Rent Withholding

If a tenant claims an owner is not putting any money into the house, the tenant’s rent money should go into the house, not into the tenant’s pocket. Massachusetts law, as in many states, lets the tenant pocket the money. It’s a rip-off. It’s a law that is wrecking owners, wrecking housing, wrecking neighborhoods.

Featured below:

Levant Street, Dorchester, Massachusetts
Free lawyer for tenant — 11 months no rent — owner goes bankrupt.

Powellton Street, Dorchester, Massachusetts
20 months no rent ! — ’I never want to be a landlord again.’

Sumner Street, Revere, Massachusetts
Six units — no rent for a year — owner walks — city condemns — housing boarded up.

Norfolk Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Free lawyers for tenants — six units — coordinated attack — owner forced to sell cheap.

High Street, Waltham
Free lawyer for tenant — 2-1/2 years of partial rent — owner goes bankrupt.

This Dorchester homeowner was bankrupted by one tenant

The tenant, advised by a free lawyer, lived rent-free for 11 months
You would not know that Vera Bartolo is a landlady. She lives alone. She rents from her sister. She works 60 hours a week as a hospital lab technician for less than $400 a week. She doesn’t own a car. She’s always worked hard, never had much.

But Vera is also a landlady, ever since she bought a “triple decker” on Levant Street in Dorchester in 1979. Vera charges just $600 a month for her two-bedroom apartments.

But Vera was declared bankrupt in January. Because a tenant, with free legal advice, did not pay rent for 11 months. That was all that did it. Vera almost lost her house.

Now Vera’s life has changed. She buys all her clothes at a thrift store. She depends on her sister for food. A few months ago, she had to hock all her traditional Trinidad jewelry at a pawn shop to get $500 to pay her bills.

Vera got her no-rent tenant from Joseph Johnson, a welfare worker in the Massachusetts Transitional Assistance program. Johnson told Vera the tenant was “a good tenant” and promised he would relocate the tenant if there was any trouble. Johnson inspected Vera’s apartment and said it was fine.

The tenant, a mother with five children between one and 12 years old, paid rent for two months, paid late the third month, and then stopped paying altogether.

Then the tenant started complaining. “Rats are peeping at my children from holes in the bedroom ceiling,” the tenant said on the phone. Vera came over immediately. “Where are the holes?” Vera asked. There were no holes. The complaint was a fake. But the tenant pulled open a drawer full of children’s clothes and showed Vera what appeared to be rat droppings on top of the clothes. Vera was not sure they were real droppings. And with five children, Vera thought to herself, this tenant must be pulling clothes out of that drawer several times a day. How could a bunch of rat droppings accumulate in that one spot? “Either she is crazy or I am crazy,” Vera said to herself.

Vera always exterminated two or three times a year. The last time was just two months before this complaint. Vera ordered another extermination.

Shortly after the rent stopped and the complaints began, Vera’s handyman went into the apartment to do repairs and suddenly noticed: all brand new furniture. Out on the back porch was all the old furniture.

The handyman couldn’t figure it out. How could the tenant buy all new furniture if she wasn’t able to pay the rent?

Vera knew. The tenant had bought it with her unpaid rent.

So the tenant had one complaint after another, all used to justify not paying the rent, all used to stop the eviction that Vera filed for in court. It all stretched out for 11 months, until Vera went bankrupt.

Some of the complaints were phony, like the rats. Another phony complaint was lead paint. Vera had already deleaded the apartment, but just complaining put another month’s free rent into the tenant’s pocket. Other complaints resulted from deliberate damage: a missing doorknob, a piece from a brand new tub enclosure put out in the back hall — to keep the violations going. Or repairs of repairs, because the tenant was not satisfied with the “quality” of the work. The eviction case went “back and forth in court,” Vera’s lawyer said. There were rounds of inspections, repairs, and reinspections.

“Things get fixed, and they keep breaking,” Vera said. “Seemed like the tenant had done this before.” It didn’t matter. What the tenant got was advice from someone who had done it before: a free “legal aid” attorney from the Legal Services Center in nearby Jamaica Plain. “They just stall,” said Vera’s attorney. “Eviction hearings get delayed with new code violations or some other reason. But when push came to shove, the tenant just skipped out, never showed up when, at long last, the real hearing came.”

Remember Joe Johnson’s promise to relocate the tenant if there was trouble? Vera called him and told him about her non-paying tenant. He didn’t lift a finger to helpher. He did spend an hour and a half on the phone recently arguing with Skip Schloming that rent escrowing is wrong. “This is going to be fun,” he said at the start of the conversation. His “fun” was paid for by taxpayers. His agency helped bankrupt Vera Bartolo, a little landlady.

Sumner Street, Revere, Massachusetts

Zero rent, housing dies
There is no doubt that the three 6-family houses on Sumner Street in Revere were in bad shape — after years of drug dealers.

The question is: once the drug dealers were gone, did the housing have to go from bad to worse? Massachusetts’ rent withholding law was a death sentence.

When the housing was sold at auction several years back, the druggies were gone and a new owner thought he had a chance. Only six of the 18 units were occupied, but the owner planned to invest all the rents and gradually improve the property.

What could be better? But the six remaining tenants had a different idea. They just refused to pay any rent at all — for over a year. With a zero rent stream, the owner could do nothing. Finally, the heating systems began breaking down and the city condemned the property.

