Massachusetts residents, is my apartment legal?
February 22, 2006 3:30 PM   Subscribe

Massachusetts residents, is my apartment legal?

A little over a year ago, I extricated myself from a dangerous domestic situation and had to find someplace new to live on literally a moment's notice. I found a cozy one-room rental in the basement of a condo in Cambridge which, at the time, seemed perfect for recuperating from a traumatic time of life: it was extremely cheap ($695/mo), conveniently located in a major thoroughfare, in a safe and quiet neighborhood. I knew then that it had virtually nothing in the way of amenities, but I was just thrilled to find a space of my own that I could afford on two weeks' notice, so I made do with the lack of creature comforts.

The lease came up for renewal in September, and although I wasn't happy with the place even then, I renewed just because I wasn't at a place (emotionally or financially) where I could yet swing a new place of my own. However, I'm finally back on my feet after saving up for the better part of a year, and now certain things have made me wonder if I shouldn't be pushing back a bit more.

Having set the background, let's get to the meat of the question. There are some shady circumstances that have concerned me all along about the place, and some that are a bit more recent:

- The "apartment" is one room in the rear-facing basement of a house, leading directly out into a shared driveway/courtyard with six other condo units. It's about the size of your average bedroom in a normal house, with one recessed closet and a strange cubbyhole beneath the house's staircase in which I've been able to store extra boxes, etc. It has its own entrance with its own lock, and the door leading into the house itself is latch-locked from both sides.

- The unit has no kitchen, no space for a kitchen, and no access to the house's kitchen. I brought in a mini-fridge and a microwave, but I've been forbidden from obtaining "open-heat" items like hot plates and toaster ovens and such. I wash my dishes in the (tiny) bathroom sink because there is no other sink. As you might imagine, the drain has become quite slow from whatever food debris I've washed off over the past year. I store my room-temperature food in one of those plastic three-drawer units that Target sells for $12.

- The hot water supply is extremely intermittent. It comes and goes, but there are stretches of days where I have no hot water at all in the evenings, and only very brief amounts of hot water in the mornings - between five and ten minutes total before it goes completely cold. This means no shower after the gym, and only a very efficient shower before work.

- My landlord has never provided me with his phone number and always blocks his Caller ID on the rare occasions (maybe three or four times total) when he has called. This may be because he lives upstairs and is (in theory) reachable at any time, but in case of an emergency, he (and I) would be screwed. His phone number isn't on the lease because - surprise - he's never given me a copy of the lease, even though I've signed two of them now.

- The family, although they live upstairs, rarely answers the door when home (they speak very little English) and occasionally ignore me altogether. Once, the power went out mysteriously on a Sunday afternoon (I had come home to make lunch and the microwave apparently tripped a circuit), and although I heard footsteps upstairs, no amount of door-banging or doorbell-ringing would get an answer. Eventually his son came outside and walked right past me down the street, as if I wasn't there. I was without power for a good six hours before it came back on without explanation.

In the "strikes against me" column, I have a cat, which he specifically forbade when I moved in, but despite making efforts to find another home for her (thinking that this apartment was only temporary anyway), I was unsuccessful and just ended up keeping her. He hasn't really complained since; in fact, he's been in here once or twice and hasn't even noted her existence.

I keep thinking that the cat will work against me if it ever came down to legal nitpicking over whether I have the right to get out of this place, since she is technically a violation of the lease that I don't possess, but the cat aside, what do you think, MA residents?

- Is an apartment *required* to have a kitchen, or at least a kitchen-esque space? I've lived in studios with kitchenettes before, but at least they had their own sinks, weren't the same as the bathroom, came with cabinet and food storage space, etc. I can't find anything in the Mass bylaws about being required to have a kitchen - only regulations about what the kitchen must contain, or the standards by which it must be maintained. I know that lease situations for rented rooms in houses must be different, but I think in those cases it's because there is a standing assumption that you have access to the kitchen that is part of the house, and it wouldn't normally make sense to insist that every rented room in a house has its own kitchen.

- The hot water thing is obviously a problem. I've written him two e-mails asking about the problem, and have gotten no response. I am thinking "three strikes" here before calling the City, but do I have to demonstrate having made even more of an effort, e.g., attempting to visit him upstairs more often, sending a Certified Mail letter, etc.?

- Lease. I know he's supposed to provide it within 30 days. Am I required by law to ask for it? What if I don't? Can the lack of a lease copy be added to the list of grievances? And what about the complete lack of a phone number? Is living in the same house (although segregated) supposed to be construed as enough of a contact point? From his e-mail address, I know where he works; would the law consider that ample evidence that I can reach him by phone if need be?

- Is the cat enough of a material defense on his side (e.g., a violation of the rental terms) that it could invalidate all of my other complaints and prevent me from moving out sooner rather than later?

