home Rule Petition requiring full State House approval, would require that a landlord or foreclosing owner provide a city-approved “notice of basic rights” and a list of tenant assistance organizations simultaneously with the issuance of a notice to quit/termination or notice of lease renewal/expiration. It also provided that tenants of foreclosed properties could only be evicted for certain “just cause” reasons. The Boston City Council had originally approved the measure in November 2017, but state lawmakers had to approve it as well. Property owner groups were vehemently opposed to the measure, asserting that it was actually a return to Rent Control.

The reactions by proponents and opponents of the bill were naturally mixed on social media. Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, a supporter of the measure, said that the bill “was not supported by the Judiciary Committee…but where it stands now is not promising.” The bill was vehemently opposed by property owner groups, such as Masslandlords.com and the Small Property Owners Association, which mounted a strong coordinated campaign to lobby legislators.

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New Judges to Serve Expanded Statewide Jurisdiction

In the 2018 Fiscal Year budget, the jurisdiction of the Housing Court expanded to full state-wide coverage, and with it, the Legislature created five new judgeships. Earlier this week, Governor Charlie Baker nominated five attorneys as new Associate Justices to the Housing Court:

Donna T. Salvidio of Worcester nominated as a Circuit Justice
Neil K. Sherring of Westwood nominated as a Circuit Justice
Joseph L. Michaud of Dartmouth nominated to the Metro South Division
Irene Bagdoian of Westborough nominated to the Metro South Division
Gustavo A. del Puerto of Salem nominated to the Northeastern Division

Each judge must be approved by the Governor’s Council before stepping onto the bench. While I do not know all the nominees personally, this group appears to have very solid experience and background. I look forward to seeing them before the Governor’s Council and hopefully on the bench.

Donna Salvidio currently leads the Condominium Law Practice Group within the Real Estate department at Fletcher Tilton PC in Worcester. Click here for her Firm Biography. Her work covers a full spectrum of real estate related matters, with particular emphasis on residential housing law, condominium law, property management, commercial leasing and transactional work. She has over 27 years of experience in residential housing law including landlord-tenant law and the development of affordable housing. Attorney Salvidio served as Board President of Worcester Community Housing Resources, Inc., a non-profit which creates and preserves affordable housing opportunities for low to moderate income households, and is currently a member of its Property Development and Management Committee. She also served on the Housing Court Committee of the Worcester County Bar Association and was a Commissioner of the Worcester Civic Center Commission for 10 years. Attorney Salvidio received her Bachelor’s Degree cum laude in Psychology from the University of Vermont and her Juris Doctor cum laude from Suffolk University Law School where she served as an editor of the Suffolk University Law Review. She currently resides in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Neil Sherring has 25 years of experience practicing law. Since 2001, he has been a partner in his own law firm Dakoyannis & Sherring, LLC, where he concentrates on landlord tenant and real estate related cases, personal injury claims, insurance disputes, and employment discrimination claims. Previously, he was a trial attorney at Mintz, Levin. Attorney Sherring also has a wealth of experience representing the Commonwealth as an Assistant Attorney General, Assistant District Attorney for  the Northwestern District of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Superior Court Law Clerk and Hearing Officer for the Division of Insurance. He has served as the Deputy Commissioner of the State Athletic Commission and has been a frequent lecturer at Suffolk University and Curry College. Within his community, he is a current Board Member of the Westwood Community Chest, where he has also served as President and Vice President. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree from Curry College and his Juris Doctorate from Suffolk University Law School. He resides in Westwood with his family.

Joseph Michaud has been practicing law for 25 years. He is currently an attorney partner at his own practice, the Law Offices of Joseph L. Michaud, where he specializes in residential and commercial real estate transactions and landlord-tenant matters. Attorney Michaud is also a decorated member of the United States Army, having served on active duty intermittently for the last 30 years as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Judge Advocates General Corps. He first enlisted as a Tanker in 1986, and went on to serve in both Desert Storm and Operation Noble Eagle. Attorney Michaud has earned 3 Meritorious Service Medals, 6 Army Commendations, a Joint Service Achievement Medal, a National Defense Medal, a Global War on Terrorism Medal, and an Outstanding Volunteer Medal. Attorney Michaud continues to serve his local community as Chair of the South Coast Chamber of Commerce in New Bedford and as a Board Member of the Veterans’ Transition House. He graduated with his Bachelor’s Degree from University of Massachusetts in Amherst and received a Master’s of Arts from Sam Houston State University. He earned his Juris Doctorate from the Franklin Pierce Law Center at the University of New Hampshire. Attorney Michaud is a lifelong resident of Dartmouth, MA. In his spare time, you can find him playing bass guitar in a local band.

Irene Bagdoian has practiced law in the Commonwealth for nearly thirty years. During the last decade, she has been a solo legal practitioner at her own law firm in Brockton, representing individuals and businesses in civil litigation matters related to housing, foreclosure, real estate, and consumer protection. She was one of the founders of the Brockton Housing Court Lawyer for the Day Program, which provides advice to unrepresented landlords and tenants, and has organized educational programming for volunteer lawyer programs in collaboration with the Southeastern Housing Court for the past nine years. Attorney Bagdoian is a member of the Steering Committee for the Tenancy Preservation Program and a Board Member of the Justice Center of Southeast MA. She graduated with her Bachelor’s Degree from Wheaton College in Norton, MA and received her Juris Doctorate from Boston University School of Law. She resides in Westborough with her husband, Paul Sangree.

Gustavo del Puerto has nearly 25 years practicing law in Massachusetts. He currently serves as Assistant Clerk Magistrate in the Northeast Housing Court. Prior to that, he practiced as a Senior Associate at Sassoon & Cymrot in Boston where he focused on commercial litigation, including the resolution of contract, business, and construction disputes, tort matters and the protection of creditors’ rights. Attorney del Puerto served as Counsel for the Chelsea Commission on Hispanic Affairs, Inc., where he also provided pro-bono work for immigration law. Attorney del Puerto earned his Bachelor of Arts from the College of the Holy Cross, and his Juris Doctorate from Northeastern University’s School of Law. He currently resides in Salem, MA.

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Landlord Attorneys Active In Court and In Legislature On Rent Escrow Issue

Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly Reporter Patrick Murphy just did a great write up of the current state of Rent Escrow in the Legislature and at the Housing Court. As reported by Mr. Murphy, attorneys representing residential landlords (like myself) are hopeful that this is the year the Legislature closes what is perceived to be a loophole that allows tenants to remain in possession of the premises rent-free during eviction proceedings. Bills moving through both the House and Senate would require judges to order tenants to pay rent into escrow during the pendency of a case upon motion by property owners. In the meantime, Housing Court judges including Marylou Muirhead (pictured below) are becoming more receptive to approving motions for rent escrow filed by landlord attorneys.

