Rent basics

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and Greater Boston Legal Services

If you are a tenant, you are responsible for paying rent, and your landlord must keep your apartment in good condition. In this article, learn the basics about rent laws for:

This article also covers what to do if your landlord raises the rent and how you can protect yourself. 


Common Questions

How can I prove that I paid my rent?

Protect yourself. Keep good records:

  • Never pay rent in cash unless you can get a receipt. See  Rent Receipt (Form 2).  
  • Pay your rent with a check, money order, or other format with a record. Write the month and year the rent is for.
  • Make a copy or take a photo of the check or money order with the receipt stub attached.
  • Get a receipt every time you pay rent with the day, month, and year the rent it is for.  
  • Save all rent receipts, canceled checks, and copies and photos of money orders with their receipt stubs in a special folder.
  • If you have roommates, each roommate should pay their part of the rent directly to the landlord and keep proof of their payment. Each tenant needs proof that they paid rent to the landlord and not to another roommate.
How much rent can a landlord charge?

To figure out what rent a landlord can charge, first figure out what type of housing you live in.

In Massachusetts, landlords of private unsubsidized housing can ask for as much rent as they want. They do not have to adjust the rent to an amount you can afford.

If you live in:

  • private housing that is subsidized, 
  • public housing, 
  • have a voucher, or 
  • live in mobile home park, 

there are limits to the amount of rent a landlord can charge. See If I live in public or subsidized housing, how much do I pay in rent?

Where can I get help paying my rent?

Massachusetts has programs to help you with rent or other housing costs if you are facing eviction, foreclosure, shut-off of utilities, and other housing emergencies. Learn more about how to apply. Some cities and towns have money to help with rent. Mutual aid networks, churches, and nonprofits like the Salvation Army may have money to help with rent.

Rent in Private Housing

Can my landlord increase my rent?

Your landlord can only raise the rent if they give you proper notice and both of you agree to the increase.  

Proper notice says your current tenancy is ending and offers you a new tenancy at a higher rent. The notice can be 1 document or 2 separate documents.

  • If you have a lease, your landlord can’t raise your rent before the lease period ends without your agreement. If they want to raise your rent for the next lease period, they must give you notice that ends your tenancy before the lease renews or extends. This is a “Notice to Quit.” If your lease has no special instructions about notices, your landlord does not have to give you a separate Notice to Quit. Your lease tells you when your tenancy ends.
  • If you do not have a lease, a landlord must give you at least 30 days’ advance written notice to end your tenancy at the existing rent. The exact notice required depends on how frequently and on what day you pay rent. For more, see Rent Increases (Legal Tactics, Chapter 5: Rent).
When is a rent increase illegal?

Your landlord must not raise your rent if:

  • Your lease (or other written rental agreement) has not ended. Rent cannot be raised during the lease period unless you get “proper notice.”
  • The increase is to get back at you for doing something like reporting bad conditions or joining a tenant organization. This is called “retaliation.”
  • You did not get proper advance notice.
If my building is sold, can the new landlord raise my rent?

The new landlord has to honor the agreements in your current lease. This means they must accept your old rent amount until your lease ends, or until they give you proper notice. Do not pay a rent increase above what you agreed to in your lease. 

What can I do if my landlord is increasing my rent?

You have options. You can:

  • Negotiate. Try to negotiate a fairer rent with your landlord.  
  • Organize. Work with other tenants to negotiate a fair rent. It is illegal for your landlord to retaliate against you for organizing.
  • Pay the increase and stay. If you can afford the increase, ask for a long lease to protect yourself from future increases.
  • Refuse the increase and move. If you cannot afford the increase, you can move.

See more in Options if You Receive a Rent Increase Notice (Legal Tactics, Chapter 5: Rent).

When can my landlord charge me late fees?

You only have to pay a fee for late rent if you have a written lease that says you do. Even then, your landlord cannot collect the late fee until 30 days after the rent was due.

What if my landlord and I disagree about the rent amount?

If your landlord disagrees about how much you owe, pay what you know is owed and write on the check or money order: “Cashing this check means you agree this amount is full payment of rent owed to date, including for [date]."

If your landlord cashes your check and does not “reserve their rights,” your landlord agrees you are up to date with your rent. “Reserving their rights” means that the landlord does not agree that you have paid full rent. A landlord may write that they reserve their rights on the check, in a Notice to Quit, in a lease, or other documents. 

Can I be evicted for not paying rent?

Yes. But there are ways that you can stop an eviction by paying the rent within certain deadlines.

  • If you do not have a lease

    You can stop the eviction if you pay all rent due within 10 days of getting the Notice to Quit, and if this is the only Notice to Quit for nonpayment you got in the last 12 months.  

    Your Notice to Quit must tell you that you have the right to “cure.” If it does not, you have until the “answer date” to pay the full rent owed.  

