Can you break a lease in Massachusetts without pentaly because of a bad neighbor and unresponsive landlord?
January 14, 2009 8:20 PM   Subscribe

My friend and his fiance have a mentally ill woman living below them who is making their lives absolute hell. They live in Massachusetts. Would there be consequences if they break their apartment's lease to leave because of her?

The lady who lives in the apartment below them is schizophrenic. She routinely throws furniture around, pounds on walls, screams during the night, posts awful derogatory (and often scary) notes in common areas (pics of some are posted on my flickr, if you're interested), and stomps up and down the building's stairs while singing in the middle of the night.

It's getting worse. Neither of them are sleeping well and they don't feel safe there anymore.

They've already called the landlord regarding her behavior many times. Over the last couple months, they've called at least once a week to complain. The landlord keeps saying he wants to take steps to evict her, but other residents at the building claim he's been saying the same thing for longer than they've been living there. (Can you even evict someone because of a mental illness?)

They're six months or so into a one year lease. Can they legally break the lease and move without penalty because of the situation? If so, are there any formal steps that need to be taken to either get deposits back or protect themselves from this guy taking action on them?
posted by csimpkins to Law & Government (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
unless there's a specific clause in their lease that the landlord is breaking by having this other tenant, your friends would be violating a contract they agreed to. they'll pay more in legal fees than they would to pay to break the lease. according to some quick google research (Massachusetts breaking a lease), unless there's a specific clause that's been broken or the apartment isn't up to code (search housing code checklist) then they'll be responsible for what ever their lease says about early termination.
posted by nadawi at 8:45 PM on January 14, 2009

Best answer: Call the cops. She's disturbing the peace and acting in a manner that makes yours friends and the other residents profoundly uncomfortable and, it could be argued, fear for their safety. Unless they've actually seen the actual psychiatric report that says this woman is schizophrenic, it's safer and more logical to assume that she's just badly-behaved (assholes outnumber genuinely mentally ill people, after all). The police will, I would think, get the mental health authorities involved, or at least notify them, and then they see where they go from there.
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:54 PM on January 14, 2009 [7 favorites]

posted by turgid dahlia at 8:54 PM on January 14, 2009

Every lease includes a warranty of habilitability. If the situation violates the warranty of habilitability, then there is a possible basis for breaking the lease and even getting rent rebates. If I were the couple, I would write the landlord, state that the warranty has been broken, that there is the possibility of rent rebates, but that all will be over if the landlord will release them from the lease. Most landlords will just agree rather than get into a battle about the rent rebate.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:56 PM on January 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

PS I broke a lease once when there were slugs. Inside the apartment. The landlord did not fight with me about it.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:57 PM on January 14, 2009

Yeah, if I were them, I would follow turgid dahlia's advice.
posted by Pants! at 8:59 PM on January 14, 2009

Best answer: According to this website, Massachusetts Housing Court provides mediation services for landlords and tenants. Here is the contact information by county for the Housing Court.

Also, please call the cops when she starts going nuts. There are certainly noise ordinances that she must be violating. And don't hesitate to show them the pictures. This woman is clearly in need of mental health care and they may take your complaint more seriously and try to get her some help rather than just locking her up or giving her a ticket.
posted by chiababe at 9:26 PM on January 14, 2009

This just happend in my rowhouse complex. Neighbors did call the police as well as local mental health agencys. Ours in Portland, deploy people to make house calls. Phone calls were constantly made in the end. My neighbor had quite the history, and subsequently, if she opened the door to the police, they would automatically take her away- even if she was legitamitely sane at the time. Then, it was a long and drawn out eviction process. I think 2.5 months in all. Besides noise complaints, general harrassment claims were made. Getting your landlord's email will make any documentation process a whole lot easier. I pity your friends neighbor, sounds like she is truly suffering from her condition. She will be suffering a whole lot more once evicted however.