Free rent trickery?

As I’ve written on this Blog, the Massachusetts eviction system contains a loophole that allows tenants to avoid paying rent while a dispute is pending. Specifically, they point to G.L.c. 239, §8A, which authorizes tenants to raise defenses or counterclaims — such as those alleging the landlord’s breach of the terms of the lease or housing code violations — justifying the withholding of rent. In terms of the escrow of rent, the statute provides that the court, after hearing the case, “may” require the tenant to pay to the clerk of the court “the fair value of the use and occupation of the premises,” less any amount awarded on the tenant’s claims.

We call this the “Free Rent Trick” — where the tenant will stop paying rent and file a complaint with the local board of health over minor code violations, such as a broken window screen. Rent accrues as the landlord gets around to hiring a lawyer to file a 14-day notice to quit the premises and commence summary process. Three to five months of rent may have accrued before a case is typically heard, and tenants can extend the process another three to six months, depending on the court, by requesting a jury trial.

Rare win for landlords?

As Mr. Murphy highlighted in his article, I recently succeeded in obtaining a rare rent escrow order in Worcester Housing Court in a case in which months of back rent had accrued before I ever became involved in the matter. In Eda Ema, LLC v. Kirby, Judge MaryLou Muirhead (pictured right) ordered the tenant to begin making escrow payments of $975 a month, reflecting the terms of her lease. The tenant owed $12,675 in past due rent at the time the case was filed in January.

The case points to the plight of many landlords even if they are ultimately successful in obtaining a judgment against the tenant for back rent. Such judgments are often uncollectible. However, the escrow order I obtained in Eda Ema is a rarity in my experience, with several Housing Court judges and most District Court judges still resistant to ordering such relief.

Pending Rent Escrow Bills

Putting an end to the so-called “free rent trick” in Massachusetts is long overdue, according to my colleague Brighton landlord attorney Emil Ward who has drafted Senate Bill 778, calling for mandatory rent escrow.

Another bill, House rent escrow bill, H. 980, was filed in January 2017 by Middlesex Democrat Rep. Chris Walsh. The bill would amend G.L.c. 239, §8A, to provide that “the court after hearing shall require” the tenant to pay into escrow “the amounts due for use and occupancy, calculated according to the fair market value of the premises.”

 

Walsh said his bill is intended to help small landlords, many who have complained to him in the past about being victimized by the free rent ploy. He said he has heard complaints of tenants who knew how to “work the system,” invoking housing regulations to “essentially stop paying rent.”

While we haven’t been successful in getting a rent escrow bill passed, I’m hopeful that Legislators are finally listening to landlords’ legitimate concerns that the eviction playing deck is stacked against them.

As always, I will keep tabs on these developments.

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Property Owners Vehemently Opposed to “Right of First Refusal” Proposals Giving Tenants Up to 240 Days to Purchase Rental Properties For Sale

In an effort to stem the affordable housing problem, cities like Cambridge and Somerville are exploring giving tenants a legal right to purchase the homes and apartments they are renting when owners go to sell them on the open market. The concept is a “right of first refusal” which would be triggered when the owner lists the property for sale and gets a bona fide offer from a third party buyer. Under the Cambridge proposal embedded below, a tenant would have up to 240 days to put down a deposit, obtain financing and close on the purchase, and would also have the right to assign the contract to a non-profit housing trust for affordable housing. The proposed law would apply to all rented single family homes, condominium units, multifamily and apartment buildings except owner two-family residences fully owner occupied or with one of the units occupied by the owner’s immediate family. (These definitions are somewhat unclear).  

Somerville State Senator Denise Provost originally filed a Tenant Right to Purchase Bill with the Legislature, but it did not move past committee. Now, Cambridge and Somerville are considering Home Rule Petitions to pass their own Right of First Refusal laws. If these proposals gain traction, they could spread to other cities and towns like Boston.

Property owner groups vehemently oppose these proposals. A similar proposal was passed in Washington, D.C, and the Huffington Post has exposed how it’s been an abysmal failure and abused by tenants. As the HuffPost, writes, “some tenants are using [the Act] to extract money from landlords, should a landlord decide to sell a building. At present, TOPA is holding up or blocking real estate transactions, causing grief for developers and homeowners and victimizing low-income residents stuck living in buildings owners are unable to sell but forced to maintain at a financial loss.”

I agree that this would be a terrible idea and extremely unfair to Massachusetts property owners. No, it’s not just terrible. It’s crazy and socialist. First, any sale of rental property is always subject to an existing tenancy or lease. That’s been the law in Massachusetts for centuries. So renters are already protected from displacement. Second, the proposal would wreck havoc on the local real estate market and skew free market dynamics. The Cambridge law would give tenants with no skin in the game 8 months to purchase a property. That’s 3 real estate cycles! Knowing that any offer would be subject to a tenant right of first refusal, investors would avoid making offers for occupied properties for sale, or would reduce offering prices, thus chilling sales. Tenants would be able to “flip” their right of first refusal to local nonprofits for affordable housing, walking away with a tidy profit. There are much better ways to create affordable housing than this idea.

Update (3/6/18): After Owner Outcry, Cambridge City Council Votes Down Proposal

Cambridge MA Tenant Right of First Refusal Home Rule Petition by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Property Owners — Shovel Early and Often!

As I sit here working from home watching the “Bomb Cyclone” storm make its way up the East Coast, the clicks on my blog searching for “Massachusetts snow removal law” are going as rapidly upward as the barometric pressure of this “Bombogensis” storm system. Massachusetts law underwent a monumental change back in 2010 with a Supreme Judicial Court decision overruling the 125 year old “Massachusetts Rule” which allowed property owners to leave “natural” accumulations of snow and avoid liability. Now, all Massachusetts property owners are under a legal duty to keep their property free from dangerous snow and ice. Moreover, cities and towns have been passing all types of new snow removal ordinances and by-laws regulating whether owners must shovel public/private sidewalks, and how long they have to clear snow. So let’s do a quick Frequently Asked Question post.

I own a rental property with a driveway and one common walkway and entrance. Am I responsible for shoveling snow on the driveway and/or walkway?

My opinion is the answer is yes. Under the previously referenced 2010 Supreme Judicial Court ruling, all property owners (rental or owner occupied) can be held liable for failing to remove snow and ice from their property. The old rule was that owners didn’t have to remove “natural accumulations” of snow and ice, but the court overruled that in favor of a general obligation to keep property safe for all visitors and guests. There are also many local town and city ordinances which likewise obligate property owners to keep snow and ice off their property and sidewalks. I will discuss some of those below.

