Rental Housing

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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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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AR-160427630Eisai, Inc. v. Housing Appeals Committee: Master Plan Conflict Does Not Trump Need For Affordable Housing

Chapter 40B — the state’s so-called “anti-snob” affordable housing law — has pitted developers vs. towns and neighbors in contentious fights over affordable housing projects. It’s one of the most controversial laws in the state, with opponents seeking to reform or repeal the law in recent years. In my home town of Sudbury, for example, there are “Oppose Sudbury Station” signs all over town, in opposition to a planned 200+ unit development in the middle of the historic town center.

While battles rage on the local level, Massachusetts courts have been rather tough on 40B opponents and boards who oppose projects. Last month, in another setback to Chapter 40B opponents, the Massachusetts Appeals Court in Eisai, Inc. v. Housing Appeals Committee (June 20, 2016), allowed a controversial Andover 40B project to proceed over the local ZBA’s denial of the permit on grounds that the town master plan is a local concern that trumps the need for affordable housing.

In the Eisai case, an Andover developer filed a 40B Comprehensive Permit application to build a 248-rental-unit project within an existing office and industrial park. The local zoning board of appeals denied the application on the ground that the “proposed project is inconsistent with decades of municipal planning, economic development strategies, and planning with owners and tenants of the abutting industrial properties[,] . . . most notably, the rezoning of the locus and abutting properties to accommodate and develop a modern, competitive, and viable industrial park and industrial center.” On appeal by the developer, the state Housing Appeals Committee, a state agency which hears appeals of 40B permits, reversed and ordered the local board to issue the Comprehensive Permit. The case was further appealed to the Superior Court, which upheld the permit, then to the state Appeals Court.

The important aspect of the appellate ruling was the Court’s endorsement of a new reformulated four factor test announced by the HAC under which the ZBA must offer more evidence of local concerns to outweigh the regional need for affordable housing. On its face, the reformulated test requires boards to provide a greater amount of more specific, higher quality information in order to tip the scale in favor of upholding the master plan and denying a 40B project.

Project opponents must now demonstrate the following:

  1. The extent to which the proposed housing is in conflict with or undermines the specific planning interest.
  2. The importance of the specific planning interest, under the facts presented, measured, to the extent possible, in quantitative terms . . . .
  3. The quality . . . of the overall master plan (or other planning documents or efforts) and the extent to which it has been implemented. A very significant component of the master plan is the housing element of that plan (or any separate affordable housing plan). The housing element must not only promote affordable housing, but to be given significant weight, the Board must also show to what extent it is an effective planning tool. . . .
  4. The amount [and type] of affordable housing that has resulted from affordable housing planning.

Faced with the new, reformulated test, my prediction is that local boards and 40B opponents are going to have a much tougher time opposing 40B projects.

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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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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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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.

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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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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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