Tenants Rights Guide
Posted on 14 Dec 2020
Worried about eviction?
27% of renters in Massachusetts are currently at risk of eviction, and the courts are set to be overloaded with eviction cases this winter and beyond. We’re in a pandemic that has forced many into financial ruin, and this is nothing to be ashamed of. There’s help.
Only a judge can evict you, not your landlord.
Although the landlord of a tenant at will or under a lease can terminate the tenancy or raise the rent without reason, they cannot do so in response to your exercising your legal rights.
They are not allowed to impose a rent increase on you unless you either agree in writing to pay the specified rent amount or if you actually pay the higher rent at least once. Once you pay the higher amount, you will be considered to have entered into a new contract at the higher rent.
If you exercise your legal rights in any way (contacting the Board of Health, joining a tenants’ union, etc.) and the landlord tries to raise the rent, terminate or otherwise change your tenancy within six months of your doing so, this is considered retaliation against you - and the burden of proof is on the landlord to prove otherwise.
If you are a Section 8 tenant or you live in a building under your local Housing Authority, you may have different rights and responsibilities than those summarized in this section. Contact the agency that provided the subsidy.
How do evictions work?
First, your landlord must provide you with a ‘Notice to Quit’ in writing. The notice must state two things:
- Why the landlord is trying to evict you,
- And the date they want your tenancy to end.
The landlord is only allowed to file a case in housing court after the date listed on the Notice to Quit. Afterwards, they are required to file what’s called a ‘Summons and Complaint’ in court and give you a copy before your first court date. They can only get the court order to evict you if they win the case.
These rules still apply even if you don’t have a written lease!
Once you receive a court date, it’s important that you attend. If you don’t attend your court date, the judge has a right to grant your landlord the eviction and will almost certainly do so, even if you have a legal defense.
What can I do?
If you have received a Notice to Quit, donʼt panic. This is only the beginning of the process, not the end. You have time. Start collecting evidence to prepare for the legal battle, and contact legal services as soon as possible. You can find legal aid in your area here.
If you have received a Summons and Complaint, make sure you go to court and file a legal document called an ʻAnswerʼ as soon as possible. The Answer allows you to tell your side of the story, but again, you should try to get legal help to complete it. Depending on the facts of your case, you may be in a good position for the court to throw out your eviction.
You should also demand information and documents from your landlord through Discovery Requests. You are entitled to know exactly why the landlord wants to evict you. Depending on the facts of the case, you may be able to use some of the legal defenses below.
(If it turns out you missed your first court date, it’s not too late! In many cases, you may be allowed to file a late Answer. Talk to a lawyer as soon as possible.)
Common Legal Defenses Against Eviction
- Do you have pests? Does the plumbing leak? Are any locks broken? Does cold air seep in through the windows? If your apartment has problems or, and your landlord knows or should know about them, you are owed for the loss in value of the home. You have the right to a safe, sanitary home. You can call your local Inspectional Services Department for more information about the sanitary code or to request an inspection.
- Is your landlord trying to get rid of you because you complained, organized a tenant’s union, or other-wise exercised your rights? Your landlord cannot retaliate against tenants who exercise their rights, and the burden of proof is on the landlord.
- Is your landlord singling you out because of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, national origin, age, or another protected identity?
Interference with the quiet enjoyment of your home
- Does the landlord barge into your apartment in non-emergency situations without warning you? Did they change the locks on you, or put your stuff out onto the street? Depending on the facts of the case, this may count as an illegal eviction!
Federal/CDC Eviction Ban
The Center for Disease Control has ordered the suspension of physical evictions for non-payment of rent until December 31, 2020. If you meet all 5 points of criteria below, you can submit the CDC declaration form to your landlord to protect yourself from eviction and to use as a legal tool in court:
- Used “best efforts” to look for government assistance for rent or housing. (This is vague, but if you can prove that you did everything you can to pay the back rent or find alternate housing arrangements, you should be able to meet this requirement.)
- Meet one of these income requirements:
- You will earn less than $99,000 this year OR if filing with a partner or household, you will earn less than $198,000.
- You were not required to pay taxes in 2019.
- You qualified for an income stimulus check earlier this year.
- Are unable to make your full rent payment because of a loss of income or large medical expense.
- Are doing your best to make timely partial rental payments. If you haven’t already been paying your landlord, offer a partial rent payment that is affordable to you when you give your landlord the CDC notice.
- Would either become homeless or enter a shared living space (like living with a family member or staying at a shelter) if evicted.
Confused about the CDC moratorium process? Follow these five steps to apply for the moratorium:
- Ask for help with rent!
- Keep paying as much rent as you can.
- If you haven’t been paying your landlord, offer a partial rent payment that is affordable to you when you give your landlord the CDC form.
- Print, sign and date, then submit the CDC declaration form to your landlord or property management company (whoever you pay rent to).
- You can access the CDC declaration form in PDF here.
- Tip: Is there more than one person on your lease? Make sure everyone on the lease fills out their own form.
- Take a picture of the signed form and then give your landlord the signed form.
- Make sure to keep a copy of the form(s) before you give it to your landlord! The more written documentation you have, the easier it will be to prove your case in court.
If your landlord violates your rights during the COVID-19 pandemic, you have legal protection. Report the case to the Office of the MA Attorney General as soon as possible. You can do so here