Can I use a lease which provides that the tenant is responsible for snow removal. Is that legal and will that protect me from liability?

It depends on your particular property. Landlords have the primary responsibility for snow removal at a rental property. Under the State Sanitary Code, property owners/landlords must keep all means of egress free from obstruction — that cannot be negotiated away. As for the removal of snow and ice, the Code provides that the landlord shall maintain all means of egress at all times in a safe, operable condition and shall keep all exterior stairways, fire escapes, egress balconies and bridges free of snow and ice. Again, those obligations cannot be negotiated away.

A landlord may require the tenant be responsible for snow and ice remove in a lease provision only where a dwelling has an independent means of egress, not shared with other occupants, and a written lease provides for same. On its face, this exception only applies to entrance-ways and not driveways or parking areas. I am not aware of a court ruling on this particular Code provision, but if I were a landlord I would not risk being on the wrong side of a “test case” where someone is injured badly.

So, in the example above with an owner occupied two family with one common entrance and driveway, that lease provision would be illegal.

Even if the tenant is responsible for snow removal under a legal lease provision, the landlord could still face personal injury liability for slip and falls on snow and ice under the SJC ruling.  A guest or visitor who is injured due to untreated snow or ice will likely sue both the property owner and the tenant. The property owner must ultimately ensure that the property is safe for visitors.

How soon do I have to shovel the snow before I get in legal trouble?

The City of Boston’s policy is to give businesses 3 hours to clean snow, and 6 hours to residents. In Worcester, it’s 10 hours to clear snow. Those are the minimums. As with any dangerous condition, my advice is to shovel and treat snow and ice early and often. Even a thin coating of black ice can cause someone to slip and fall and seriously hurt themselves. (Admit it if you’ve dumped on your rear end like I have!). If you are an out-of-town landlord, you must hire someone to shovel your snow.

Am I required to shovel the public sidewalk in front of my house/business after a storm?

In most Massachusetts towns and cities, the answer is yes. Check your local town ordinances for guidance. The cities of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington, Belmont, Newton, Lynn, and Worcester (among others) all require property owners and businesses to clear municipal sidewalks in front of their residences or businesses. Fines are assessed against non-compliance. In Somerville, for example, if snow ceases to fall after sunrise (during daylight hours), property owners must shovel sidewalks by 10 p.m, and if snow ceases to fall after sunset (overnight), property owners must shovel sidewalks by 10 a.m. You can also be fined for shoveling snow onto the street, blocking a curb cut or putting snow on municipal owned property.

In some more residential towns, the local DPW will clear the sidewalks, but the default rule is that property owners are generally responsible for clearing their own sidewalks and driveways.

Will my homeowner’s or CGL insurance policy cover any injuries from slip and fall on snow/ice?

Yes, usually. The standard Massachusetts homeowners insurance policy and commercial general liability insurance policy (CGL) will have liability coverage for slip and falls on property. Make sure you have ample liability coverage of at least $500,000 to 1 Million. (You can never have enough insurance!). As with any insurance question, it’s best to contact your personal insurance agent.

I’m just a regular homeowner. What if the mailman or delivery person slips on my walkway?

You may be liable if you left dangerous snow and ice on your walkway. The new law applies to every property owner in Massachusetts, not just landlords. Get some Ice-melt and sand and spread on your walkway. If it re-freezes overnight into black ice, you will remain liable.

Helpful Links

City of Boston Snow Removal Notice

City of Worcester Snow Removal

City of Newton Snow Removal

City of Framingham Snow Removal

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Tax Reform Act Not Nearly As Bad As Feared For Massachusetts Homeowners

With Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and their minions burning the midnight legislative oil, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 is set to pass with President Trump’s signature before Christmas. (Updated: President Trump signed the bill into law on Dec. 22).  Everyone is asking me the same question. How will the biggest change in US tax policy in 30 years affect the Massachusetts real estate market and homeowners? There’s been a ton of commentary that the Act is the second coming of the Apocalypse for the real estate market, but I’m not convinced. While I do have many concerns with the overall bill (bloating the deficit, etc.), my opinion is that it will be a small net positive for the real estate industry.

(Disclaimer: I am neither a tax attorney nor a CPA, and I don’t play one on TV, so consult your own tax professional for any tax advice).

Capital Gain Exclusion on Sale of Primary Residence – No Change 

Excellent news here. The long-standing rule has been that the gain (increase in value) of the sale of a primary residence is non-taxable up to $250,000 for a single person and up to $500,000 for a married couple, if you occupied the home for 2 out of the last 5 years. This provision has been a huge incentive for home sales for many years. In prior GOP tax reform bill drafts, the exemption was increased so that owners needed to reside in the home for 5 out of the 8 years preceding the sale. The National Association of Realtors argued that this change would have resulted in a 10% drop in home sales. In response to the NAR’s intense lobbying, the final bill does not include any changes to the capital gains exclusion.

So the current rule stays in place – you can exclude up to $250,000 as a single filer and $500,000 for joint married filer in capital gain on the sale of your primary residence if you lived there for 2 out of the last 5 years. This is really great news for the Massachusetts real estate market.

SALT – Real Estate Taxes and State Income Taxes — $10,000 Cap

This change is a “loss” to homeowners, especially those with high value properties and in wealthy towns. Currently, all real estate taxes paid in Massachusetts are 100% tax deductible if you itemize your deductions. In Massachusetts, those real estate tax bills can be quite large.

Under the Act, there is now a deductibility cap of $10,000 — which includes not only local real estate taxes but all state and local income taxes. This will be a huge hit to taxpayers in wealthy towns with high real estate tax bills. Going forward, taxpayers will only be allowed to deduct $10,000 of all real estate taxes and state/local income taxes. This is definitely a major “loss” for Massachusetts homeowners, especially those in towns with high real estate taxes. This change, however, may be offset by the increase in the standard deduction ($12,000 for single, $24,000 for married) and the boost in child tax credits, but if you live in Weston or Boston, for example, this is likely going to hurt.

Tax Tip:  If your real estate tax bill is over $10,000, consider pre-paying your real estate tax bill before 12/31/17, so you can still deduct it. According to the Boston Globe, most town assessors around the state are accepting such payments. Update (12/28/17): The IRS has issued a Formal Advisory on Real Estate Tax Pre-Payments. Click to read my full review here.

Mortgage Interest Deduction – Deductible Up to $750,000. No Deductions For HELOC/Vacation Homes 

Again, due to the NAR’s strong lobbying efforts, the GOP kept the mortgage interest deduction intact for the most part, but with caps, and equity lines and second mortgages losing their deductibility. I would say this is a net “win” for homeowners. Starting in 2018, homeowners can keep the mortgage interest deduction on a loan of up to $750,000, down from the current law’s limit of $1 million.