I understand, basically, that I chose the place knowing full well that it didn't have a kitchen and that I'd be living in extremely constricted space, so perhaps the fact that I'm even here at all has already screwed me in terms of arguing its inadequacy from a tenants' rights perspective. I'm just finding the quality of life to be extremely lacking, and the slow accumulation of faults have led me to wonder if this place is "above board" at all. Basically, yes, I'm looking to get out before my lease is up, but I'm wondering if all this is sufficient justification.

Thanks for any thoughts.
posted by mykescipark to Home & Garden (21 answers total)
I'd say that by failing to provide you with a copy of the lease he has invalidated said lease, regardless of your other complaints, of which: yikes. Get out with all speed. I suspect he wouldn't even bother following up on it if you were to simply disappear, knowing the substandard conditions you are living in.
posted by Rock Steady at 3:39 PM on February 22, 2006

Well, "substandard" is relative in the eyes of the law, I'm sure. It's a clean, well-kept little room, but ... it's just a little room. Nothing more.
posted by mykescipark at 3:46 PM on February 22, 2006

Tenant's Rights in Massachusetts.
posted by ericb at 3:54 PM on February 22, 2006

The tenant is entitled to a safe and habitable living environment. The State Sanitary Code protects the health, safety and well-being of tenants and the general public. The local Boards of Health enforce the Code.
HEAT: The landlord must provide and maintain a heating system in good operating order. From September 16 to June 14, every room must be heated to a temperature of at least 68oF between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m. and at least 64oF between the hours of 11:01 p.m. and 6:59 a.m. unless the tenant is required to supply the fuel under a written lease agreement. During the heating season, the maximum heat allowable in the apartment is 78oF.

COCKROACHES AND RODENTS: The landlord of a dwelling of 2 units or more must maintain the unit free from rodents, cockroaches, and insect infestation, and must be responsible for extermination.

KITCHENS: The landlord must provide within the kitchen a sink of sufficient size and capacity for washing dishes and kitchen utensils, a stove and oven in good repair (except when a written lease agreement requires the tenant to provide his/her own stove and oven), and space and proper facilities for the installation of a refrigerator. NOTE: The refrigerator does not have to be provided.

HOT WATER: The landlord must provide and maintain facilities capable of heating and supplying hot water at a temperature between 110oF and 130oF in a quantity and pressure sufficient to satisfy the ordinary use of all plumbing fixtures. Exceptions are made when the occupant is required to provide fuel for the operation of the facilities under the written lease agreement.

STRUCTURAL ELEMENTS: Every landlord must maintain the foundation, floors, walls, doors, windows, ceilings, roof, staircases, porches, chimneys, and other structural elements of the dwelling so that it excludes wind, rain, and snow; is rodent-proof, weather tight, watertight, and free from chronic dampness; in good repair, and in every way fit for its intended use.

SNOW REMOVAL: Every exit used or intended for use by occupants of more than one dwelling unit or rooming unit shall be maintained free from obstruction.
posted by ericb at 3:56 PM on February 22, 2006

Yeah, just leave. But even if you were to leave nicely upon the expiration of your lease, don't expect to get your security deposit back.
posted by xueexueg at 3:57 PM on February 22, 2006

Written Rental Agreements: According to state consumer protection regulations (940 CMR 3.17(3b)), a landlord must include the following in a written rental agreement:
The names, addresses and telephone numbers of the owners and any other persons who are responsible for the care, maintenance and repair of the property;

The name, address and telephone number of the person authorized to receive notices of violations of law and to accept notice of lawsuit on behalf of the owner;

The amount of the security deposit and disclosure of rights under the Security Deposit Law.
posted by ericb at 3:59 PM on February 22, 2006

I can't imagine Rock Steady is right about invalidating the lease. You should ask for a copy of your lease now.

Your cat won't void all of your grievances, at worst it will allow him to give you X days to get rid of it or face eviction and maybe take your damage deposit. He doesn't have to do it, and in fact may be barred from doing it since he has known about the cat and done nothing about it, thus possibly waiving his rights on the issue. A look at the lease should tell you more about this and have the phone number. Go ask for it.

And call the Tenant Landlord Association. There's got to be a good one in Cambridge of all places.
posted by jaysus chris at 4:07 PM on February 22, 2006

"If you are having problems with your landowner or have questions concerning your rights as a tenant, you should contact your local tenant organization.

Tenant Information/Mass. Legal Sources:"

posted by ericb at 4:12 PM on February 22, 2006

Housing Code Checklist:
An easy-to-use checklist that tells you what the minimum legal requirements for rental housing are under the Massachusett's State Sanitary Code. [PDF]
posted by ericb at 4:15 PM on February 22, 2006

From reviewing these various links it appears that your apartment is not legal.
posted by ericb at 4:17 PM on February 22, 2006

On the plus side, I do believe he has to put you up in a fully paid for apartment while he brings your apartment up to code.
posted by parallax7d at 4:33 PM on February 22, 2006

They don't have the concept of SRO (Single Room Occupancy, which is what your apartment sounds like) in Mass.?
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 5:37 PM on February 22, 2006

They do have SROs, but I'm pretty sure that the SRO unit needs to have access to a common/shared kitchen.
posted by sophie at 5:47 PM on February 22, 2006

I guess I don't really understand a fundamental aspect of this question. Why is this up for debate at all?

