Rights of All Rooming House Residents
No matter how long you have lived in a rooming house, you have the following rights:
- The right to report bad housing conditions (see Chapter 8: Getting Repairs Made).
- The right to a hearing in front of a judge before the owner can evict you.21 You do not have to move out until a judge says you do, and only a constable can physically remove you.
- The right to ask a judge to hold off on evicting you until you find another place to live (see Chapter 13: Evictions). Although a judge is not required to give you extra time, it is within their discretion. It will be harder to get more time if your eviction is for non-payment of rent or a reason that is your fault, or if you have lived in the rooming house for less than three months.22 However, if you need more time, ask for it.
- The right to appeal a judge's decision against you in eviction case (see Chapter 13: Evictions).
In addition, all rooming house residents have the following protections:
You Cannot Be Locked Out
If you legally occupy your room—which means you moved in with the permission of the owner—the owner cannot lock you out of your room or the rooming house. If the owner asks you to leave or gives you an eviction notice (notice to quit), you do not have to move out. After an owner gives you a notice to quit, she must go to court and get a judge's permission to evict you.23
If the owner locks you out or attempts to lock you out of your room or the rooming house, the owner has violated the law. If you have to go to court to get back in, a judge can not only order the owner to allow you back in, but also can order the owner to pay you money (damages) equal to three months rent or more.24 To find out how you can get back into your room, see the section called Lockouts and Utility Shut-offs in Chapter 13: Evictions.
It is also illegal for an owner of a rooming house to keep your belongings for any reason.25 You can go to court and ask a judge to order the landlord to give you back your things. For help, see Form 15: Temporary Restraining Order.
Report Bad Conditions
You have the right to report bad conditions to the owner or a Board of Health inspector. You also have the right to take legal action against the rooming house owner for conditions that violate the state Sanitary Code.26 For more information about how to notify the rooming house owner about bad conditions, how to contact a housing inspector, or what your options are if you have bad conditions, see Chapter 8: Getting Repairs Made.
While reporting bad conditions to the authorities is your right, and in most cases is to be encouraged, you should check first to see if your landlord has a lodging house license. This is because, if there is no proper license, an enforcement agency (such as the Board of Health), may in addition to ordering your landlord to make repairs, require the landlord to stop any illegal occupancy (which could put roomers at risk of being required to leave), or to obtain a lodging house license.
You may want to write to your landlord first, requesting that repairs be made, or seek legal advice before deciding whether to request an official inspection.
Retaliation Is Illegal
Retaliatory evictions are illegal.27 An example of a retaliatory eviction would be if a rooming house owner attempts to evict you because you have complained to the Board of Health about conditions in your building. For more information, see the section called Retaliatory Evictions in Chapter 13: Evictions.
Repair and Deduct
If, after notifying your landlord in writing about conditions that violate the state Sanitary Code, your landlord refuses to make the repairs, you have the right to make repairs and deduct the cost of repairs from your rent. If you have lived in your rooming house for less than three months, this may involve complex legal arguments for which you may need to consult a lawyer.28
In order to be eligible for rent deduction for repairs, you must have first notified the landlord in writing about the existence of the violations.29 See the section on Repair and Deduct, Chapter 8: Getting Repairs Made.
Right to Privacy
You have the same right to privacy as other tenants. Your landlord has the right to enter your apartment, after reasonable notice, to make the necessary repairs.30 This does not mean that a landlord can go into your room without your permission, however.
While a licensed rooming house is subject to inspection, this does not mean that anyone (a government official or your landlord) can enter your room without your permission (except with a court order, or in case of emergency).31
Not all rooming house residents have all the same rights. To figure out the rights you have in addition to those already described in this chapter, you need to figure out how long you have lived in the rooming house. Have you lived there:
- More than three months in a row (three consecutive months)?
- Between 30 days and three months?
- 30 days or less?
Your answer will determine which laws protect you.
