Landlord Tenant Law

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

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

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

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

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

Guarded Support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: New Boston Post photo by Evan Lips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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mml6T1h

As with this year’s blockbuster Star Wars — The Force Awakens, my prediction for an active and entertaining 2015 in Massachusetts real estate law has come to fruition. Without further ado and with a Star Wars theme, I present you with the top 5 “episodes” for the last year in Massachusetts real estate law.

I. TRID (Truth in Lending RESPA Integrated Disclosure) Rules

Heralded as the most comprehensive change to real estate closings in the last 20 years, the new TRID rules (Truth in Lending/RESPA Integrated Disclosure) have certainly lived up to their billing. If TRID were a Star Wars character, it would be Kylo Ren of the First Order, smashing and destroying the old way of doing closings with his scarlet cross-guard lightsaber. The new rules went into effect on October 3, and the real estate industry has been, by and large, scrambling to get up to compliance speed with the new regulations. The new “Closing Disclosure” is quite convoluted with far too much information, and also necessitates a separate “seller” closing disclosure. So, the old three page HUD-1 form has turned into two forms with seven pages. That’s the government for you… There is also a 3 day waiting period for closings to be scheduled after the issuance of the new Closing Disclosure. Some lenders have been great getting the “CD” out on time. Some others, not so much. In my estimate, I would say that at least 50% of my transactions have been delayed due to TRID related issues. For 2016, I predict continued delays and compliance issues for the first two quarters of the new year, with things hopefully smoothing out for the spring market. Oh, did I already tell you that I miss the old HUD-1 Settlement Statement already!

II. SJC Rules Real Estate Agents Can Remain Independent Contractors 

The summer saw the SJC come down with its long awaited ruling on independent contractor classification in Monell, et al. v. Boston Pads, LLC. After much lobbying from the industry, the Court ruled that Massachusetts real estate and rental agents can remain classified as independent contractors under the state’s real estate licensing and independent contractor law. The ruling keeps the traditional commission-only independent contractor brokerage office model in place, with brokers allowed to classify agents as 1099 independent contractors, without facing liability for not paying them salary, overtime or providing employee benefits. However, like the plot holes in The Force Awakens, the Court left open a few important questions such as whether agents could build a case on other legal theories. In 2016, look for the Legislature to address the murkiness which remains with the law.

poe-dameron_70f5aee2III. Gov. Baker Signs Foreclosure Title Clearance Law

If Gov. Charlie Baker were a character out of the Force Awakens, he would be the hotshot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, swooping down in his X-Wing fighter and saving the day for thousands of Massachusetts homeowners who have been unable to sell or refinance their homes due to foreclosure title defects. After a five year legislative struggle (in which I testified before the Legislature), Gov. Baker signed into law the Act Clearing Title To Foreclosed Properties. The bill will resolve potentially thousands of titles which were rendered defective and un-transferable after the SJC’s landmark ruling in U.S. Bank v. Ibanez. There is a one year waiting period, but after that we should start seeing previously unsellable homes start to come back on the market.

IV. SJC Continues To Scrutinize Foreclosure Compliance

In a major foreclosure decision, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in Pinti v. Emigrant Mortgage Co. Inc. that a lender’s defective notice of default is grounds to void and nullify a foreclosure sale. This is so even after the property was purchased at auction by a third party without knowledge of the defect. This ruling has resulted in two leading title insurance companies, First American and Fidelity/Chicago, deciding to restrict underwriting title to foreclosed properties