You want to leave. You seem to have sufficient funds to leave. The place is a hellhole. The landlord is not responsive in the least. Why are you still there? Just go. Find another place and move out.

Is it because you feel contractually obligated to stay? Well if that is the case just leave. He obviously has no desire to be within the law if he's willing to treat you the way he has. Are you worried about a security deposit? I think sometimes you just have to cut your losses. Give him a month's notice, leave the place in top condition, and insist on your deposit when you leave. If he gives you any flak about breaking the lease or tries to get you to pay some extra, tell him all of the above.
posted by Rhomboid at 5:56 PM on February 22, 2006

They don't have the concept of SRO (Single Room Occupancy, which is what your apartment sounds like) in Mass.?

Tim: I hadn't researched that particular definition before, but from my admittedly cursory reading, the modern definition of an SRO is rather different from just renting out a room in one's house as a standalone unit. Other documents on the Web make reference to the availability of shared space, such as kitchens and bathrooms, in most modern SROs. As this link suggests, there also seems to be a broader sociological purpose to an SRO for which this place doesn't qualify.

Concerning the "just leave" suggestions, I'm still sufficiently gun-shy after having to break my last lease (albeit under extreme psychological and emotional duress) that I'd really like to get as clean a break as possible within the realm of the law this time. If this unit is deficient in some fundamental rights and requirements accorded to decent housing, I want to be 100% clear on what that means and how the violations add up. At the moment, unfortunately, there are only a few items on the Housing Code Checklist that apply, and they're hardly among the more egregious violations.

I can't help but feel that using the same sink to brush my teeth and drain pasta is somehow against a health code or another, though...
posted by mykescipark at 6:46 PM on February 22, 2006

There is no way that this apartment is legal. Do you think the "landlord" would want to take you to court? Hell no.

Rent a new apartment. Tell him you want out as of whatever day. Draw up a short written agreement that basically says the landlord releases all claims under the lease as of that day. Have him sign it, and then YOU keep the signed original. Or, bring two originals and have him sign both.

If he gives you any fuss, tell him that you will go to one of the numerous housing assistance places, or a lawyer if necessary. Make it clear to him that you want out, and you will be leaving whether he's on board or not.

This guy is making good money by renting this space out, and the last thing he wants is to get hassled and/or shut down by the government.
posted by MrZero at 8:00 PM on February 22, 2006

The hot water issue, and failure to provide contact details, are the only clear issues I can see here (apart from housing code issues which may or may not exist). While the place may be technically illegal, it is still a clean, safe place in a good location, that can be had for a very low price.

I've been myself in a situation where I could find no affordable housing in a safe area. I ended up renting a room from a retired professor that needed a bit of help due to illness. I was damn lucky to find that.

You want your deposit back and you want to move. May I suggest you don't want to wreck this situation for the next desperate person to come along?
posted by Goofyy at 12:58 AM on February 23, 2006

While the place may be technically illegal, it is still a clean, safe place in a good location, that can be had for a very low price.

And this perspective, so easily imaginable from the viewpoint of a judge or somesuch, is precisely why I don't want to just drop a metaphorical bomb and run for cover.
posted by mykescipark at 3:08 AM on February 23, 2006

Yeah, but you want out of the "lease," right? So don't actually drop a bomb, just threaten to do so in order to get out of the lease.
posted by MrZero at 5:09 AM on February 23, 2006

Goofyy, the lack of a kitchen and the lack of access to another kitchen in the building is as clear a violation as they come; I'm unclear why you don't see that as a clear issue.
posted by delfuego at 8:27 AM on February 23, 2006

From Mass Legal Help's Tenants Rights Document

If the condo is identified as a Rooming House (Chapter 18), your landlord may not be required to provide a kitchen.

If your lease states that you're required to pay for whatever service heats the water, your landlord may not be able to be held responsible for your lack of hot water. (Chapter 6)

Regarding the validity of your lease, footnote 9 of Chapter 2 indicates that if you haven't been provided a copy of your lease "may make the lease voidable by the tenant. A party's secret signature to a lease, unrevealed to the other party, is not valid or binding."

If your lease is not valid, you may be recognized as a Tenant at Will. Chapter 12 explains that a Tenant at Will can terminate tenancy with no further obligation to the landlord 1 month, or 30 days, whichever is longer, after the landlord receives a written notice of your intention to move out.

I'm not sure how or if your cat enters into it.

Talk to a lawyer, or cut your losses and disappear.
posted by ThePants at 10:44 AM on February 23, 2006

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