Confusing landlord situation
October 20, 2012 8:15 AM   Subscribe

From a friend: I received a letter stating that my landlord has not paid the outstanding expenses due for the apartment and that I am now required by law to stop paying him for rent and send my rent directly to this debt collector. What should I do?

They cite a copy of this law:

It states that it is now illegal for me to send any money to him and that I need to send it directly to the Condominium Trust and also that any action he takes against me as a result of this law is illegal. Also if I pay him anything until notified by the firm or a court of law that I do otherwise, I will be liable to pay the same amount a second time to the condominium trust.

So I called the landlord, and he's like "Oh, it's nothing to worry about, they're just using scare tactics because the condominium tried to charge me for some repair and I refused to pay it so now they're trying to send in debt collectors. They can't prove if you pay me or not, so I'll have my lawyer call you on Monday to reassure you that it's fine to keep paying me."

Now the way I see it, I'm going to have two parties, one telling me it's illegal to pay my landlord, the other saying I should ignore them and pay the landlord, I don't know what to do, I don't want to get caught up in the middle of some legal affair, I don't want to pay them and have my landlord make my life miserable and I don't want to pay him and then suddenly have debt collectors coming after me or filing criminal injunctions or god knows what, I really don't know what to do.

I would appreciate some advice!
posted by Pwoink to Law & Government (18 answers total)

As a general matter, your instinct is correct. If you owe money to A and B is saying, "pay me instead", you need to make absolutely sure who is entitled to be paid.

I would recommend that you contact your local Legal Aid Society for a consultation. They deal with landlord/tenant issues all the time and can answer your question quickly and accurately.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:20 AM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is precisely why legal aid agencies focus so much on landlord tenant law! I know Boston has a tenants' council; most cities and towns do. This is a topic covered regularly in self-help materials or by attorneys/staff on local help lines/websites/brochues. If someone is not able to come in here with a credible reference to one of these publications, just grab your search engine, find your closest landlord-tenant legal aid group and ask them for an answer or for their self-help resources. If you can afford to drop a donation in their bucket, please do.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:21 AM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I generally think Metafilter is too quick to say "get a lawyer", but I think this is an area where it is prudent to do so.

I consider this especially important because when I read the statue, I do not see any indication of what happens if you do not pay rent to the condo association as demanded by them. I do, however, know what will happen if you do not pay rent to your landlord. Your landlord will begin eviction proceedings, whether or not he is legally in the right.

In the short term, and as an intuitive and legally unjustified answer, I think the chances of bad things happening to you by not paying your landlord are much higher than if you do not pay the condo association. I would be exceedingly surprised if any magistrate or judge ordered you to pay both the landlord and the condo association, since magistrates/judges tend to be sympathetic to tenants in difficult situations due to no fault of their own. In the case where the condo association pursues action, the only outcome I can imagine is that a court orders you to pay them in the future, but orders the condo association to pursue the landlord for the rent previously paid. That said, in the case where you stop paying your landlord, I can only see the landlord getting exceedingly annoyed (not a good thing) and immediately beginning eviction proceedings to try to convince you to pay (a worse thing). In this case, the law is much more clear (in general, you have to pay your rent to your landlord), so I would want to avoid that happening as much as possible.
posted by saeculorum at 8:35 AM on October 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

The only thing that sprang to my mind was (and of course IANAA (I am not an anything)) is to make sure that whoever you pay, make darn sure you get and keep good records so you can prove who you paid what. Cancelled checks, direct deposit notices from your bank, etc. Definitely no cash!
posted by cgg at 8:44 AM on October 20, 2012 [6 favorites]

You have no legal contract with the debt collector, but you do have one with the landlord. IANAL, but if it were me, I would want a much greater burden of proof than what you have so far to start paying someone else. You should also keep in mind that what the condo board really wants is to get money from your landlord -- presumably, an amount much greater than a few months' rent. Any legal action would be directed first and foremost at the landlord. Going after you for not paying them a few months' rent would be a waste of time and money for them.