More Than Three Months
If you have lived in the same rooming house for more than three consecutive months (three months in a row), you are a tenant at will 32 A tenant at will is a person who rents a place with permission of the owner of the rooming house, but most likely without a written agreement. As a tenant at will you have the right to:
- Withhold your rent if the room or rooming house is in poor or unhealthy condition.33 Before you do this, read Chapter 8: Getting Repairs Made to make sure that you follow the proper procedures.
- Make repairs and deduct the cost of repairs from your rent.34 If you choose to do this, there are strict rules to be followed. Make sure that you read Getting Repairs Made.
- Receive 30 days' advance notice in writing (notice to quit from the owner if she decides to evict you.35 If the owner is evicting you for non-payment of rent, you are entitled only to 14 days' notice to quit. If, however, you pay your rent on a daily or weekly basis and you are being evicted for nuisance, substantial damage, or serious interference with the rights of other roomers, then you are only entitled to a 7-day notice.36
- Receive at least one year's advance notice if your rooming house is being converted to a condominium. Low- and moderate-income people, elderly, and people with handicaps are entitled to a two-year advance notice. Check to see if there is a local ordinance that provides longer notice periods. For more information see Chapter 20: Condominium Control.
Between 30 Days and Three Months
If you have lived in a rooming house for less than three consecutive months but more than 30 days, the following is a breakdown of what rights you do and do not have under current law.
Rights you do have:
- You may have the right to make repairs and deduct the cost of repairs from your rent.37
- You have the right to receive only a 7-day (not a 14- or 30-day) written notice (notice to quit) from the owner prior to an eviction hearing in court.38
Rights you do not have:
- You do not have the right to withhold your rent.39
In addition, a judge is not likely to hold off on evicting you until you have found another place to live.40
30 Days or Less
If you have lived in a rooming house for 30 days or less, these are the rights you do and do not have under current law.
Rights you do have:
- You may have the right to make repairs and deduct the cost of the repairs from your rent.41
Rights you do not have:
- You do not have the right to withhold your rent.42
- You do not have the right to any advance written notice (notice to quitfrom the owner prior to a court hearing to evict you. An owner can go directly to court and serve you with a summons and complaint.43 In addition, the judge is not likely to hold off on evicting you until you find another place to live.44
How Much Notice Rooming House Occupants Are Entitled to Before an Eviction Hearing in Court
Length of stay in rooming house
Owner's reason for evicting
Amount of notice you have a right to
Reasons other than non-payment
Non-payment of rent
Nuisance, damage, or interfering with safety
Any reason, including non-payment of rent
30 days or less
21 . G.L. c. 184, §18; c. 186, §§14 and 15F; Serreze v. Y.W.C.A. of Western Massachusetts, Inc., 30 Mass. App. Ct. 639, (1991 Carr v. Friends of the Homeless, Inc., Hampden Housing Court, 89-LE-3492-S (Apr. 3, 1990 Eaton v. Plowshares, Inc., Northeast Housing Court, 92-CV-00141 (Aug. 18, 1992).
22 . G.L. c. 239, §9 (as amended by St. 1986, c. 452). This statute permits judges to postpone evictions for up to a year for disabled or elder tenants and up to six months for all other tenants, if the eviction is not the tenant's fault. However, many judges give additional time even where the tenant is at fault under their "inherent" authority to decide cases. Note: The stay authorized by G.L. c. 239, §9 does not apply to roomers who have occupied their rooms less than three consecutive months.
23 . G.L. c. 186, §14; c. 184 §18; c. 239.
24 . G.L. c. 186, §§14 and 15F; c.184, §18; Serreze v. Y.W.C.A. of Western Massachusetts, Inc., 30 Mass. App. Ct. 639 (1991 Carr v. Friends of the Homeless, Inc., Hampden Housing Court, 89-LE-3492-S (Apr. 3, 1990 Eaton v. Plowshares, Inc., Northeast Housing Court, 92-CV-00141 (Aug. 18, 1992).
25 . G.L. c. 186, §14; St. 1977, c. 284, §1, amending G.L. c. 140, §12, to remove boarding houses and lodging houses from the language which had previously granted what has been traditionally known as the "innkeeper's lien"; and St. 1977, c. 284, §2, repealing G.L. c. 255, §23. Note, however, that both the owner's lien and the criminal sanction against a tenant still exist for properties licensed as hotels, motels, and inns. Check with the city or town clerk to find out how your building is licensed.
