One of the most common problems tenants face is unfair and unaffordable rent increases. In some cases, these increases may be illegal. In other cases, a landlord may not have properly notified you about the increase.
In all cases, whether a rent increase is legal or illegal, a landlord cannot increase your rent without your agreeing to pay it.9 The following sections explain when a rent increase is illegal or not.
Your landlord cannot raise your rent in retaliation for your asserting your rights. Specifically, the law says that your landlord cannot raise your rent because you have:
- Filed a lawsuit against your landlord or defended yourself successfully in an eviction case;
- Filed a discrimination complaint against your landlord with a government agency;
- Organized or joined a tenants union;
- Reported violations of the state Sanitary Code or other housing laws to the landlord, anyone who works for the landlord, or a housing inspector; or
- Paid some of your rent to a local utility company after your landlord stopped paying utility bills that were her responsibility.
If you believe that your landlord is raising your rent in retaliation for any of these actions, you can refuse to pay the increase. If you refuse to pay the increase, your landlord may try to evict you for non‑payment of rent. This may not be a wise thing to do on your landlord's part.
If your landlord has increased your rent within six months of your taking any of the actions listed above, the law presumes that your landlord is retaliating against you and allows you to sue your landlord for up to three months' rent (or the actual damages you suffer, whichever is greater), plus the cost of your attorney's fees. If a case goes to court, the burden is on the landlord to prove that she was not retaliating against you.10 Even if more than six months have passed, you may still be able to prove that the rent increase is retaliatory, but you will have a harder time proving the retaliation.
Be sure to document the retaliation. Collect information and documents about the actions you took to protect your rights, how your landlord learned about them, and anything she did or said to show she was unhappy with the situation. For more information about retaliation, see Chapter 13: Evictions and Chapter 14: Taking Your Landlord to Court.
If you have a written lease and do not have a housing subsidy, your landlord cannot increase your rent during the period of your lease, even if you and your landlord agree to an increase and put this agreement in writing.11 For example, if you signed a one‑year lease that runs from September 1, 2008 to August 31, 2009, your landlord cannot raise your rent in January 2009.
But there is one exception to this rule. If your lease has what is called a "tax escalator clause," your landlord may be able to increase your rent during the term of your lease if local property taxes go up. For more information, see the section in this chapter called Tax Escalator Clause.
If you have a lease, your landlord must send you proper notice of a rent increase before the date the lease must be renewed. If the landlord does not send you notice of a rent increase until after you have either renewed your lease or it has automatically extended for another year, the increase is illegal and you do not have to pay it. The landlord must wait another year or until your lease term expires before she can change the rent. To figure out whether your lease renews itself, see the section called How Long Is Your Lease Valid in Chapter 4: What Kind of Tenancy Do You Have.
If you are a tenant at will and have no lease, your landlord can propose a rent increase any time—unless the increase is in retaliation for your asserting your rights. See the section in this chapter called Retaliatory Rent Increases. To raise your rent, a landlord must give you a proper notice of an increase. See Receiving Proper Notice of a Rent Increase in this chapter.
If you or your landlord has a housing subsidy, the landlord can increase the rent only if the rules of the housing program allow it. If you have a question about an increase or want to challenge it, you should start by learning more about the particular housing subsidy program that applies.
For more information about housing programs and the government agencies that administer them, see Housing Programs in Legal Tactics: Finding Public & Subsidized Housing
For information about rent increases in public housing, see the booklet Rent in Public Housing.
If you have received a notice that your apartment is being converted into a condominium, your landlord cannot request a rent increase of more than 10% or the increase in the previous year's Consumer Price Index, whichever is less.12 Many times, landlords attempt to empty buildings by significantly raising the rent without telling the tenants that they plan to convert them to condominiums. This may violate the law. If you suspect that your landlord may be converting your building to condominiums, see Chapter 20: Condominium Control.
12. St. 1983, c. 527, §4(e as amended by St. 1989, c. 709, §18.