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LANDLORDS BEWARE: NEW HOUSING RIGHTS FOR VICTIMS OF VIOLENT CRIMES
There are new housing rights for victims of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and stalking. Victims of these crimes now have increased rights to: 1) break a lease; 2) have apartment locks changed; 3) to not experience retaliation by a landlord, or a potential landlord in the future, for having had to break a lease or for having locks changed, and; 4) to not be evicted for getting a restraining order or for having to call the police.
Governor Patrick signed “An Act Relative to Housing Rights for Victims of Domestic Violence, Rape, Sexual Assault and Stalking” last January. Under this law, victims of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and stalking may terminate their rental agreements and vacate leased premises prior to the expiration of the lease term if the household member who is the victim provides notice of the intention to terminate their lease within three (3) months of an incident of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and stalking OR be reasonably in fear of imminent serious physical harm. This means that a victim in reasonable fear can break a lease without any financial obligations even if there has been no violent incident within three (3) months. Significantly, the notifying victim is the only party released from his or her tenancy, and not any co-tenants. After giving such notice, the victim must vacate the premises within three (3) months or the notice to terminate the lease will be void. The landlord has the right to request proof that the person is the victim of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or stalking along with the name of the alleged perpetrator, if known. This proof can be a restraining order issued by a court, a police report, or a written verification provided by a qualified third party as defined in the statute. Importantly, the landlord is required to maintain any such information confidential. No matter what, the victim is still responsible for the rent for the greater of thirty days or one full month from the date the tenant actually moves out.
The statute also allows a victim to have the premises’ locks changed in response to an incident of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and stalking. Within two (2) business days of a request, the landlord must make a good faith attempt to change the locks or authorize the tenant to do so, If the landlord fails to act then the tenant has the right to change the locks on their own. If the tenant only seeks to change the locks then the landlord has no right to request verification of the crime. If the alleged perpetrator is a co-tenant or a member of the household, the landlord may lock the perpetrator out if the victim provides a copy of a restraining order issued against such person or a police record that the person poses an imminent threat against the victim. There are stiff penalties for a landlord who fails to change the locks. The landlord may be liable for damages totaling three (3) months rent in addition to attorney fees.
Finally, the statute prevents landlords from discriminating against and not renting to a person based on the person having terminated their rental agreement or requesting a lock change.
Landlords across Massachusetts should heed these new regulations and follow them. Failure to act in accordance with the terms of these regulations may result in a landlord being liable for significant monetary damages, costs and attorney’s fees.
Contact Attorney Mucci if you are a landlord or tenant and you have questions about your rights and obligation under a lease or Massachusetts’ law.