Individuals who take out home equity (HELOC) loans, however, will no longer be able to deduct that interest under the new bill. The same is true for second mortgages and vacation homes. No more interest deductions for those. So this change may impact the vacation home market, particular down the Cape and Islands. However, a rental property owner could offset this loss by renting out the home for a few weeks, per the new benefits for rental housing discussed below.

Importantly, these new rules only apply to new mortgages applied for after Jan. 1, 2018. Existing mortgages incurred on or before Dec. 15, 2017 will remain fully tax deductible. There is some IRS guidance on these new rules, so consult your CPA.

Rental Property Owners/Landlords — Thumbs Up! 

As Bloomberg News reports, the Tax Reform Act will be very good for rental property owners and landlords if they do business via pass-through entities — real estate investment trusts, partnerships, limited liability companies, and S corporations — all of which are set to get big tax breaks in the Act. Under the new rules, all pass through income for qualified entities will enjoy a 20% deduction on the owner’s individual 1040 return. For landlords who have greater than $157,500 (single) or $315,000 (married filing jointly) in qualified taxable income, they can select an alternative deduction of (i) the greater of 50% of all W–2 wages, or (ii) the sum of 25% of the W–2 wages plus 2.5% of the unadjusted basis immediately after acquisition of all qualified property.

Attorney’s Advice: I’ve always counseled clients to set up an LLC to hold title to rental property, both from a liability and tax planning standpoint. With the Tax Reform Act giving even greater benefit to pass-through entities, it makes even more sense to set up that LLC. If you need assistance setting up an LLC, please email me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

Also for depreciation rules, the depreciable life term has been reduced — from 27.5 years to 25 years for residential property and from 39 years to 25 years for nonresidential property. In addition, while most other businesses will find their interest deduction limited under the Senate bill, that limitation doesn’t apply to landlords, who can continue to deduct their mortgage interest in full.

There are other rules also favoring rental property owners, so definitely consult your CPA to prepare for 2018.

Thoughts and Comments?

As an attorney who has handled thousands of residential purchases and refinance loans, I’ve never been one to ascribe to the notion that the tax code has a ultimate determinative effect on whether a buyer is going to purchase a home or not. I’ve always believed that tax implications are one factor out of many in the home buying and selling equation. In my opinion, income, job security and consumer confidence play a larger role. I would doubt that the young couple searching for a starter home in Medway is going to say “geez, now that the SALT deduction is limited to $10k, let’s scrap this whole home buying idea.” If people have decided they want to buy a house, they will usually do so.

Overall, I think the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 will have a net positive effect on the national and Massachusetts real estate market, despite the SALT cap and changes to HELOC/second mortgage deductibility. I’m hopeful that the increase in standard deductions and child tax credits will offset the mortgage deductibility and real estate tax changes. The no-change to the capital gain rules was critical and we have the NAR to thank for that. That was a game changer. And lastly, the rental and investment property market will get a big boost.

Rick Moore, Senior Mortgage Advisor with Zenith Mortgage Advisors in Holliston, is one local loan officer who is happy with the Tax Reform Act, both personally and professionally. “I think it’s a historic day, and I’m happy to have the extra money for some home improvement projects. Overall, if the economy will get a boost as expected by the administration, then that’s good for me as a loan officer. I’m looking forward to a very prosperous 2018!”

I do, however, worry about the addition of some 1.5 Trillion to the federal deficit as a result of the tax reform act. This is never good for long term stability of the economy and the housing market. It’s probably a safe bet to say that interest rates are going to rise to keep inflation at bay. I’m concerned that in exchange for some short term gain, we may be setting ourselves up for some long term pain. Only time will tell, but I hope Rick is right!

Feel free to post your comments below and on Facebook.

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No Triple Damages Although Landlord Failed To Provided Sworn Statement of Itemized Damage at Move Out

When a tenant leaves damage to a rental unit at move out, the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law allows a landlord to deduct the cost of repairs from the security deposit, provided the landlord issues a sworn statement of itemized damage along with repair estimates within 30 days of the move out. I’ve seen many landlords attempt to comply with the law only to be on the receiving end of a Chapter 93A letter from a tenant attorney demanding triple damages for messing up this requirement. This is one of many reasons why I advise my landlord clients to decline taking a security deposit from tenants.

Last week, the Supreme Judicial Court had the opportunity to clarify this particular provision of the law in the class action case of Phillips v. Equity Residential Management LLC. In this case, Equity Residential, attempted to deduct $968.08 in carpet and other cleaning charges from a tenant’s security deposit. However, Equity failed to provide the required itemized statement sworn under the pains and penalties of perjury. The tenant filed a class action seeking return of the deposit, triple damages, and attorneys’ fees under the statute.

I won’t bore you with all the technicalities of the Court’s ruling, but the SJC came down on the landlord’s side on this case, holding that while the landlord mistakenly failed to provide the sworn statement the law was clear that this is not one of the situations where triple damages is the proper remedy. (Equity did have to return the tenant’s security deposit in full). Yes, I know a rare victory for property owners in Massachusetts…

Again, while this case came out on the landlord’s side, it demonstrates the risks involved in failing to comply strictly with the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law. As a reminder, if a landlord is claiming that a tenant caused damage at the end of the tenancy and wants to deduct it from the deposit, it must provide within thirty days “an itemized list of damages, sworn to by the lessor or his agent under pains and penalties of perjury, itemizing in precise detail the nature of the damage and of the repairs necessary to correct such damage, and written evidence, such as estimates, bills, invoices or receipts, indicating the actual or estimated cost thereof.” The law also requires that landlord provide a “statement of condition” at the beginning of the tenancy, so that damage can be verified. Only then will a landlord be allowed to deduct repair costs from a security deposit.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts residential landlord – tenant attorney. You can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Changes Catching Landlords By Surprise

Without much publicity or property owner input, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has rolled out proposed revisions to the State Sanitary Code which provides minimum standards of habitability for all rental housing units across the state. There are some significant changes which will definitely impact both small and large property owners/landlords.

Integrated Pest Management Plan
The proposed rules requires that any rental property with 4 or more units implement an Integrated Pest Management Plan with pest inspections conducted at least every 4 months. Owners are required to maintain a record documenting the following activities conducted within the residence including inspection results, complaints filed by occupants, the date, location, product name, and name of any person applying pesticides, and modifications to the original IPM plan, all of which should be available upon request by the board of health.