All that said, it would not hurt to start thinking about a new apartment. You don't want to be in the middle of a condo board / landlord dispute. The chances of encountering tremendous assholes who will make your life difficult are quite high.
posted by Behemoth at 8:57 AM on October 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

You should definitely contact a tenants union or a lawyer. If you are a university student, you may have some sort of student legal services office at your university that can help you. Employee assistance programs may also help with this. But here's some food for thought from someone who is totally unfamiliar with this law (which I find a rather unfortunate idea in that it requires tenants to make these factual decisions without a court's assistance) or relevant case law:

You just got a letter in the mail from persons unknown and they have not provided any proof that they are the appropriate "organization of unit owners" in question.

The statute says that the rights of the organization of unit owners to collect rent from is "subject to the existing rights of a holder of a first mortgage of record" and they have not provided any proof that there isn't a first mortgagee that also wants to collect rent.

It also says that collection of rent by the organization is only possible when the unit owner fails to file a timely response to the organization's demands or when he admits the debt, not that they simply claim that a debt exists. It does not sound like the organization sent any proof that either of these things happened.

It also says the organization only has the right to collect rent only up to the amount it is owed, and it doesn't sound like it has told you that amount.

It also says the organization has a right to obtain a court order requiring you to pay the rent to it, and it hasn't done that.

I would be asking about all of these things with the organization, your landlord's lawyer, and your own lawyer or tenants union representative. Good luck.
posted by grouse at 9:06 AM on October 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

Don't rely on the landlord's lawyer for advice. Call a tenant's rights org.

Is the letter from the court?

I would only comply if this was from a court. Otherwise, verify with your own legal advisor, but I think this is bunk.
posted by jbenben at 9:14 AM on October 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

I'd contact the Boston Tenant Coalition. Or call the Boston tenant help-line - tenants can call the Mayor’s 24 Hour Hotline (617-635-4500) to get help with their housing issues.

If you're not in Boston, google "tenant non-profit" or "tenant rights" and your city or county.
posted by barnone at 9:16 AM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Unless and until your landlord says to pay someone else, I'd suggest you keep paying him as normal: you aren't responsible for paying off his debts, he is. All you have is a letter from out of the blue, by no-one you know, saying "send us money".....

Alternatively, check with a lawyer, legal aid, or the Boston tenant help-line barnone mentions, just to cover your butt.
posted by easily confused at 10:08 AM on October 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

Unless and until your landlord says to pay someone else, I'd suggest you keep paying him as normal

I would go farther and say that no matter what, pay your landlord. That is unless you do get a new written lease regarding your living arrangements. And even then, I would demand the old lease be honored intact to its stated end.

I agree with easily confused, you aren't responsible for his debts. You also do not want to sully your credit history by taking part in any financial issues he is having.
posted by lampshade at 10:15 AM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

What a wonderfully shitty law! On paper, a method for a condo association to 'garnish wages' from a landlord. In reality, permission to for them to legally harass a landlord by proxy! Interestingly, while the law they reference allows the organization to collect rent from tenants, and bars the landlord from retaliating against renters who pay the doesn't appear to speak to the obligations of the renter one way or the other.

Anyways, you have a contract with your landlord. You have no contract with any other party. On that basis, I'd welcome the condominium association to talk to your lawyer, who will in turn advise you once a legitimate court order requires you to make rent payments to a third party.

(You don't have a lawyer yet? Now would appear to be the time. A couple hours of lawyer time is still probably well below a cost of a rent payment getting stuck in limbo.)

(Also, now is the time to start considering how long you want to continue to reside someplace where the landlord doesn't pay their bills, and where the condo association is willing to drag third-party tenants into their battles. I imagine things could get a whole lot uglier.)
posted by The Prawn Reproach at 10:36 AM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Anyways, you have a contract with your landlord. You have no contract with any other party.

