Your Right to a Decent Place to Live

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Susan Hegel

All tenants have a right to a decent, safe, and sanitary place to live. In Massachusetts, there are primarily four sources of law that give tenants this right:

  1. The state Sanitary Code
  2. Local health ordinances
  3. A warranty of habitability
  4. The law of quiet enjoyment

Learn more about these sources of law below.

State Sanitary Code

In Massachusetts, the state Sanitary Code is the primary source of law that gives tenants a right to decent housing. The purpose of the state Sanitary Code is to protect people's health, safety, and well-being. It sets the minimum legal standards that all landlords must meet, and it applies to you whether you have a lease or not. For example, all rental housing must have heat, hot water, and electricity. Kitchens and bathrooms must have sinks with running water. Doors and windows must have locks.

The Housing Code Checklist (Booklet 2) outlines the main parts of the state Sanitary Code. It tells you which violations a landlord must repair within 24 hours of being notified by the Board of Health, which violations must be repaired by the landlord within 5 days of being notified, and which violations must be repaired by the landlord within 30 days of being notified by the Board.

  • The minimum standards for housing are online.
  • Regulations for lead poisoning prevention and control are online.
  • The entire state Sanitary Code is online. See Public Health Regulations.

The Sanitary Code can also be purchased in person by going to:

State House Bookstore
State House Room 116, 
Boston, MA 02133

Western Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth
436 Dwight St.
Springfield, MA 01103

Southeastern Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth
218 South Main St., Suite 206
Fall River, MA 02721


While most problems that tenants face are covered in the state Sanitary Code, there are a number of other state codes in Massachusetts that affect residential property. These codes are more complex and detailed than the state Sanitary Code, and in many cases cover the same material.

Local Health Ordinances

Cities and towns have the right to pass local health ordinances that are stricter than the state Sanitary Code. For example, in some cities and towns, local health ordinances require landlords to obtain a certificate of occupancy from a local Board of Health before renting. The reason for this requirement is to make sure that rental housing is safe. If a city or town requires a certificate of occupancy and a landlord has not obtained one, the landlord is in violation of both the local health ordinance and the state Sanitary Code. If a landlord rents an apartment without getting a certificate of occupancy where it is required, she may be prohibited by a court from collecting rent that a tenant withholds for conditions that violate the state Sanitary Code.

Local health ordinances apply to tenants with leases and tenants without leases.

Warranty of Habitability

Like businesses which must guarantee the safety of products they sell, landlords in the business of renting property must guarantee that the apartments they rent are safe and habitable. This is called a warranty of habitability. Basically, this warranty recognizes that in return for your promise to pay rent, your landlord promises to keep your apartment in good condition.

The warranty of habitability applies whether you have a written lease or not. It is a right your landlord cannot ignore or take away from you. For example, it is illegal for a landlord to put a clause in your lease that denies you a warranty of habitability or that states that you are responsible for making all repairs. Also, a landlord cannot claim that she lowered the rent you were charged because of the bad conditions.

A landlord violates the warranty of habitability from the time she has knowledge of conditions that may endanger or impair your health, safety, or well-being. When a landlord breaches the warranty of habitability, you have several options. You may be able to withhold your rent or deduct the cost of repairs from your rent. You can go to court and ask a judge to order your landlord to make repairs and reduce your rent until repairs are made. You can choose to cancel your lease or rental agreement and move out. You can go to court and ask a judge to cancel your lease or rental agreement and give you a full or partial refund of the rent money you have already paid. For more about your options, see the section in this chapter called Options If Your Landlord Refuses to Make Repairs.


Where a tenant claims that a landlord has breached the warranty of habitability, the courts have established a formula to calculate the damages. This amount is called the fair rental value. It is the value of your apartment with all its problems and code violations. Not every violation of the state Sanitary Code, however, violates the warranty of habitability.

The Law of Quiet Enjoyment

Some conditions are so serious, such as no water or heat, that they may violate a state law that gives tenants a right to quiet enjoyment—the right to be free from unreasonable interference with the use of your home.

Under the right to quiet enjoyment law, if a landlord is in violation, you may sue her for money damages, which is your actual damages or 3 times your rent, whichever is more. A judge may also fine the landlord between $25-$300 per violation and put the landlord in jail for up to 6 months. For more information about your rights under this law, see When to Take Your Landlord to Court.


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