Mold, Mold, Mold
DPH is on a mission to eradicate mold in rental housing. The new rules place landlords responsible to remove all possible signs of mold in apartments as well as any areas of “chronic dampness.” As every landlords knows, tenants are often the ones who cause mold growth by not using proper ventilation or having poor hygiene. Boards of health are now authorized to conduct mold-specific inspections and conduct air quality tests.

Bathroom Exhaust Fans

The new rules require exhaust fans in every bathroom whether or not there is a window. Previously, landlords did not have to install a fan if there was a bathroom window.

Central Heating Systems

Property owners are required to provide a “central heating system” for all units. Fireplaces, woodstoves, pellet stoves, portable electric space heaters and unvented propane or natural gas-fired space heaters will not meet the requirements of this new standard. This will impact rental housing in the outer counties. Also prohibited from use in any residence are (1) any portable space heater, parlor heater, cabinet heater, or room heater that has a barometric fed fuel control and a fuel supply tank located less than 42 inches from the center of the burner, (2) heating appliances adapted for burning propane, kerosene, range oil or number one fuel oil, and (3) Portable wick type space heaters.

Code Violations/Tenant Remedies

Of course, any violations of the State Sanitary Code entitles tenants to withhold rent under state law. There can also be Chapter 93A/Consumer Protection liability which carries the prospect of triple damages and payment of tenant attorneys’ fees. Code violations can severely de-rail any eviction action so landlords must ensure that any code violations are quickly and properly addressed. Without the passage of a rent escrow law, landlords remain at risk of tenant abuses of the rent withholding statute.

The proposed revisions to the State Sanitary Code, 105 CMR 410 can be downloaded here.

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Updated 11/10/17

Proposal Heads To State House Next

Once thought to be dead, the Boston City Council yesterday approved the first ever “just cause” eviction act in Massachusetts, known as the Jim Brooks Community Stabilization Act. The Act, which opponents dubbed a return to rent control, requires landlords owning 6 or more units to file a notice to quit/termination with the newly formed Office of Housing Stability, prior to starting an eviction. However, after intense lobbying by property owner groups, the council passed a watered-down just cause eviction provision which only applies to foreclosing owners/lenders. The vote was 10-3 in favor of the Act, with City Councilors Bill Linehan, Sal LaMattina, and Timothy McCarthy voted no.

City Rights Notice

The Act requires that a landlord or foreclosing owner provide a city-approved “notice of basic rights” and a list of tenant assistance organizations simultaneously with the issuance of a notice to quit/termination or notice of lease renewal/expiration. In the case of a lease non-renewal or expiration, landlords and foreclosing owners must provide another “City Termination Notice” to the tenant and the City, at least 30 days prior to starting a summary process (eviction) action. All of these notices must be filed with the summary process case, and the failure to provide these notices will result in eviction cases being dismissed. As with any notice to quit, the best practice is to have such notices served by licensed constable or deputy sheriff.

“Just Cause” Grounds for Eviction

The original version of provided that landlords could only evict tenants for nine (9) specified just cause reasons. However, the final version passed only applies to foreclosing owners/lenders, not to ordinary landlords. Some of the just cause reasons include

  • Nuisance/damage to unit
  • Illegal activity such as drug use
  • Refusal to pay reasonable rent
  • Failure to provide access.
  • Owner requires premises for housing for family member

What’s Next?

It’s not all bad news for property owners, however. The bill faces more hurdles before becoming law. It is a Home Rule Petition, so it must be approved by the entire State Legislature before it becomes law. That may prove to be quite difficult for proponents. The bill may also face court challenges because, as opponents argue, it’s an unlawful return to rent control, which was outlawed in the 1980’s, and fundamentally alters existing private contracts and the very nature of a tenancy at will relationship.

The Act is also somewhat of a compromise between property owners and tenant groups. Tenants wanted to require landlords to submit to mediation for rent hikes of more than 5%, but were not able to get support for it among city council members. Tenant groups also pushed for prohibitions on evicting elderly or disabled tenants and long term renters with children in the school system. The Mayor rejected those ideas as well.

Additionally, small landlords owning 6 or fewer units are exempt from coverage as are owner-occupants of multi-family dwellings and Section 8/federally subsidized housing providers.

The final text of the Act can be read here.

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Public Hearing Scheduled For September 26, 1pm

Small property owner groups are saying that this may finally be the year when state legislators pass a Rent Escrow bill on Beacon Hill. The bill is designed to reform tenant abuses of the rent withholding law and level the playing field with landlords.

Under current law, if a tenant is being evicted, she may report the landlord to the health department and withhold paying rent if an inspection reveals any sanitary or building code violation  — even if very minor. Evictions often last for months, and therefore, the rent withholding gives tenants incredible financial leverage to gain advantage during the process.

Unlike most other states, there is no requirement in Massachusetts that a 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.

A rent escrow bill would simply require any tenant who withholds rent to pay ongoing monthly rent into a court ordered escrow account until the eviction case is heard on the merits by a judge. Fairly, the bill has a carve out giving judges discretion to not require an escrow deposit if it would result in “undue hardship” to the tenant. This way, the tenant has some “skin in the game,” and is less likely to financially cripple the landlord over a minor code issue.

The leading bill is House Bill 980, sponsored by Rep. Chris Walsh. The text of the bill is as follows:

Notwithstanding the foregoing, in the event that the originally scheduled trial date is continued for any reason, and upon motion of any party, the court after hearing shall require the tenant or occupant claiming under this section to deposit with the clerk of the court, the plaintiff’s attorney, or other secure depository each month (or at such other intervals as the court deems just) the amounts due for use and occupancy, calculated according to the fair market value of the premises, which amounts shall be held in escrow pending final disposition, unless the court determines that such requirement would result in undue hardship to the tenant or occupant. In the event that a tenant or occupant fails to comply with an order requiring deposit, the court upon motion shall order the matter to be scheduled for bench trial at the earliest date available and make such further orders as the court deems just.

The bill, along with several other rental housing bills, will be heard on September 26, 2017 at 1pm in Hearing Room B-2 at the State House. All members of the public are welcome to testify in support or against the bill.

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State-Wide Housing Court Coverage a “Done Deal”

Governor Baker has earmarked $750,000 in the new state budget towards the Housing Court Expansion plan, clearing the way for state-wide coverage for the Housing Court.

Senator Karen Spilka (D-Ashland), a sponsor of the Senate Bill for the expansion, confirmed to me directly that it is a “done deal.”

Likewise, Chris Walsh (D-Framingham) commented in the Framingham Source that “recognizing that one-third of the residents in the Commonwealth currently do not have access to a Housing Court, working with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and other groups, we crafted legislation to expand the Housing Court across the entire state, that has been supported both by the entire Framingham legislative delegation and more than 50 legislators.”