  • If you have a lease

    You can stop the eviction even if you received another Notice to Quit for nonpayment in the last 12 months. There are 2 ways to stop the eviction:

    • Pay the landlord all the rent you owe within 10 days of getting the 14-Day Notice to Quit, or
    • If your landlord already started a court case, pay the landlord all the rent you owe and the landlord's court costs on or before the “answer date” on the court Summons and Complaint. The “answer date” is 3 business days before the first court date. See an example of a court timeline.
  • Delay in government assistance

    If your rent is late because your benefit check or rent payment from a government agency is late, the judge has to give you at least 7 more days before hearing your eviction case. This is called a “continuance.” If you pay all the rent you owe, plus interest and court costs, before the “continued” court date, the judge must dismiss the case.

To learn more about rent in private housing, see Legal Tactics, Chapter 5: Rent.

Rent in Public and Subsidized Housing

If I live in public or subsidized housing, how much do I pay in rent?

To figure out how much a landlord can charge, you should first figure out whether you live in a state or federal program.  

  • Public housing is owned and run by a housing authority.
  • Subsidized housing is owned by a landlord or company that gets money from the state or federal government to keep rents affordable.  
  • Vouchers are payments from the government that you can use to rent housing in the private market.  

Usually, rent in public housing is a percentage of your expected yearly income. A housing authority first determines what your income is. What is counted as income is different depending on whether you live in state and federal public housing. You may also be able to deduct certain expenses that can help lower your rent.  

If you don’t know whether you live in state or federal public housing, ask your manager or check your lease.

State public housing 

For elderly/disabled public housing, your rent will be:

  • 30% of your monthly net income if you pay no utilities
  • 25% of your monthly net income if you pay some or all utilities

For family public housing, your rent will be:

  • 32% of your monthly net income, if you pay no utilities
  • 30% of your monthly net income if you pay some of your utilities
  • 27% of your monthly net income if you pay all utilities 
Federal public housing  

For federal public housing, you usually pay whichever is more:  

  • 30% of adjusted monthly income; or 10% of monthly income; or welfare rent, if applicable; or a $25 minimum rent or higher amount (up to $50) set by the local housing authority.
  • Most tenants pay 30% of adjusted income.  
  • If you pay utilities, then a utility allowance is subtracted from this monthly amount.  

If your household includes immigrants, you usually pay a pro-rated rent which is often much higher than the regular rent. 


Can the housing authority increase or decrease my rent in public housing?

Yes. But you can take steps to protect yourself in certain situations, like:

  • If your household income goes up or down,
  • You have high medical expenses,  
  • You lose a job,  
  • Your family composition changes, or  
  • You are having trouble paying your rent. 
What happens if I pay my rent late in public housing?
  • In state public housing: If your rent is more than 30 days late, a housing authority must charge a late fee of $25. You may ask the housing authority to waive (not charge) the fee if there is a good reason that you were late, like you did not receive a benefit check in time.
  • In federal public housing: If your rent is more than 30 days late, a housing authority may charge a late fee, but it must be listed in your lease. The housing authority must give you written notice 2 weeks before it can charge you a late fee. Usually there is a process to waive (not charge) the fee.  
If I live in privately-owned subsidized housing, how much rent do I pay?

In privately owned subsidized housing, rents are calculated differently for different programs. In some programs, tenants' rents are set at a percentage of income like with public housing. In other programs, rents may be set at a fixed amount based on the number of bedrooms. In some situations, the rent does not change even if your income changes. In other programs, your income may qualify you for a rent adjustment. 

Because different program rules can make a big difference in whether an apartment is affordable for you, it is important to ask the landlord how the rent is calculated and how it changes if your income changes.

If I have a voucher, how much rent do I pay?

There are state and federal voucher programs that pay a percentage of the rent to a private landlord. You will usually pay between 30% and 40% of your household's adjusted income. 

For federal vouchers, you will pay whichever is highest of: 

  • 30% of your adjusted monthly income; 
  • 10% of your monthly income; 
  • welfare rent; or 
  • the minimum rent established by the local housing authority.

When you get a voucher, ask the housing agency to write out the maximum amount that you will be able to rent a place for. If your portion of the rent and the utilities that you pay is above 40% of your adjusted income, you will not be allowed to lease the apartment. But there may be some things that you can do.

Can my landlord increase my rent if I have a voucher?

Yes. If you have a Section 8 voucher, your landlord can increase your rent after the initial lease term if the housing agency has approved the increase and you agree to accept the increase. However, this does not necessarily mean that your monthly share of the rent will increase. If the total rent is raised beyond the local payment standard, you may be required to pay more.

Can I lose my Section 8 voucher if I pay rent late?

Maybe. If you do not pay or often pay rent late, you may not be able to continue getting a Section 8 voucher.


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