Massachusetts Tenant Blues
July 24, 2013 7:04 PM   Subscribe

My landlord thinks that all Massachusetts tenants have the right to move their spouses into a rental property. For this reason, he wants to charge my roommate extra rent, even though his wife has no plans to move in. What rights do we have as tenants in this situation?

I have been leasing an apartment in Massachusetts for 5 years. It is a 4 bedroom house, and the other 3 tenants (besides me) have been relatively stable over the years as well. We have been great tenants (always paying rent on time, no damages to the home, reporting necessary repairs). We were just about ready to sign a new lease for September 1st, with a new roommate (who I'll call Dave) moving in, when an issue arose.

Here's the situation: Dave is married. He and his wife own a home in another nearby state. His wife is going to graduate school in the other state, Dave is going to graduate school in both the other state AND Massachusetts. Dave needs a place to live for the times that he is Massachusetts. His wife will be staying in their home in the other state and will rarely visit Dave. Dave will spend a lot of time in the other state.

Our landlord is concerned because Dave is married. Typically we sign an RHA Standard Form Apartment Lease. One of the terms of this lease is "The apartment may be occupied only by the tenant, the husband or wife of the tenant, any children now living with the tenant, or any children born to the tenant after this lease is signed. Our landlord is convinced that something strange is going to happen and that Dave's wife will move in with him (because of the provision in the lease), and then he will not be able to change the lease to charge more money. The landlord does not pay for utilities but does pay for water. He is not soothed by the fact that Dave and his wife have so many ties in the other state, nor is swayed by my word as a reliable tenant of 5 years. He is demanding that Dave pay rent and a half in case his wife moves in. Dave cannot weigh in on this at the minute because he is traveling in Egypt, but I am assuming that this extra payment will not be possible.

Googling around has provided me with a few ideas/questions:

1. Does the statement in the RHA lease really mean that a person's spouse can move in at any time? Is my landlord interpreting this correctly? If so, does this mean that any of the roommates could get married at any time and then have their spouse move in? The landlord states he will consult his attorney to find out if this is what the statement in the lease actually means.

2. Under Massachusetts Law, is this statement required to be part of the lease? If not, can it just be crossed out? Or can we sign a waiver of some sort?

3. Can the language of the lease be adjusted so that the landlord could increase the rent by a predetermined amount for each person who moves in?

What are our rights here as tenants? Any input on this would be helpful!
posted by summit to Law & Government (12 answers total)

I suspect the RHA lease is actually understating it: Part II Title I Ch. 186 Sec. 16 seems to state that no lease can prohibit the cohabitation of any children, born afterward or not. Can't find any specific statement about wives, though.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:24 PM on July 24, 2013

It sounds like what the landlord is proposing is probably illegal. Discrimination on the basis of marital status in the sale, lease, or rental of housing is generally (with few exceptions) prohibited in Massachusetts. (Details)
posted by phoenixy at 8:09 PM on July 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nthing this is probably illegal.

In Massachusetts, these questions are handled by the state's attorney general's office, and calling them for a clarification is super SUPER easy!

Call them and ask. Good luck!
posted by jbenben at 8:23 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

First off, the landlord is being pretty weird about this. What does it matter to him if Dave's wife moves in, as long as he gets the same rent for the apartment? It won't cost the landlord anything more. If it's a standard lease, you as tenants are jointly paying for the whole apartment, not each for a room in a rooming house.

The language in the lease sounds like it does allow Dave's wife to move in at any time. That's the plain reading of that language, and that's the contract that you have all been signing every year.

Chapter 186 section 16 is about children, not a spouse. It's possible that there's some other Massachusetts statute does the same thing w/r/t spouses (that is, voids any lease language prohibiting having a spouse move in).

But since Dave doesn't intend for his wife to move in (and presumably the other roommates might not want to have a fifth roommate all of the sudden), you should just modify the form lease. Like, literally just cross out the part about "the husband or wife of the tenant". Or write in something like, "No additional occupants, including husbands or wives, without permission of Landlord". (In general, modifying a form lease by crossing out or adding language is perfectly legal. Just have everyone initial and date the changes.)