26 . G.L. c. 111, §127; 105 C.M.R. §410.001-960; G.L. c. 239, §2A; G.L. c. 186, §18.
27 . G.L. c. 239, §2 A; G.L. c. 186, §18. The retaliatory eviction defense is available to all roomers regardless of length of occupancy. This conclusion is based on the retaliation statute being "remedial" in nature, so as to protect individuals who exercise their rights, which include a tenant's First Amendment right to petition for redress of a wrong. See Edward v. Habib, 397 F.2d 687 (1968), cert. denied, 393 U.S. 1016 (1969 Hosey v. Club Van Cortlandt, 299 F. Supp. 501 (S.D.N.Y. 1969).
28 . G.L. c. 111, §127L.
29 . G.L. c. 111, §127L.
30 . 105 C.M.R. §410.810.
31 . A Consent Decree is in effect from the case of Sang Vo v. City of Boston, 2005 WL 3627054 (D. Mass., Jan. 24, 2005), which requires, in Boston, that the City obtain a signed, court-approved consent form from the occupant in order for a city official to enter private dwelling space.
32 . G.L. c. 186, §17. While residents of fraternity houses and dormitories in educational institutions are defined as "lodgers" under G.L. c. 140, §22, such residents do not automatically become tenants at will after three months. Any person living in a fraternity house or dormitory is, however, entitled to a seven-day written notice prior to eviction.
33 . G.L. c. 239, §8A.
34 . G.L. c. 111, §127L.
35 . G.L. c. 186, §§12 and 17. Note: If you are committing a nuisance, causing damage, or interfering with the safety of the owner or other tenants, the owner may use a seven-day notice to terminate your tenancy. See G.L. c. 186, §17.
36 . G.L. c. 186, §17.
37 . Under both the repair and deduct statute, G.L. c. 111, §127L, and the retaliatory eviction statute, G.L. c. 186, §18, "tenants of residential premises" are covered. Both statutes were enacted to promote the enforcement of the state Sanitary Code in residential housing: the retaliatory eviction statute, by barring eviction of the tenant who reports violations; and the repair and deduct statute, by allowing tenants to fix violations themselves. Although rooming houses are clearly "residential premises," it is unclear whether the word "tenant" applies to a lodger of less than three months.
Because the word "tenant" has different meanings in different contexts, there is a good argument that these statutes apply to all rooming house occupants. For example, in Brown v. Guerrier, 390 Mass. 631 (1983), the Court held that tenants at sufferance are tenants for purposes of G.L. c. 111, §127H (authorizing petitions to enforce the state Sanitary Code). Similarly, in Hodge v. Klug, 33 Mass. App. Ct. 746, 754-55 (1992), the Court held that the protections of G.L. c. 239, §8A, apply for "tenants at sufferance." Both courts relied upon public policy considerations to reach these results.
The Boston Housing Court has suggested that retaliation laws apply to boarding house occupants of less than three months. In Koen & Nash v. Onnessimo, Boston Housing Court, 19673 and 19674 (Daher, C.J., Oct. 30, 1985), the Court said: "If the Defendant [owner] threw out the Plaintiffs [the boarding house occupants of less than three months] because they complained of code violations, this Court would rule that an act of retaliation and would itself confer a tenancy upon the Plaintiffs."
38 . G.L. c. 186, §17.
39 . G.L. c. 239, §8A, ¶2.
40 . G.L. c. 239, §9 (as amended by St. 1986, c. 452). See endnote 22.
41 . See endnote 37.
42 . G.L. c. 239, §8A, ¶2.
43 . G.L. c. 186, §17.
44 . G.L. c. 239, §9 (as amended by St. 1986, c. 452 but see endnote 22.
45 . Be sure to check for any local ordinances giving more protection. See Chapter 20: Condominium Control. For example, in the City of Boston, elderly/disabled residents are entitled to 5 years' notice in the event of condominium conversion.