V. Just Cause Eviction Proposal

The upcoming year will see a looming “Resistance” battle between liberal tenant activists and small property owners over a Just Cause Eviction proposal submitted to the Boston City Council. As I’ve written here, the proposal is just a clever re-branding of rent control which was outlawed a decade ago and has been proven not to work by leading economists and city planners. The Just Cause Eviction petition would prohibit a landlord from evicting any tenant except for certain serious “just cause” grounds, making it very difficult and expensive to evict tenants at will or those whose leases have expired. Small property owners claim — and I agree — that the procedural impediments to the Just Cause Eviction proposal are shockingly socialist in nature. Everyone agrees that Boston has a problem creating affordable housing, however, rent control disguised as a just cause eviction proposal is not the answer. It’s not fair to make small property owners to bear the burden of creating affordable housing across the city. That’s the job of the government. Rent control has never been a successful solution to the housing problem. To be continued in Episode VIII…

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I hope everyone has a very happy, healthy and prosperous New Year! –Rich

Photo credit: Lucasfilm, Inc.

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Update: Hearing On Proposal Scheduled for March 14, 2016 at 4PM at Boston City Council Chamber Room

Rent Control Thinly Disguised As “Just Cause” Eviction Proposal

Citing skyrocketing rents and lack of affordable housing, several activist pro-tenant groups in the City of Boston, with the assistance of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, have submitted a home-rule petition to the Boston City Council to create a wide-ranging “just cause” eviction protection for all Boston tenants. Harking back to the days of rent control, the petition would prohibit a landlord from evicting any tenant except for certain “just cause” grounds. These grounds and their related procedural impediments to eviction are shockingly socialist in nature, and in practice would make it nearly impossible (or cost prohibitive) to evict tenants, raise rents and sell occupied rental property in the City of Boston. Rental property owner groups are vigorously opposed to this proposal.

“Just Cause” Grounds for Eviction

The petition provides that landlords may only evict tenants for eight (8) specified reasons. The most troubling situations are outlined below.

  • Non-payment of rent. A tenant’s failure to pay rent must be “habitual” (which is left undefined) and “without legal justification.” Ordinarily, if a tenant fails to pay rent even once, the landlord may terminate the tenancy and evict. Under the just cause standards, the standard is significantly higher. What exactly is “habitual”? Two late payments, three, four? No one knows, but the petition puts the burden of proof on the landlord.
  • Damage by tenant. In order to evict, the tenant must have “willfully caused substantial damage to the premises beyond normal wear and tear and, after written notice, has refused to cease damaging the premises, or has refused to either make satisfactory correction or to pay the reasonable costs of repairing such damage over a reasonable period of time.” This would make it much more difficult to evict based on damage caused by a tenant.
  • Disorderly conduct. The tenant has continued, following written notice to cease to be so disorderly as to destroy the peace and quiet of other tenants at the property.
  • Illegal activity. The tenant has used the rental unit or the common areas of the premises for an illegal purpose including the manufacture, sale, or use of illegal drugs.
  • Failure to provide access. The tenant has, after written notice to cease, continued to deny landlord access to the unit as required by state law.

Rent Increases and No Fault Evictions

The most fundamental impact of the just cause eviction petition is how it attempts to severely curtail landlords’ legal right to raise rents and file no-fault evictions. Make no mistake about it, the underlying premise of the petition is rent control – to keep rents (even under market) from increasing and stabilizing “affordable housing.”

Resurrecting the old Boston Rent Control Board, landlords are required to participate in a City-approved mediation session with that agency before raising rents or even declining to renew an expired lease. The board is then required to notify all tenant advocacy groups in Boston of the situation. These groups are invited into every eviction or rent increase process. It will be one landlord against many tenants and advocates. There is no stated limit as to how long the mediation process can last, and after which a landlord still must go to Housing Court which can take anywhere from 6-12 months to complete a no-fault eviction under current law. A landlord’s failure to follow these requirements will result in the immediately dismissal of their eviction case and can also subject them to a $1000 fine by the City.

Moreover, in true socialist form, there are also substantial roadblocks to evicting tenants even where the unit will be used for the owner’s own personal residence. Owners are banned from evicting tenants who are 60 years old, disabled or have children in the school system and have lived in the premises for 5 or more years. (Landlords can only end tenancies after the school year is over.) Seeking to turn private properties into government subsidized elderly and disabled housing, the petition thereby creates lifetime tenancies for these classes of renters. This will greatly discourage investment and capital improvements for these properties many of which are double and triple deckers in struggling neighborhoods.