If that's enough to satisfy your irrational landlord, it sounds like it would solve the problem. In fact, even if there's some law or legal doctrine in Massachusetts that nullifies that kind of provision, the modification will probably satisfy the landlord and let you lease up for next year without paying more rent. Whether a no-spouse provision in a lease is enforceable in Massachusetts is not your problem.
posted by unreadyhero at 9:17 PM on July 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, and I agree that asking for more money based on family status is probably illegal under state and federal fair housing laws. But you might not have to go there to solve the problem, which is to get the landlord to sign a lease at the regular rate that includes Dave as a tenant. Save the housing discrimination issue as a stick to use only if you need it.
posted by unreadyhero at 9:20 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Could you add a clause to the lease that would cause Dave's rent to increase if his wife moves in? If that would make the landlord feel better it might be worth doing.
posted by entropyiswinning at 9:34 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, if I were Dave (or you) I wouldn't want to rent from such a crazy landlord, no matter what the law says.
posted by Violet Hour at 11:59 PM on July 24, 2013

In many localities-- including MA as far as I can tell -- landlords may not raise the rent or evict a legal spouse, provided that you don't exceed the allowable number of people per bedroom. Any tenant could get married and bring their spouse in-- they are a legal subletter even if subletters are forbidden.

The landlord is in the wrong. If he is concerned about a bump in utility prices that he pays, he should consider noting a cap on utility coverage in the new lease ("landlord pays up to $X per person, after that, tenants are responsible.) He cannot raise the rent if a spouse moves in, only if a new and unrelated person moves in.

The fact that Mrs. Dave has not moved in and will only be briefly visiting makes this verging on illegal family-status discrimination. I'm pretty sure landlords may not forbid overnight guests, too. Find a tenants' union near you or a legal clinic to discuss your options.
posted by blnkfrnk at 3:41 AM on July 25, 2013

I recently became a landlord in Massachusetts. Though my understanding of the law is far from complete, in the class I took there was considerable discussion regarding rules in MA that if a guest of a tenant spends a certain number of days in the residence, they do in fact become tenants also, even if their name is not on the lease. When I read this question, that's what resonated with me about the landlord's response.

I have no idea about the legality of what the landlord is proposing nor the legality of any of the proposed negotiated solutions. I think you'd be best served by contacting a tenants' rights organization and running the situation past them.
posted by Sublimity at 4:44 AM on July 25, 2013

I can't speak to the legality of the action, or the contractual question, but it's important to understand your landlord's concern. My guess is that he's not concerned about Dave's marital status, but about the additional wear-and-tear the unit will get if there is an extra person living there. It's not an unreasonable concern, but he might not be articulating it well. You (and/or Dave) should talk to him about his concerns, and find a way to help mitigate it.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 8:37 AM on July 25, 2013

Landlord is wrong here. Full Stop.

Document everything he's said about Dave's wife because that is blatant and clear discrimination based on family status and is very clearly illegal in MA.

Then call a law school clinic (many of the law school clinics handle tenant issues) and speak to the nice person on the other end of the phone about what you could or should do in this situation.

(And, yes, in MA Dave's wife has the legal right to move in with Dave under the lease so long as it doesn't violate the number of people allowed to live in that residence determined not by the leasing agreement but by what the apartment is legally allowed to have. My husband moved in with me and two roommates for three months at the end of my lease and before we were able to move into our new apartment on our own several years ago. He was never on the lease and didn't need to be.)
posted by zizzle at 8:43 AM on July 25, 2013

Is the landlord going to add another bedroom if Dave's wife moves in?

I clearly don't understand the question. The rent is based on what the landlord provides, not on who uses it. My local Papa Johns doesn't charge me more for a pizza if I'm having friends over for dinner.
posted by Naberius at 9:29 AM on July 25, 2013

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