If I am a public housing tenant, what is the law about inviting visitors to my home?
As a tenant, you have the right to decide who to invite to your home. This is a basic right for all renters, including tenants in public and subsidized housing.1
Sometimes a housing authority or landlord is allowed to limit who comes onto the property for safety reasons. For example, if you have invited someone onto the property who commits certain crimes or other destructive acts on the property, a housing authority may be able to get a court order that stops that person from visiting you.2 See When can a housing authority limit who visits me?
But there have been many cases when a landlord or housing authority goes too far and illegally tries to interfere with a tenant's right to have visitors. If your visitor has not been destructive or threatening on the property, generally it is illegal for the housing authority to try to stop that person from visiting you.
Can a housing authority issue "no-trespass" notices?
In some public housing developments, the housing authority keeps a list of "banned" visitors. It has also become common for housing authorities to issue "no trespass" or "stay away" notices to non-tenants. These notices are printed up on the housing authority's letterhead. The housing authority then shares these notices with local police. Sometimes the police may arrest someone for being on the property.
In Massachusetts, the law is clear that a housing authority can issue these trespass notices, but they are not enforceable if the person is invited onto the property by a resident.3 If a friend or relative has one of these informal no-trespass notices against them, they may still visit you, as long as you clearly invite them. They may also use the common areas to get to your apartment. They should not be arrested.
There may be ways to remove these informal no-trespass notices, but it is complicated and you may need an attorney to help you.
When can a housing authority limit who visits me?
If you have invited someone to your apartment and the housing authority does not want him on the property, in Massachusetts the housing authority must go to court. The housing authority must get an order from a judge to stop that visitor from coming back to the property.4 This order is called an "injunction."
To get an injunction, the housing authority must prove that the visitor is a threat to the community. You also have a chance to tell the court why it is important for the person to continue to visit. For example, the person is the father of your children and he is babysitting.
If the court grants the order, the police can arrest that person for trespassing. Unlike an informal trespass notice from a housing authority, a guest who violates a court injunction can be arrested for trespassing even if you invited them to visit.
What if I want someone to visit and they have a criminal record?
This is a common question. Sometimes housing authorities issue "stay away" notices to anyone with a criminal record, no matter what the crime was or where it occurred. But a housing authority cannot ban a visitor just because they have a criminal record. Housing authorities are allowed to interfere with a tenant's right to have guests only when the guest is a threat to the property or other residents on the property. There has to be a link between a visitor’s bad behavior and the property.
What can I do if a housing authority has an informal "no-trespass" notice against my guest?
If any of your visitors have an informal "stay away" or "no-trespass" notice against them or appear on a "banned" list, talk to your manager about it. Tell them that that person has your permission to visit you. Then follow up with a letter. Put it in writing that you have invited that person to visit you.
Also, ask your manager to see the housing authority's trespass policy. If you live in federal public housing, that policy and your lease must include language that provides for the "reasonable accommodation" of guests.5 This means that guest policies must be reasonable.
If your lease does not include such language, talk to your tenant representatives or a local legal services advocate or organizer about working on a better policy. In Boston, tenants advocated to change the "trespass" notice form to include language that makes it clear that someone with one of these notices can still come onto the property if they are invited by a resident.
What can I do if my guest has been arrested for trespassing?
First, you need to find out whether any court has issued an order banning the person from coming onto the property. If this is the case, you or your guest may not be able to challenge the arrest.
If your guest has been issued a "stay away" notice by the housing authority, but has been arrested while visiting at your invitation, your guest has a strong case to try to get the trespass case dismissed. A tenant's invitation is a "defense" to the crime of trespass.6 You should contact your guest's criminal attorney right away to discuss this issue.
3 DHCD Public Housing Notice 2008-01, Commonwealth v. Nelson PDF, 74 Mass.App.Ct. 629 (2009).
6 Commonwealth v. Nelson, 74 Mass.App.Ct. 629 (2009).