1. 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.22 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 12: 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 3 months.23 However, if you need more time, ask for it.
- The right to appeal a judge's decision against you in eviction case (see Chapter 12: Evictions).
In addition, all rooming house residents have the following protections:
a. 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 file a court case and get a judge's permission to evict you.24
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 order the owner to allow you back in and can order the owner to pay you money (damages) equal to 3 months rent or more.25 To find out how you can get back into your room, see Chapter 12: Evictions -Lockouts and Utility Shut-offs.
It is also illegal for an owner of a rooming house to keep your belongings for any reason.26 You can go to court and ask a judge to order the landlord to give you back your things. For help, see Temporary Restraining Order (Form 15).
Or try the MassAccess interactive interview, Complaint for a Temporary Restraining Order, that lets you complete, review, sign and send your request for a Temporary Restraining Order to the court from your smart phone or computer.
b. 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.27 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 encouraged, you should first check to see if your landlord has a lodging house license. If your landlord does not have a proper license, an enforcement agency (such as the Board of Health) may order your landlord to make repairs, and could require the landlord to stop any illegal occupancy (which could put you and other roomers at risk of being required to leave), or to obtain a lodging house license.
You may want to write to your landlord to request that repairs be made, or seek legal advice before deciding whether to request an official inspection.
c. Retaliation Is Illegal
Retaliatory evictions are illegal.28 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 Chapter 12: Evictions - Retaliatory Evictions.
d. Repair and Deduct
If your landlord refuses to make repairs after you notify them in writing about conditions that violate the state Sanitary Code, 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 3 months, this may involve complex legal arguments for which you may need to consult a lawyer.29
In order to be eligible for rent deduction for repairs, you must first notify the landlord in writing about the existence of the violations.30 See Chapter 8: Getting Repairs Made for more about repair and deduct.
e. Right to Privacy
You have the same right to privacy as other tenants. A landlord is not allowed to just enter your apartment. But you must allow a landlord access to the apartment after the landlord gives you reasonable notice that she wants to enter the apartment to make repairs.31
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).32
f. Reasonable Accommodation
If you are a person with a disability and your disability is related to the reason for your eviction, you may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation that might allow you to resolve occupancy problems and stay as a resident in the rooming house.33 For more information about reasonable accommodation, see Chapter 12: Evictions – Discrimination.
2. Rights Based on Your Length of Occupancy
Not all rooming house residents have the same rights. The rights you have in addition to those already described in this chapter depend upon how long you have lived in the rooming house. Have you lived there:
- More than 3 months in a row (3 consecutive months)?
- Between 30 days and 3 months?
- 30 days or less?
Your answer will determine which laws protect you.
a. More Than 3 Months
If you have lived in the same rooming house for more than 3 consecutive months (3 months in a row), you are a tenant at will.34 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.35 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.36 If you choose to do this, there are strict rules to be followed. Make sure that you read Chapter 8.
- Advance notice in writing (notice to quit) from the owner if she decides to evict you.37
- If you are up to date on your rent and you are not being evicted for fault, the owner must provide 30 days notice.
- If the owner is evicting you for non-payment of rent, you are entitled 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 the owner or other roomers, then you are only entitled to a 7-day notice.38
- Receive at least 1 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 2-year advance notice. Check to see if there is a local ordinance that provides longer notice periods. For more information see Chapter 17: Condominium Control.
b. Between 30 Days and 3 Months
If you have lived in a rooming house for less than 3 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.39
- 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.40
Rights you do not have:
- You do not have the right to withhold your rent.41
In addition, a judge is not likely to hold off on evicting you until you have found another place to live.42
c. 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.43
Rights you do not have:
- You do not have the right to withhold your rent.44
- You do not have the right to any advance written notice (notice to quit) from 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.45 In addition, the judge is not likely to hold off on evicting you until you find another place to live.46
|How Much Notice Rooming House Occupants Are Entitled to Before an Eviction Hearing in Court|
|Length of stay in rooming house47||Owner's reason for evicting||Amount of notice you have a right to|
|3 months or more||Reasons other than non-payment||30 days|
|Non-payment of rent||14 days|
|Nuisance, damage, or interfering with safety of others||7 days|
|Condominium conversion||Minimum of 1 year; 2 years if disabled, elderly, or low- or moderate-income48|
|Less than 3 months, but more than 30 days||Any reason, including non-payment of rent||7 days|
|30 days or less||Any reason||None|
22 . 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).
23 . G.L. c. 239, §9, as amended by Chapter 452 of the Acts of 1986 (approved October 16, 1986). This statute permits judges to postpone evictions for up to a year for disabled or elder tenants and up to 6 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 3 consecutive months.
25 . 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).
26 . G.L. c. 186, §14; Chapter 284 of the Acts of 1977, Section 1 (approved 1977), 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 Chapter 284 of the Acts of 1977, Section 2 (approved 1977), 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.
28 . 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).
32 . 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.
33 . South Middlesex Opportunity Council, Inc. (SMOC) v. Goldman, Western Housing Court, 12-SP-1899 (Fields, J. September 20, 2012).
34 . 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 3 months. Any person living in a fraternity house or dormitory is, however, entitled to a 7-day written notice prior to eviction.
37 . 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 7-day notice to terminate your tenancy. See G.L. c. 186, §17.
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 3 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 3 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 3 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."
42 . G.L. c. 239, §9 as amended by Chapter 452 of the Acts of 1986 (approved Oct. 16, 1986); see endnote 23.
46 . G.L. c. 239, §9, as amended by Chapter 452 of the Acts of 1986 (approved 16, 1986). But see endnote 23.