Expansion proponents asked for $1 Million in new funding, but Gov. Baker cut that down to $750,000. The Housing Court will likely need more funding for the additional judges and staff to implement state-wide coverage. The initial funding, however, should allow the Housing Court to start rolling out new sessions in Middlesex County and other unserved areas.

For more information on the Housing Court expansion proposal, please see my other posts here.

Photo credit: Mass. Bar Ass’n.

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Proposal: 5%-10% Tax, Plus Comprehensive Regulations

Like Uber and Lyft, is the law finally catching up with the new economy-disrupting technologies for the real estate industry like Airbnb? The answer is yes if Massachusetts legislators have their way. Today, Massachusetts House legislators are holding a hearing on a new bill which would tax and regulate Airbnb and other short term rentals. The proposal is House Bill 3454 (click to read). The proposal would impose a new excise tax between 5% – 10% on short term rentals, depending on whether the host rents his/her own residence, is a “commercial host,” or the rental is professionally managed.

According to a recent Boston Globe article, Airbnb, the largest of such rental sites, reports that it logged about 592,000 guests in Massachusetts last year. Had those stays been subject to the state’s hotel tax rate of 5.7%, that would have added an estimated $15 million to the Commonwealth’s coffers. The availability of such easy tax revenue may be too much for legislators to pass up this year, although a similar effort failed at the last minute last year.

Airbnb is happily sharing these calculations because it wants to be taxed, and this week it’s airing a new TV commercialabout the issue. Now don’t think for a second that this is some kind of benevolent new-economy thing. Guests, not Airbnb, pay the tax! Taxation is also a form of legitimization for these online portals.

The House proposal would also establish a comprehensive regulatory and safety scheme on Airbnb rentals, similar to that imposed on bed and breakfasts and other small local lodging facilities. Local towns and cities would be permitted to restrict certain types of short term rentals, the number of rental days allowed, require business licenses and a housing registry, and make the host obtain liability insurance of at least $1M in coverage. Violations of the new law carry a stiff fine of up to $1000/day for the illegal rental period.

The proposal has received much attention in recent months as hearings have been held across the state. The Massachusetts Association of Realtors has come out in opposition to the bill, as with many Airbnb hosts who rely on this source of additional income.

I will keep up with developments, so check back here from time to time.

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Proposal Moving Through State House, But Funding Remains a Question

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. Legislators have filed two bills in the House and Senate which are co-sponsored by over 75 legislators. The bills were before the Joint Judiciary Committee on May 2, and are reportedly moving through the State House. Housing Court Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan hopes that the expansion will be in place by January 2019.

The expansion would provide currently unserved Middlesex County with Housing Court jurisdiction and reorganize the remainder of the system into 6 new geographic divisions. A new Central Division would serve Framingham, Marlboro, and other Middlesex county towns plus all of Worcester County. A new Northeastern Division would serve all of Essex county plus several towns along the Route 128 corridor including Waltham, Burlington, Lexington, Watertown, and Woburn. The new Eastern Division would be the largest, serving all of Suffolk County plus Somerville, Brookline, Cambridge, Newton, Medford, Arlington, and Belmont. A new Metro South Division would serve Norfolk county towns plus the Brockton area. The new Southeastern Division would serve the Bristol-Plymouth County/South Coast area (Taunton, Fall River, New Bedford), the Cape and Islands. The Western Division would serve the 4 western counties. The new sessions would be “mobile” and travel to existing district courthouses in addition to holding sessions in present facilities such as the Worcester County Courthouse and Edward Brooke Courthouse in Boston.

Landlords would still have right to file an eviction case in district court, but tenants would have right to transfer to Housing Court. So effectively the vast majority of eviction cases would wind up in the Housing Court.

The expansion bill increases the total number of judges to 15, up from 9. Of course, each new justice would cost $185,000/year under the controversial pay increase recently approved by House Leader Stan Rosenfeld, over Gov. Baker’s veto. The total cost of the expansion proposal could reach $2.4 Million or more. It appears that funding remains the primary obstacle to getting this expansion passed.

I would support the Housing Court expansion if the Legislature finally approves the long-awaited Rent Escrow bill requested by landlords to level the playing field in notoriously tenant-friendly Massachusetts. I believe that would be a fair trade-off for both landlords and tenants.

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Just a quick note about yet another recent case demonstrating the backwards nature of Massachusetts landlord-tenant law. In CMJ Management Company v. Wilkerson, the Appeals Court ruled that a tenant could be evicted from Section 8 housing because her grandson shot and injured a neighbor child with a BB gun. Sort of reminds me of the movie the Christmas Story — you’ll shoot your eye out kid!

But — hold on — the court ruled the tenant would not be evicted because the housing court judge made a legal error by striking the tenant’s jury trial because she (not being represented by a lawyer) did not file a pre-trial memorandum. The net result is that the landlord is back to the starting line — the case goes back to the Boston Housing Court for a retrial, some 3 years after the eviction case was originally filed. Only in Massachusetts!

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Foreclosure2.jpgQuestionable Ruling Goes Against Established Law That Foreclosed Owner Not Entitled to Notice to Quit

In a recent post-foreclosure eviction case before the Southeast Housing Court, Justice Anne Kenney Chaplin issued a head-scratching ruling that a third party purchaser at foreclosure was required to issue a 90 day notice to quit to the former owner. The ruling goes against the generally accepted rule of law that a foreclosed owner still in occupation of the mortgage premises is merely a tenant at sufferance, not entitled to any notice prior to an eviction. The case is Lenders Commercial Finance LLC v. Pestilli, 16-SP-03779, embedded below. This is a very troubling ruling which has the landlord-tenant legal community buzzing.

Foreclosed Owner Squats For 6 Years

In 2011, Bank of America foreclosed upon Bruce Pestilli’s home in Whitman, but Mr. Pestilli remained in occupation of the premises. As a side note, Mr. Pestilli filed a federal lawsuit challenging the foreclosure which was ultimately dismissed. Several years later in 2016, Lenders Commercial Finance LLC purchased the property from Bank of America and issued Pestilli a standard 30 day notice to quit, although such is not typically required in a post-foreclosure eviction. Lenders Commercial then filed an eviction action in Southeast Housing Court.

Pestilli’s lawyer again challenged the validity of the foreclosure during the eviction case. Lenders Commercial filed sworn affidavits and certified documents demonstrating that the foreclosure was conducted lawfully. Judge Anne Kenney Chaplin heard the matter on a motion for summary judgment.