Rent Control Does Not Work

As counsel for landlords across Greater Boston and having testified at the State House in support of various landlord tenant legal reforms, I am strongly opposed to this proposal. This petition is the fourth attempt by Boston tenant advocates to bring back rent control, all of which have failed after voters rejected rent control state-wide in the mid-1990’s. The idea of rent control has been debunked as a failed policy by countless economists, and actually makes affordable housing stock shrink. A restrictive price ceiling reduces the supply of properties on the market. When prices are capped, people have less incentive to fix up and rent out their property, or to build new projects. Slower supply growth actually exacerbates the price crunch. Those landlords who do rent out their properties might not bother to maintain it, since both supply and turnover in the market are limited by rent caps; landlords have little incentive to compete to attract willing tenants. Landlords may also become choosier, and tenants may stay in properties longer than makes sense.

The problem of skyrocketing rents in Boston and affordable housing is complex and certainly worthy of out-of-the-box thinking. As an old city with little if any developable land left, Boston has always dealt with a supply vs. demand problem. Boston developers have long been required to pay into linkage funds designed to promote affordable housing. Mayor Walsh recently announced a plan to build 53,000 new housing units by 2030. The city’s colleges can also do a better job of creating new student housing. But even with all of this centralized planning, the influx of people to the city, drawn by jobs and Boston’s quality of life, have made this problem a very tricky one to solve.

However, rent control disguised as a just cause eviction proposal is not the answer. It’s not fair to make small property owners to bear the burden of creating affordable housing across the city. That’s just flat out Un-American. If we want more affordable housing, create economic incentives to build more, and encourage the City to buy their own properties and create housing. Rent control has never been a successful solution.

If and when the Just Cause Eviction proposal rears its ugly head in the Boston City Council again, email your local city councilor and the Mayor.

A copy of the Just Cause Home Rule Petition can be found below.

Boston Just Cause Ordinance Draft Sept 2015

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

Landlord Stopped From Evicting Tenant Over $3.26 In Interest

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

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

Garth Meikle v. Patricia Nurse, SJC-11859

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6:30 PM – Registration & Vendor Area Open

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

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

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

Boston Real Estate Investors Association on Facebook

I look forward to seeing you next week!

-Rich

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Copyright Josh Reynolds 2010

Landlord Sued for Wrongful Death After Assailant Shoots Four Guests At House Party, Killing One

A landlord’s worst nightmare is someone getting hurt, or worse, shot and killed on their rental property, and then getting sued for wrongful death. This was the situation facing a property owner in Dorchester in the recent case of Belizaire v. Furr, (Appeals Court 13-P-1908 Sept. 11, 2015). Fortunately for the landlord, the Court ultimately concluded that she was not legally responsible for the shooting because there was no reason to predict it would happen. Had the facts been different in this case, the landlord would not have been so luck to escape liability. After discussing this important case, I’ll talk about some ways that landlords can manage their risk.

Shooting at House Party, 5-7 Edson Street, Dorchester

The landlord owned a two-family in Dorchester which she rented out to several individuals. The landlord was fairly lax with written lease agreements, with some of the tenants having leases, but others not. On the night in question, the landlord’s son and one of the occupants (who were friends) hosted a party with a DJ, alcohol and dancing. Carl Belizaire attended the party as a guest. Late at night, an unknown assailant shot up the room, killing Belizaire and injuring three other guest. The assailant was never found or charged. There was no prior history of violence at the property.

Landlord Sued For Wrongful Death

Belizaire’s estate sued the landlord for wrongful death, alleging that she failed to keep the property safe. The Court first analyzed whether there was a tenancy or lease in place, because that would minimize the landlord’s liability and control over injuries occurring on rental property. The landlord’s failure to secure leases with the tenants at the property, particularly the tenant who threw the party, resulted in the court concluding that there was insufficient evidence to rule that there was a valid tenancy in place to shield the landlord from liability.