The tenants were happy. Besides all the free rent, they got placed on the top of the list for public housing. But the private housing died — it’s been boarded up for the past three years — because Massachusetts law does not make sure that, when there are code violations, the rent money goes into the housing, not into the tenants’ pockets.

Source: a city official who preferred to be unnamed.

A tenant’s home is their ’castle’. . .

. . . so there are no witnesses when a tenant damages their own apartment to create code violations, get free rent and stop eviction. It’s a crime that’s impossible to prove — and thus very easy to do. The only way to stop it: stop giving free rent to tenants for doing damage.

We’re calling a proposed rent escrow law for Massachusetts the Lucy Panian Rent Withholding Reform Bill to save owners, save housing and save neighborhoods. Lucy is the Waltham homeowner featured in our April newsletter who went bankrupt when her tenant delayed eviction two and a half years with endless code violations.

What residents say about this tenant tactic

By Skip Schloming

I wanted some community opinion.

So I walked around a little bit of Dorchester, Massachusetts, one Sunday in May. At my side was Vera Bartolo, the immigrant from Trinidad 20 years ago who went bankrupt this January when her tenant didn’t pay rent for 11 months.

We walked up and down her lower-income minority neighborhood, Olney and Bowdoin Streets. We talked to every person we met on the streets this warm, sunny day.

It’s a neighborhood of two- and three-family houses mainly. But there are a lot of single-family houses mixed in, and here and there are some bigger buildings, too.

A few houses are boarded up. But the drug dealers are gone. Vera thanks Boston Mayor Thomas Menino for that. And people think the neighborhood is improving.

Both of us were wondering about her neighborhood — just exactly how typical or unusual her treatment at the hands of her tenants had been.

“Could I ask you a question?” I said to everyone we met. Four persons owned rental property. One was a single-family homeowner. The rest were tenants.

“Have you ever heard of the situation,” I asked each one, “where a tenant deliberately damages their apartment so they don’t have to pay rent?”

Almost everyone said “yes” or nodded their head with a knowing smile. “People do it.” “I see it all the time.” “The tenant below me is doing it.” “I’ve known a few people that have done that.” “My uncle has that problem.” Out of 15 people, only one — a 16-year-old girl and the youngest person we spoke to — didn’t know what we were talking about.

“What do you think about it?” I asked them all directly, as I kept writing down notes.

“It’s wrong.” “They should be thrown out.” “I hear you — it’s wrong.” “It’s all messed up.” “I think it’s bogus.” “It’s not a nice thing to do.” “I think it’s lousy.”

Everyone had a negative opinion of the practice. No one refused to answer the question or suggested that this practice of deliberate damage might be okay.

“What should be done about it?” I asked them.

“They should be thrown out.” “They should be made to pay for everything they did.” “They need to get out, damage or no damage.” “If you can’t pay, you should be evicted immediately, not even three months of free rent.” “There should be a legal procedure to stop the damage.”

Some saw the neighborhood consequences very clearly. “It hurts the property — no one wants to move into an area like that.” “We’re working hard to make our properties nice, and they are tearing it down.”

What about rent escrowing? I explained a proposed law that, if the tenant thinks the landlord is not fixing up the property and they want to withhold rent, they have to put the rent in an escrow account in the bank, they can’t keep the rent to themselves. “That’s good.” “That’s fair.” “Don’t they have to do that already?” (No, they don’t.)

Skip explained that landlords could take the money out of the escrow account only if they used it to fix up the property. No one — not one single person — disagreed with the idea of rent escrowing.

Vera Bartolo was really surprised. “I didn’t think you would get that response,” she said. “I thought people just wouldn’t talk about it.”

Norfolk Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts

A coordinated effort to force owners to sell cheap

A “radical” approach in the East Coast hotbed of tenant activism

At 59 Norfolk Street, a six-unit building just one block from desirable Central Square in Cambridge, all the windows have signs saying “Resist Eviction.” No rent has been paid by any of the tenants for two months.

It’s a well-coordinated effort. It’s not about better housing. In fact, the tenants have asked that all repairs on the property cease. In a letter they declared they want to “negotiate” with the new owner to sell to a nonprofit “affordable housing” organization. They are expecting their rent strike will force the owner to sell.

Can the owner evict them for nonpayment? Nope. Because of code violations. There’s a file two inches thick in the Cambridge inspectional services office, a history of complaint after complaint in every apartment stretching back four years.

It was the same old story — stall and delay on repairs — while the tenants snubbed their noses at rent increases. Current rents before the rent strike averaged about $450 for 5-room apartments, well below market. Then, a few months ago, the old owner (his family had owned the house for a hundred years) finally sold at a severe loss. A new owner came charging in and did a slew of repairs in three weeks. He even got citations against the tenants for refusing to let workmen in to repair.

The tenants were in danger. If the housing became code perfect, they could be evicted. That’s when they asked the city to halt code enforcement. That’s when they stopped paying any rent at all.

So rent withholding and code violations are being used to give tenants virtual control of someone else’s property.

Iffley Road, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts

The tenant in this triple-decker was evicted seven times before, now owed five months rent, and forced the owners to pay $1,400 to move and store her furniture. Of course, she called the city health inspector about minor code violations — like the tub not draining. The inspector took the tenant’s word for it and didn’t check that the tenant had simply lifted the stop lever on the drain.

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