Judge Rules 90 Day Notice to Quit Required

Although the legal arguments were centered around the foreclosure title issues, Judge Chaplin raised the issue concerning the notice to quit on her own even though the tenant’s attorney did not even make that argument during the case. Judge Chaplin held that a 90 day notice to quit was required under M.G.L. c. 186, § 12 because there was no evidence that there was any agreement between Lenders Commercial and Pestilli to pay rent. Well, that’s not surprising because the vast majority of post-foreclosure occupants have not made any payments to anyone for a long time! Indeed, in this case, Mr. Pestilli has not made any mortgage or rent payments for some six years.

Did Judge Make Major Legal Error?

The ruling goes against long-standing Massachusetts case law concerning the rights of third party purchasers of foreclosed properties. Massachusetts courts have universally held that after default and foreclosure, a former mortgagor is a tenant-at-sufferance, i.e., an occupant who has lost his or her title to the premises with no further right to possession. Further, courts have held that tenant-at-sufferance are not generally entitled to a notice to quit.

If this ruling is followed by other judges, it could give foreclosed owners another tactic to delay post-foreclosure evictions. Landlords and their attorneys should be aware of this ruling and prepared to push back that former owners are tenants at sufferance and not entitled to a 90 day notice to quit.

Lenders Commercial Finance LLC v. Pestilli, Mass. Southeast Housing Court by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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marijuana-growing-green-rush-1217.jpgProperty Owners Should Get New Marijuana Policies and Lease Riders In Place Now

On December 15, 2016, the recreational use of marijuana became legal in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, after voters approved Ballot Question 4 The Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act. Driving down the Pike this morning on my way to Boston Housing Court, I did not see any “Cheech and Chong” scenes in vehicles. That said, the new law will no doubt affect the legal relationship between landlords and tenants and will likely result in disputes as to what can and cannot be done with respect to cultivating, growing and using marijuana in and around rental property.

What is Legal and Illegal Generally?

  • Adults (21 or over) may possess up to 10 ounces of marijuana in their primary residence. A person may cultivate up to 6 marijuana plants for personal use, and up to 12 plants per household are allowed if more than one adult lives on the premises. Marijuana growing at home must be done discreetly and securely. Marijuana plants cannot be plainly visible from the street or any public area and must be cultivated someplace where there is a security device.
  • Outside the home, adults 21 or over can possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana.
  • Recreational marijuana cannot be sold in any form in Massachusetts without a retail license. A Cannabis Control Commission, yet to be named, will be responsible for issuing retail licenses.
  • Marijuana cannot be possessed, purchased, grown or used by anyone under age 21 (unless they have a valid medical marijuana permit), and it’s against the law to give away marijuana to someone under 21.
  • Using marijuana is illegal in any public place. You can’t, for example, walk down the street smoking a joint the way you would a cigarette. It’s also illegal to use marijuana in any place where tobacco is banned.
  • Possession of any amount of marijuana remains illegal on school grounds, public housing, and government buildings.

Can Tenants Use or Cultivate Marijuana In Rental Property?

The key provision in the Act provides that it is illegal to:

“prevent a person from prohibiting or otherwise regulating the consumption, display, production, processing, manufacture or sale of marijuana and marijuana accessories on or in property the person owns, occupies or manages, except that a lease agreement shall not prohibit a tenant from consuming marijuana by means other than smoking on or in property in which the tenant resides unless failing to do so would cause the landlord to violate a federal law or regulation.”

As I read the new law, landlords have the ability through a lease agreement to regulate the smoking and cultivation of marijuana in rental property, except that landlords cannot prohibit the consumption of marijuana edibles or any other form of non-smoking consumption.

New Marijuana Lease Addendums Should Be Implemented

Now, here’s the rub. Most current leases in effect right now do not have specific provisions dealing with marijuana use. Some leases have anti-smoking and nuisance provisions, which would arguably prohibit pot smoking, but it’s not clear whether that would apply to the discreet growing of marijuana. Under general contract law, there must be some additional legal consideration to significantly amend a lease agreement and curtail a tenant’s rights. Thus, there is a question as to whether existing lease provision would apply to the tenant use/growing of marijuana. Courts will have to decide these issues going forward. I would imagine that most landlords would not want to take on the risk of hundreds of tenants each growing 12 marijuana plants in their apartments. As I explain below, it is incumbent upon landlords to get marijuana policies and lease riders in place now and going forward on new leases. 

Practice Pointer:  If you are a landlord and you want to have a strict marijuana use policy, you must act now and have your tenants sign a new lease addendum for recreational marijuana use. The addendum should, among other things, provide that smoking and growing of marijuana is strictly prohibited, while consumption of edibles is allowed, provided that it does not create a nuisance. There should also be indemnification language in the rider as well. My office can assist you with drafting a marijuana lease rider.

e-cigarettes-being-used-by-teenagers-for-vaping-marijuana-pot-weedVaping = Smoking?

Marijuana consumption technology has come a long way since your college dorm room. I’ve been told that many serious users use vaping technology which heats and vaporizes buds, giving the user a much cleaner and less toxic high. A question which may come up is whether vaping is equivalent to smoking. Not being an expert on marijuana technology, I will leave that to the experts. My brief Google research says that vaping does still produce a slight odor of marijuana but far less than traditional smoking of a joint or pipe. I think it will all depend on how vaping impacts neighbors in an apartment building.

Utility/Water Usage

If a tenant begins growing and cultivating up to 12 marijuana plants as allowed under the new law, how will that affect utility and water usage? Under the State Sanitary Code, the landlord is obligated to pay for electricity and gas in each dwelling unit unless it is separately metered and there is a written document that provides for payment by the tenant. See 105 Code Mass. Regs. § 410.354. Concerning billing a tenant for water use, under the Tenant Metering Law, a landlord can only bill the tenant water usage if he satisfies many onerous requirements such as getting local certification and installing low flow faucets and shower heads. If you allow growing of marijuana in your rental property, make sure that the tenant does not hose you with a huge water/electric bill. Again, your new marijuana lease rider should address this issue, among other items.

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100316_photo_vetstein-2-150x150.pngIf you need assistance with creating a new Massachusetts Marijuana Lease Addendum/Rider, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352, and we would be happy to create a customized one for you!

 

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A Step Back To Rent Control Or Solution To The Affordable Housing Crisis?

Citing skyrocketing rents and lack of affordable housing — and over the vociferous objections of property owners — Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has sided with pro-tenant groups and has formally submitted a home-rule petition to the Boston City Council to create wide-ranging “just cause” eviction protections for all Boston tenants. Harking back to the days of rent control, the petition, named the Jim Brooks Community Stabilization Act after a recently deceased Roxbury housing advocate, prohibits virtually all no-fault evictions in favor of evictions only for certain enumerated “just cause” grounds. The law also requires landlords to file a notice of termination with the newly formed Office of Housing Stability prior to starting an eviction. In a state which is already extremely pro-tenant, this new law will make evicting tenants even more difficult and cost prohibitive, and may also affect owners’ rights to raise rents and sell rental property in the City of Boston.