This. You might also tell the association that if they insist on involving you, you'll be coming after them for any costs associated with hiring a lawyer to deal with it.
posted by rhizome at 10:48 AM on October 20, 2012

Don't think. Don't do anything except take the letter to housing court.

Just walk into housing court and start asking the clerks questions. You'd be amazed how helpful the people in housing court are. You don't need to dress nice, or even take a shower. Just show up and get educated.

You may be able to take care of the whole thing that day.
posted by shushufindi at 11:00 AM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

IANAL but I get to play one once a month--I would set up an escrow account with a trusted and independent third party and deposit/keep your rent there. Then I would notify the condo association/debt collection agency and your landlord that you have set up an escrow account. Tell them you will deposit/keep your rent payments in there until you receive a court order directing payment to one of the parties or you receive a notarized statement signed by both of them instructing you where to pay your rent. The suggestion to see you local housing authority or landlord-tenant association is excellent. I would hope you can handle this in a way that minimizes any burden or cost for you.
posted by rmhsinc at 11:17 AM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

That is definitely a confusing situation. The statute seems to give the condo association the right to collect rent from you (tenant of the condo owner) in certain situations, but I don't see where it says that the tenant MUST pay the condo association rather than the unit owner. (The condo association can go to court for an order that would force the tenant to pay them, but from your description of the letter you got, that hasn't happened in your case.) So maybe for now you have a choice whether to pay your landlord or the condo association.

Anyway, definitely seek legal advice -- landlord/tenant law is weird. An experienced tenants' lawyer will probably be able to give you an answer in five minutes about who you should be paying rent to. In addition to the resources barnone pointed out, you might try the advice hotline at the Legal Advocacy and Resource Center. If you need to hire a lawyer (maybe for just a short consultation), the National Lawyers' Guild has a good referral service to affordable attorneys.
posted by unreadyhero at 1:02 PM on October 20, 2012

I think the advice to consult Legal Aid, housing court, and a private lawyer are all better ideas than what I'm going to propose. But:

You know, you could ask the landlord to put his directions to you to pay him and not the condo association in writing, including the consequences if you don't (i.e., "I know you're in receipt of a letter directing you to pay your rent to AAA. I am informing you that those directions are false (for XYZ reasons). If you submit your rent to AAA instead of to me, I will take all remedies regarding non-payment of rent available as set out in your lease, including eviction proceedings".

Since it's illegal for him to retaliate against you if the order is on the up-and-up, this means that he's putting his money where his mouth is.

But, gaah, what a stupid law. It's like the framers never considered that tenants paying rent are different from businesses paying wages, and that a mechanism needed to be put in place to ensure tenants could distinguish legitimate orders from random yahoos posturing.

(And don't let any language about "available to me by massachusetts law" slip by, because he could argue that means "nothing", and that therefore there was no threat.)
posted by endless_forms at 1:03 PM on October 20, 2012

Just to add: as soon as you can, move.

On the one hand, you have a landlord who doesn't pay his bills, which frankly makes me question his inclination to incur bills, such as by making any needed repairs to the unit. On the other hand, you have the condo board, who might decide to withhold your landlord's (and your) use of the condo's common property, such as access to exercise rooms, pool facilities, community rooms, etc. And if it's a security building? They might go so far as to deny him (and thereby you!) any updated entry codes or keys next time the exterior door locks are updated.

posted by easily confused at 3:30 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

IANAL but I get to play one once a month--I would set up an escrow account with a trusted and independent third party and deposit/keep your rent there. Then I would notify the condo association/debt collection agency and your landlord that you have set up an escrow account.

Where I live, doing something like this unilaterally is a good way to get evicted. Do the thing that it says to do on the thing you signed. You didn't sign anything with the condo association, you signed it with the landlord, so that's who you pay.
posted by rhizome at 7:46 PM on October 20, 2012

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