The Court, however, ultimately ruled that the landlord was not liable for the shooting because there was no evidence of prior shootings or similar violent incidents on the property. Although there was evidence of prior drug activity at the property, the court found this insufficient to support a finding of liability. There was no evidence of other large parties with uninvited guests similar to the one in question taking place on the property. Nor was there any evidence that the landlord was affiliated in any way with, or knowledgeable about, the assailant or any dispute that the assailant may have had with the victim. The evidence submitted suggests that the victim’s death was tied to events beyond the party at the rental property. As a general rule, a landowner does not owe a duty to take affirmative steps to protect against dangerous or unlawful acts of third persons. In certain exceptional circumstances, landlords may be liable for ignoring criminal activities that occur on their premises and were known or should have been known to them. That was not the case here.

Managing The Risks Of Property Ownership: Use Strong Leases and Set Up LLC’s to Hold Title

Many of my landlord clients often worry about liability issues at their rental property. They often ask me whether they can get sued over someone getting hurt on their rental property and what they can do to minimize their risk.

The landlord in this case made some catastrophic mistakes which, had the facts been different, could have resulted in a multi-million dollar liability. The first mistake she made was not securing written leases for all tenants and occupants at the rental property. The form lease that I have drafted contains a unique indemnification clause which would have help shield the landlord for liability for injuries caused by the tenants. The second major mistake made by the landlord was holding title to the rental property in her individual name, thereby exposing her personal assets to a lien or judgment. Although not always appropriate for every landlord, it’s a prudent idea to hold rental property in a limited liability company which would shield the landlord’s personal assets from liability. There is expense to set up the LLC and there is a $500 annual fee, but in my opinion, it’s well worth it relative to the risk of getting sued for wrongful death.

_____________________________________________________

100316_photo_vetstein-2.pngIf you are a rental property owner and would like advice concerning your leases or would like to discuss setting up an LLC, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352. I would be happy to help you in any way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other speakers include:

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

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

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

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

Mark Leger, MRHA Legislative Chair

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

Click here to Register for the Conference. 

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

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

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

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

Bill Would Level Playing Field Between Small Landlords and Tenants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NickCLRAttorney General’s Office Accused of Smearing Local Landlords In Press

A Craigslist rental ad posted online for merely 8 days turned into a complete nightmare for a Melrose father and son who claim that Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office ran roughshod over their rights and tried to smear their reputations in the local newspapers. After a five year legal saga, the landlords, Nicholas Keramaris (pictured right) and George Keramaris, fought back and won, convincing the Appeals Court to overturn a $38,000 civil penalty and attorneys’ fees assessed against them.

“Apartment Is Not De-Leaded”

The Keramaris family trust owns a 20 unit apartment building in Melrose. All of the units originally contained lead paint, and five of the apartments have been deleaded. One of the leaded units became available for rent, and Nicholas Keramaris, who is also an attorney, researched the lead paint laws prior to posting an advertisement on Craigslist stating “Note that this apartment is not de-leaded, and therefore it cannot be rented to families with children under six years old.”

A Melrose mother, who did not have a child under six and who did not attempt to rent the advertised apartment, filed a complaint with the MCAD about the ad. (This could have been a dummy renter employed to find fair housing violations). Once the landlords were notified of the complaint, they took the ad off Craigslist. It ran for a grand total of 8 days.

1379349493000-martha-coakleyAG’s Office Steps In

Attorney General Martha Coakley’s Office then stepped in and filed a civil action for discriminatory rental practices, seeking penalties and damages under the state Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A. According to the Keramaris family, “from the day that the Assistant Attorney General assumed responsibility over the case, he insisted on collection of steep penalties as a condition for settlement. Also, the Attorney General’s office publicly smeared us through repeated press releases while the case was pending. Our request for the Attorney General’s office to stop issuing negative press releases was described as a “non-starter” for settlement negotiations. Therefore, this very simple case, which involved a relatively benign violation, dragged on for almost five years.”