“Just Cause” Grounds for Eviction

The petition (embedded below) provides that landlords may only evict tenants for nine (9) specified reasons:

  • Non-payment of rent.
  • Violations of lease provisions
  • Nuisance/damage to unit
  • Illegal activity such as drug use
  • Refusal to agree to lease extension or renewal
  • Failure to provide access.
  • Subtenant not approved by landlord
  • Landlord requires premises for housing for family member
  • Post-foreclosure and occupant refuses to pay fair market rent

Middle Ground?

It’s not all bad news for property owners, however. The Walsh bill is a compromise from what tenant groups had pressed for. They wanted to require landlords to submit to mediation for rent hikes of more than 5%, but were not able to get support for it among city council members. Tenant groups also pushed for prohibitions on evicting elderly or disabled tenants and long term renters with children in the school system. The Mayor rejected those ideas as well.

Additionally, not all landlords are covered by the new law. Exempt are owners of 6 or fewer residential rental units, owner-occupants of multi-family dwellings, and Section 8/federally subsidized housing.

Landlord groups, meanwhile, remain skeptical of Walsh’s proposal. State law already has strong tenant protections, Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board told the Boston Globe. Adding more will only subject building owners to even-more-drawn-out legal fights with tenants, he said. And, Vasil added, Walsh’s restrictions may deter developers from building more apartments in Boston, which has been a top priority for the mayor, who has pledged to add 53,000 units by 2030 and combat high housing costs. “This would make it more difficult to develop housing for the middle of the market,” Vasil said. “We’ve been making good progress and I’d hate to see anything happen to that.”

Because the bill is a Home Rule Petition, it must be approved by the City Council then the entire State Legislature. The bill may also face court challenges because it fundamentally alters existing private contracts and the very nature of a tenancy at will relationship. If the petition becomes law, evictions in Boston will become even harder and more expensive.

Readers, what are your thoughts on this important development? Post below in the comments.

Boston Just Cause Eviction Home Rule Petition by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Rule Prohibits No More Than 4 Undergraduate Students Per Rental Unit

With thousands of college students set to invade Boston in the next week, the Chief of Boston’s Inspectional Services Department is letting local landlords know that he intends to enforce an eight year old ordinance barring no more than four undergraduate students from living together in off-campus apartments and houses.

Feeling pressure from local residents and in reaction to the tragic death of 22-year-old Boston University senior Binland Lee, who got trapped in an overcrowded Allston apartment house, ISD Chief William Christopher has had enough, saying “we’ve found a way to make this punitive, and we think this will take it to another level.” City officials want landlords to report the number of undergraduates living in each unit. Landlords would report that information when they register each unit annually, which is a requirement the city established in 2013.

Mr. Christopher and I discussed the “No More Than 4” rule on the WHGH-PBS Greater Boston show this week. The video of the show can be seen below. I have always had major problems with this rule, both its legality and on a public policy level. The state sanitary and building codes provide maximum occupancy levels based on the square footage of the unit, as the Supreme Judicial Court held a few years ago striking down a similar action by Worcester Housing officials. The city should enforce the rules already on the books rather than painting all undergraduate students as potential troublemakers or artificially creating more demand which increases rents. If ISD starts fining landlords, look for the no more than 4 rule to face a legal challenge which could be successful.

 

 

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criminal-background-checkWidespread Racial Disparities In Criminal Justice System Justifies New Policy

Last week the Obama administration released new controversial Fair Housing guidelines telling the nation’s landlords that it may be discriminatory for them to refuse to rent to those with criminal records. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says refusing to rent based on a criminal record is a form of racial discrimination, due to racial imbalances in the U.S. justice system, despite the fact that criminal history is not a protected class under the federal Fair Housing Act.

“The Fair Housing Act prohibits both intentional housing discrimination and housing practices that have an unjustified discriminatory effect because of race, national origin, or other protected characteristics,” say HUD’s newly-released guidelines. “Because of widespread racial and ethnic disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system, criminal history-based restrictions on access to housing are likely disproportionately to burden African-Americans and Hispanics. While the Act does not prohibit housing providers from appropriately considering criminal history information when making housing decisions, arbitrary and overbroad criminal history-related bans are likely to lack a legally sufficient justification.” About 25 percent of Americans have some kind of criminal record, which can range from felony convictions to arrests that never led to charges.

HUD says that landlords may be allowed to bar those with criminal records, but they will have to prove that such a policy is necessary for protecting the safety of other tenants, and designed to avoid illegal discrimination. The new guidance recommends that landlords consider factors such as the severity of the criminal history and how long ago it occurred.

Practice Pointer: Blanket prohibitions denying applicants with criminal histories will get landlords into major trouble under the new HUD policy.

 HUD’s revised guidance discusses the three steps used to analyze claims that a housing provider’s use of criminal history to deny housing opportunities results in a discriminatory effect in violation of the Act.
  • Evaluating whether the criminal history policy or practice has a discriminatory effect
  • Evaluating whether the challenged policy or practice is necessary to achieve a substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest
  • Evaluating whether there is a less discriminatory alternative

Policy Places Burden On Small Landlords

I’m all for giving people a second chance at life, but the major problem with this policy is that it puts the onus and burden on the small landlord to do the criminal history check and then figure out how severe the offense is and what the underlying circumstances are. Also the policy does not advise a landlord exactly how old a crime is to be considered “too old.”

In Massachusetts, a CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) report contains only the basic of information of the offense such as the date of arrest/conviction, disposition, court and sentence, if any. There is nothing in the CORI report showing the underlying facts of the crime and it does not include police reports. Thus, for a charge of open and lewd conduct, a landlord does not know whether this is a serious offense or just a college kid urinating in an alley. Under the new HUD policy, landlords now have the burden of playing criminal investigator and assessing whether a crime is not truly serious.

Also, please remember that under the so-called Mrs. Murphy exemption, the federal Fair Housing Act does not apply to owner-occupied rental properties of up to 4 units.

What Now?

So how are landlords going to navigate this new policy? Well, first I would expect that risk-adverse landlords will cut down or stop requesting criminal history information all together. Of course, this puts landlords in a dilemma because they retain a legal duty to keep residents safe, and if they rent out to a known sexual offender, for example, who attacks another resident, they can be sued for millions.

For those who still ask for criminal record information, they will have to offer an applicant the opportunity to explain the circumstances of their arrest/conviction before making a final decision. As with all rental application decisions, it’s best to make the decision rest on financial considerations such as credit, income, and employment.

If you need guidance navigating this new policy, feel free to contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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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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