Unsafe conditions in an apartment is an unfortunate reality for many tenants and landlords owning rental property. Buildings by nature get old and need repair, and despite the efforts of even the best landlords, unsafe conditions in an apartment can arise. How should this be handled?
Step one: tell the landlord in writing. Despite the “slumlord” stereotype of many landlords, most owners of rental property care deeply about their property and those who live in it. Tenants with unsafe conditions in an apartment should promptly notify their landlord of the problem, and take pictures /video of the poor conditions. Give the landlord adequate time to address the matter, and be as cooperative as possible in helping to get the problems fixed.
If the landlord refuses to address the problem, the next step is to file a complaint with your town or city’s inspectional services department (“ISD”) or department of health. These agencies have trained staff who are responsible for inspecting apartments, documenting poor conditions in units, and filing a complaint with the landlord. If the landlord continues to address the problem, the town or city can bring civil and criminal charges against the landlord.
The law allows a tenant with unsafe conditions in an apartment to withhold rent and seek damages against the landlord. An important requirement of this, however, is that the landlord has notice of these unsafe conditions. This makes sense: a landlord can’t repair a problem that it doesn’t know about. This is why it important to provide this notice in writing, and keep a copy for yourself.
Massachusetts law prohibits a landlord from retaliating against a tenant who complains about unsafe conditions in an apartment. A landlord cannot raise rent, begin an eviction, or do anything to “punish” a tenant from making a complaint. A landlord can be liable for monetary damages if they do such retaliation.
Landlords should always take complaints about an apartment seriously, and document all repairs made to the unit. Landlords should also be careful about requesting a raise in rent or beginning an eviction after such a complaint is made, so as to avoid a claim of retaliation.
While tenants should absolutely report unsafe conditions in an apartment, this should be done in good faith. Repeated, bad faith complaints done solely to annoy the landlord, or avoid paying rent, can possibly subject a tenant to problems done the line. Moreover, this can become a “boy who cried wolf” scenario that will hurts tenants who actually need their apartments repaired.
If you find yourself in a case involving unsafe conditions in an apartment, contact me for a consultation.