Award Struck Down

Despite the fact that the ad ran for only 8 days and no one was actually harmed, the Attorney General was able to persuade a Superior Court judge to assess an aware of nearly $38,000 in penalties and attorneys’ fees. Unwilling to accept this unjust result, the Keramaris family appealed and got the justice they deserved.

Employing some well needed common sense, the three judge appellate panel concluded that although the ad technically violated the lead paint discrimination statute, any harm done was minimal and did not rise to the egregious level of a Consumer Protection Act violation. In a rare ruling, the judges ruled that the lower court abused its discretion, finding that this was nothing but a good faith mistake by landlords who were not intentionally setting out to violate the law. The Appeals Court ultimately stuck down the entire award, leaving the Keramaris family with justice, albeit after 5 long years and I’m sure thousands in legal fees.

Where’s the Discretion?

I have handled numerous rental discrimination cases involving the Attorney General’s Office. The one thing I can say is that they often have a very one sided view of cases and suffer from tunnel vision. They also hardly ever exercise their discretion to back down. It’s usually all or nothing. I would like to see them try to see both sides of the coin in future cases and be more open to negotiated settlements. Maybe this ruling will encourage that. I won’t hold my breath though.

And lastly, I’m curious if the Attorney General will issue a press release announcing that the Appeals Court overturned this award? I doubt it.

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Winter Storm Minnesota

Shovel Early and Often!

This winter has been one of the snowiest on record, and there is another major snow event on the way. Judging from the astronomical number of recent clicks on this blog, it’s clear that people want to know all about Massachusetts snow removal law. The 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, 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.

It’s clear that it’s time to give you the most up-to-date information. So here is a fresh set of Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers) with links at the end to various city and town webpages on their snow removal policies. Good luck and stay safe!

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

The answer is yes. Under a 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 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 12 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

Arlington Snow Info

Belmont Snow Ordinance

City of Boston Snow Center

Brookline Snow Alerts

Cambridge Snow Guide

Lawrence Winter Parking Rules

Lynn DPW Winter

Marlborough DPW

Medford Police Dept. Snow 

Needham MA Snow & Ice

Newton Snow Page

Quincy Snow Removal

Salem Snow Emergency Rules

City of Springfield Snow Rules

Somerville Snow Guide

Waltham Snow Policy

Wayland Snow Policy

Worcester Snow DPW

Winter Storm Precautions

  • Keep roads clear to allow plowing operations to proceed smoothly.
  • Use care around downed power lines. Assume a down wire is a live wire.
  • Check in with your neighbors, especially those that may need assistance.
  • Help dig out fire hydrants and storm drains in your neighborhood.
  • If you live on a corner, clear a path from the sidewalk to the street. If not precisely on the corner, as close to the corner as you can get.
  • Avoid parking too close to corners, allowing Public Safety vehicles and plows to maneuver safely.
  • Be aware of children playing in the streets, particularly climbing on or running out from behind large snowdrifts
  • Parents should remind their children to be aware of plowing operations and traffic.
  • Clear exhaust vents from Direct Vent Gas Furnace Systems to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Never run an automobile until exhaust pipe has been cleared of snow.
  • Make sure backup generators are well ventilated.
  • Take your time shoveling. Avoid overexertion.
  • For homes heated by oil please be sure a safe route is available for delivery to your oil fill pipe.
  • Clear flat roofs and decks to prevent accumulation of snow/ice over the season.

 

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City Universities Providing ISD With Addresses of Student Apartments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Charlie Baker Effect

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

Will Realtors Be Treated As Employees or Remain Independent Contractors?

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

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

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

Housing Court Expansion

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

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

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