I miss my neighbor. She can be sweet when she is taking care of herself.
posted by captainsohler at 9:35 PM on January 14, 2009

Here's what I would do. Call police when neighbor acts up and log the calls and visits. Write landlord detailing complaints (dates and nature of events) including the times police have come out to deal with the neighbor. Consult with the local tenants union, and then break lease because landlord is not providing a quiet, safe place to live.

Whatever the consequences the landlord may threaten, I think this will pale in comparison to living next door to a crazy loud/violent person.
posted by zippy at 9:36 PM on January 14, 2009

A relative encountered a similar problem several years ago. A schizophrenic woman moved into the unit beside hers, and began screaming through the night, wandering the halls with a knife, passing out drunk in tenants' open automobiles, taping letters about Hitler and Satan on doors, and smearing dog feces on common walls and entranceways.

My relative and other tenants called the police several times, (the woman was twice taken away), documented her activities, and wrote complaints to the landlord. But for several months, the landlord did nothing.

Eventually, the tenants formed a coalition and met with the landlord, saying they intended to move out en masse or pool resources to hire an attorney if he did not take steps to evict the woman. The landlord contacted the woman's family and gave them thirty days (rent-free) to find her alternative living arrangements. He also allowed the inconvenienced tenants to pay one month's rent at a 50% discount to compensate them for the disruptions and damages.

In this case, an informal negotiation resolved the dilemma. If possible, contact other neighbors who are affected by the woman's disturbances to join you in your complaints to the landlord. And document all interactions, disturbances, and damages.
posted by terranova at 10:31 PM on January 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing calling the cops next time she's in mid flow. Also, you may want to do the kind thing and call the landlord after the cops and ask him to get in touch with the person listed as her emergency contact on the lease. Maybe that person could become more involved, or try to mitigate a bit?

I had a neighbour like this, once upon a time. It started with her stopping everyone walking past her apartment to talk to them about astral time travel and offering protective bracelets she'd made for the neighbours she liked. It moved on from there to extremely loud music played over and over, chanting whilst running up and down the stairs (part of her purification for her astral time travel sessions), on and on. She got a little scary with shouting at particular tenants, but most of it was just annoying noise and general creepiness.

The landlord talked to her estranged husband, who was listed as her contact and paid her rent. He realised she was off her meds again and took action to get her back on meds and sorted out. The cops were involved at one point, I believe - by that time, I was spending lots of time elsewhere. Anyway, getting someone who might be able to mitigate things is the kind thing to do. If your landlord doesn't want to do the kind thing, well, he isn't leaving you with much of a choice but to call the cops.
posted by Grrlscout at 10:31 PM on January 14, 2009

Every lease includes a warranty of habilitability.

I've only had 1 real estate class now, but from what I gathered the habitability concerns mandated health & safety-related issues that are in the LL's control and not public nuisance issues.

Random find on the web:

"California law provides that every lease for the rental of residential property implies an obligation on the landlord's part to provide safe and functional plumbing and heating, water and sewage services, electricity, ventilation, weatherproofing, locks, safe floors and stairways, adequate garbage containers, and to keep the building and grounds free of garbage, unsanitary conditions, and vermin.
The existence of any one or more of these conditions could give the tenant the right to repair the condition and deduct the expense from the rent, to petition the Rent Board for a rent decrease, to claim a defense to eviction or unlawful detainer, or to declare constructive eviction."

That last term, constructive eviction, is key, since that is the mechanism used by tenants to successfully break leases.
posted by troy at 1:16 AM on January 15, 2009

Best answer: troy, you're on to something, but that's not exactly why the warranty of habitability is inapplicable here. The warranty of habitability bars landlords from interfering with "quiet enjoyment," which usually involves things like maintaining functional facilities, but also requires not interfering with people getting a good night's sleep. If, for example, the landlord owns a building with a bar on the first floor and apartments above, and decides to blare music at all hours of the night, his tenants have a legitimate argument that he's violating their quiet enjoyment of the property in a way that would amount to constructive eviction.

