A little known fact about what lawyers do when we go to court- often we have to wait in the courtroom for our case to be called, and wind up sitting and listening to other people's disputes until it is our turn. So it was for me last week in the Springfield Housing Court, which has led me to believe there are some things that both landlords and tenants in the Hilltowns should know about their rights and responsibilities.
Note: this piece is written about residential tenancy- the rules are a little different when you rent space for your business.
Your Home is Your Home: When you rent a house, an apartment, or even a room in a house, that space is under your control. You have the right to allow or not allow access to anyone, including the landlord (though the landlord may access the premises to make repairs or other legitimate purposes with notice to you, they cannot simply come into your space).
"Self-Help" Evictions are Against the Law: Even if there is a good reason to terminate a tenancy (non-payment of rent, or violations of the lease agreement, for example), the landlord must go through the proper court proceedings in order to get a tenant to move out. A landlord cannot under any circumstances physically block a tenant from entering their home, remove their belongings, or attempt to block them from accessing the premises through a "no trespass order," unless they have gotten a court order allowing them to do any of those things.
Notice to Quit: There are two kinds of notices to quit. First, if you don't have a lease, or if your lease is close to expiring, a landlord can terminate a tenancy by giving a 30-day Notice to Quit. This is usually a single piece of paper informing the tenant that their right to occupy the premises will terminate within 30 days. Here is a confusing thing about a 30 Day Notice to Quit that you need to know: if your rental period runs from the first of the month to the first of the next month, the Notice to Quit must be served before the beginning of the rental period in order to be effective in 30 days. For example, in a first-of-the-month rental period, a notice served on November 30 will effectively end the tenancy on December 31, but a notice served on December 15 will not legally end the tenancy until January 31.
The second kind of Notice to Quit is for non-payment of rent, which can legally terminate the tenancy 14 days after service, regardless of when it is served.
A Notice to Quit is Not a Court Order: If a tenant does not leave by the time allowed in the Notice to Quit, the landlord still has to go to court to get an order of eviction. That means in the example above, if the tenancy terminates legally on January 31, the landlord cannot bar access to the premises on February 1, or enter and remove the tenant's belongings. Instead, they have to bring what is called a Summary Process action in either the District Court or the Housing Court. A landlord who violates this rule can be liable for three months' rent and payment of the tenant's legal costs and fees, so it is super important to understand for both parties.
Warranty of Habitability: This is a legal phrase which, put simply, means that when a landlord rents residential premises, they have an obligation to ensure that the premises are "habitable." Beautiful and perfect- no. But the premises need to conform to all local sanitary code regulations. Common issues in this regard are heat and hot water, pest infestations, water damage and mold, and basic structural integrity of the unit. If the premises do not meet the local codes, the tenant may have the right to legally withhold rent payments, and cannot be penalized for complaining to the landlord about violations.
Security Deposits Can be Dangerous: A landlord can, but does not have to, collect an amount equal to one month's rent at the beginning of the tenancy to provide security for damage to the premises or unpaid rent. The rules about these deposits are very strict- a landlord must keep the funds in a separate, interest bearing account, must pay the tenant the interest accrued on the account each year, and must return the deposit unless they can document allowable deductions at the end of the tenancy. Doing it wrong automatically entitles the tenant to three times the deposit and payment of their legal fees and costs. As a landlord, if you choose to require a security deposit, you should be meticulous in following these rules. If you are a tenant and believe your landlord has wrongfully withheld your security deposit, it is a good idea to find a lawyer to help you understand your rights in the situation.
Where to Go for Help: At slnlaw, we can provide advice to either a landlord or a tenant about how to navigate whatever situation you are facing. Because the law requires landlords to pay for a tenant's legal fees if they are held responsible for a violation, we can provide this service at minimal cost to tenants, and in any event have many flexible payment options for any client. Even if you don't seek the assistance of a lawyer, you can generally appear in court and represent yourself. The courts relevant to the Hilltown communities are:
Want more information? Give us a call at (413) 667-2322, or send us a note at [email protected]. We are happy to schedule a free consultation to help you understand your options and whether you need legal representation.
Emily Smith-Lee is an attorney and owner and founder of slnlaw.