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June 5, 2019

Knowing your rights as a tenant in Massachusetts

Boston housing remains largely occupied by renters: just one-third of housing units are occupied by owners. While renting allows for flexibility and savings for many students, young professionals and families, it also comes with obligations, for both landlords and tenants.

It’s important to know your rights as a tenant. Below is a brief overview of common issues between landlords and tenants:

I. Evictions

There are three reasons for eviction: lack of rent payment, no fault (landlord wants the apartment empty or wants to rent to someone else), and cause eviction (violation of lease agreement). Tenants who do not pay rent can expect a 14-Day Notice to Quit; however, elderly, disabled, and families with young children can sometimes get up to six months. No-fault evictions receive a 30-Day Notice to Quit/Vacate.

The Housing Court handles eviction cases on Wednesday and Thursday. Low-income individuals (below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines) can get free legal help at Boston Housing Court through the Lawyer for the Day program. Volunteer attorneys are located outside of the courtrooms on the fifth floor.

II. Habitability Rights

You are entitled to a safe and habitable living environment during your entire lease. The State Sanitary Code includes the following:

  • Water: The landlord must provide you with enough water, with adequate pressure and temperature, to meet your ordinary needs
  • Heat: The landlord must provide a heating system in good working order
  • Cockroaches and Rodents: The landlord must keep the unit free from rodents, cockroaches, ad insect infestation, if there are two or more apartments in the building

III. Withholding Rent

When your landlord fails to maintain habitable conditions, including those listed above, as a tenant you may properly withhold a portion of your rent from the date the landlord has notice of a breach of warrant of habitability. You may withhold a portion of your rent if:

  • You have submitted a written appeal to your landlord to make the necessary repairs
  • Your local Board of Health found code violations and notified your landlord
  • You are current on your rent up until the time your landlord learns of the violation, you are not the cause of the violation, and repairs do not require the apartment to be vacated

Once the landlord has repaired all defects, you must pay all withheld rent.

IV. Deposits

Initial deposits can only include four things: security deposit, first month’s rent, last month’s and the cost of changing locks. Pet fees, cleaning fees, application fees, gym fees, etc. are not legal. Your landlord must inform you about where the deposits are being held within 30 days.

The landlord must return the security deposit if there is no damage or unpaid rent; if they fail to do so, the landlord can be brought to court and pay 3X the security deposit. If there is damage beyond “wear and tear,” the landlord must give you a detailed list of damages within 30 days after your tenancy ends.


These are just a few examples of housing related issues you may encounter as a tenant in Boston. If you need legal advice or representation for Housing Court, you can call the Boston Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service at 617-742-0625, connect with an area attorney online 24/7 by clicking “Get Started” here, or by submitting an email request online today.