The problem here is that it isn't the landlord that's causing the problem. The tenants in this case have a perfectly habitable apartment, and it's another tenant, not the landlord, that is interfering with their use of the property. The landlord is not generally responsible for the behavior of his tenants, and as only the landlord can be responsible for constructive eviction, there is no way of using the behavior of another tenant to ground such an action. As such, calling the cops is the appropriate thing to do.
posted by valkyryn at 3:41 AM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

A sidebar: If at all possible/applicable, tell the police to please not make it apparent to your neighbor who specifically is doing the complaining. When the police knocked on my door to let me know that the crazy neighbor had promised to keep the crazy neighbor noise down? The crazy neighbor problem I had became a harassment/vandalism problem.
posted by gnomeloaf at 7:53 AM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was very nearly assaulted by a neighbour who had a psychotic break (after going off his medications.) He evacuated the entire building by pulling the fire alarm, and I was trapped with him on the top floor while he pounded on my door with a giant water fire extinguisher. I ended up calling 911 sobbing like an idiot after shoving my couch in front of my door.

I felt bad for the guy, of course -- he wasn't psychotic on purpose. Before the major episode, there was stuff going on like you're describing -- wandering the hallways talking to himself, loud music, lots of general weird noise disturbances. Someone that unpredictable presents a potential danger to themselves and others. The landlord clearly isn't doing anything (and maybe legally can't do anything) -- so they need to call the police, for their own safety, as well as hers.

A police report filed might also be helpful as "official" documentation if they end up breaking their lease.
posted by peggynature at 8:38 AM on January 15, 2009

Best answer: Nthing calling the cops when this happens. I have worked for several years with adults with severe and chronic mental illness, in a community setting. It's very difficult to evict someone in general, but especially someone who is (or may be, in your case) legally classified as disabled. Often times, the landlord needs clear documentation of repeated lease violations by the individual (so that it's clear that the eviction is not based on discrimination), and police reports are the best way to do this. Police reports have greater weight than tenant complaints, no matter how frequent these complaints. The police reports will also assist you should you decide to break the lease--you'll have clear documentation of unsafe/dangerous living conditions etc. In addition, the cops get tired of coming to the same place over and over, and may put pressure on the landlord to deal with the situation.
Lastly, too, it is very hard to hospitalise someone against their will, and often repeated run-ins with law enforcement can at least force short hospitalisations. This woman is likely off her medications, and may not have any connections with any local community mental health organisations that provide assistance in this area. She may not remember to take the meds, or know where/how to get her refills, or remember to see her doctor regularly. If she is hospitalised, she can be linked with these services, making her life easier (and potentially making your life easier and quieter).
Good luck!
posted by catwoman429 at 11:02 AM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's not warranty of habitabilty, it's right of quiet enjoyment that they're entitled to, and that this woman is disturbing.

Do NOTHING via email. It will not hold up in court. Send everything certified return receipt to the landlord.
posted by micawber at 5:24 PM on January 15, 2009

Best answer: it's right of quiet enjoyment that they're entitled to

yes, reading my real estate study book just now it does say that the landlord allowing tenants to unreasonably disturb others gives grounds for constructive eviction due to interference with the tenant's right of quiet enjoyment.
posted by troy at 4:43 PM on January 18, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for leading us in the right direction with this. I looked further into the "Quiet Enjoyment" thing for my friends and it was exactly what they needed.

They drafted up a letter to the landlord reiterating the issues and citing this right. After they sent it, they called and spoke to him... he wasn't happy, but he understood and they're going to be able to move in the next 30 days without a problem.

Also of note - at the landlord's request, they included another letter for him to give to the mental health department detailing the issues. That way he can take action to protect himself from further problems and this lady can (hopefully) get the help she needs.

My friends were very appreciative of all the advice. Thanks again!.
posted by csimpkins at 7:15 PM on January 20, 2009

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