What is a Tenant, Really?

When a person lives in an apartment or house that is owned by someone else, and pays a certain amount of money or provides a certain service (in exchange) to the owner, this person is a tenant. There are various different forms of tenancy: the 2 main forms are tenants who have written and signed leases; and those who don’t, called tenants at will. Both forms of tenancy are recognized under the law as “contracts.” Just as in any other contract, both parties that enter into them have the responsibility to do their part to uphold the contract; by the same token, they each have the right to get from it what they agreed to. If this doesn’t happen, the contract is violated and the law is broken.

In the case of a tenant-landlord contract, the landlord has the responsibility to maintain the apartment in good condition, to follow the laws and codes that regulate the business of rental housing, and to respect the tenant’s right to a secure living situation. If this happens, the tenant has the responsibility to continue to pay the rent s/he agreed to pay.

But, for example, if the apartment is not being well maintained by the landlord and there are code-violating conditions (leaks or mice or lead paint, etc.), the contract and the law have been broken, and so the tenant may not legally owe the full rent payment. By the same token, if the tenant is conducting illegal activities inside the apartment (according to the contract or the law), like selling drugs, the contract has been broken, and the landlord may attempt to evict the tenant.

The tenant-landlord relationship is a business relationship. In fact, under the laws that regulate rental housing, there is something called the Warranty of Habitability, which works just like a warranty on any other product that is bought or rented. If there is something wrong with a product, a “warranty” says that it is up to the company to fix it. They may even be responsible for paying the customer the difference in value between the product in good condition and the product in defective condition. If the company is not accountable, that is “bad business” and they can be sued!

Tenants do have rights, even though it seems that the rights of landlords are more widely known. Having a safe and secure home is an essential part of conducting a happy and productive life. But too many tenants live in hazardous or insecure conditions, because they don’t know their rights.Knowledge is power! There are plenty of resources out there to help people become more knowledgeable about how to access a better life for themselves and their families. Don’t be afraid or too proud to seek assistance! Don’t be afraid to talk to your neighbors — maybe you can help each other. Safe, affordable housing is your right. Know your rights!

Different Types of Tenancy

In Massachusetts, there are 2 main types of tenants: tenants with written leases and tenants at will. There is also what is called a tenant at sufferance, which is a less known form of tenancy because tenants at sufferance often are under the false impression that they aren’t official tenants at all. The following section will help you figure out what type of tenancy you have and what that means.

1. Leases

A lease is a written agreement between a landlord and a tenant. It sets the amount of rent and the length of time of your tenancy, as well as some other things. Basically, it means that you agree to live there and pay that amount of rent for the time specified. It also means that you cannot be evicted or given a rent increase within the time specified. If any of this happens then the lease has been violated, and the actions are illegal and can (and should) be fought!

{*Note that sometimes a lease may specify that a rent increase may be given in certain circumstances (like if the landlord’s property taxes go up). Also, the only reason a tenant with a lease can be legally evicted is if s/he violates that lease. But this can only happen after the proper court action is taken.}

Most leases are for a fixed period of time – for example, one year. Some are “self-extending” while others give you an “option to renew.” You should be able to determine this in the first section of your lease. This means that when your original lease is up, those that are “self-extending” automatically renew themselves for an additional period. When it renews, all the terms of the original lease will stay in effect unless you and your landlord agree in writing to change them. If either you or your landlord don’t want the lease to renew itself, written notice must be given in advance. The original lease will tell you how much advance notice you must give to make sure that the lease doesn’t renew itself.

For leases that give you the “option to renew”, it works in the opposite way than those that are “self-extending.” You must give your landlord notice if you want to stay. But, if you want to leave at the end of your lease, you are not required to give him notice. To stay in the apartment for another lease term, your landlord may allow you to sign the original lease again or may write up a new lease with different terms for you to sign. If you have an option to renew and you do not give your landlord notice that you want to stay and later you decide to stay, you will become a tenant at will or a tenant at sufferance, depending on whether your landlord continues to accept your rent payments or not.

Do not sign a lease until you understand and approve of what is written in it. Very often leases are written in very legalistic English that is not understandable to the common person. And sometimes leases are written to be deliberately hard to understand in order to slip something sketchy or even illegal past the tenant who only skims through the contract before signing it. If you sign your lease without really understanding it, you may be sticking yourself with some obligations you hadn’t verbally agreed to. If you don’t understand a clause of your lease or feel that it may be illegal, before you sign it bring that clause to a legal service center to help you understand it or to determine if it is worthy of signing. If you are not a native English speaker and don’t really understand the lease, make sure to have it translated into your native language before signing it.
Even if there is something illegal written in your lease, the law still prevails. For example, if your lease states that you accept the substandard conditions that exist in the apartment and that you are

responsible for making all necessary repairs, and you sign it – that clause is still illegal under the law. It is still illegal to live in substandard conditions and your landlord (not you) is still responsible for maintaining the apartment and making the necessary repairs!

2. Tenants at Will
If you are living in an apartment without a written lease but with the permission of your landlord, you are a tenant at will. Even if you do not have the written permission of your landlord to live in your apartment, you are a tenant at will once he accepts your rent payments. Being a tenant at will means that you are in a binding contract with your landlord to rent the apartment on a month-to-months basis (or a week-to-week basis, depending on the amount of time each rent payment covers). This contract is just as important and protected as any lease. If you or your landlord want to terminate your tenancy, a month’s (or 30 days) notice must be given. Tenancy at will is the most common form of tenancy

3. Tenants at Sufferance
If you remain in your apartment without your landlord’s permission after your lease or tenancy at will ends or your landlord terminates your tenancy (and he refuses your rent payments), you are a tenant at sufferance. But if your landlord continues to accept rent payments from you even after your tenancy was terminated, you then become a tenant at will.
Even though they do not have contract tenancy, tenants at sufferance are not considered trespassers because at one point their landlord did agree to their renting the apartment. Like any other tenant, tenants at sufferance have the right to a decent place to live, can enforce health and sanitary codes, and have the right to sue their landlords for negligence.
The biggest difference between a tenant at will and a tenant at sufferance is that if you are a tenant at sufferance and your landlord wants to try to evict you, he can start court eviction proceedings without first having to send you a Notice to Quit. In other words, he doesn’t have to give you the 30 days notice (Notice to Quit) before sending you a summons to appear in court, as he would if you were a tenant at will. This doesn’t mean that you have to leave immediately, nor does it mean that your landlord can come into your apartment and force you out. He would still have to go through a long eviction process before you would legally have to move out. And tenants at sufferance can also use all of the same defenses and counterclaims that tenants at will can use to fight an eviction. If you receive a summons, don’t ignore it! All tenants have the right to defend themselves in court and try to prevent or delay an eviction. (Refer to chapter 7, Eviction and Rent Increase)

The Water Bill
Under all circumstances, it is your landlord’s responsibility to pay the water bill – not yours. It is illegal for him to ask you to pay it, or for him to put the bill in your name. Furthermore, if you have an absentee landlord (if he doesn’t live in the building you live in), the water in your building cannot legally be shut off because the water bill wasn’t paid. Instead, it is the Water and Sewer Commission’s responsibility to track down your landlord to get him to pay the bill. [This rule applies unless there is a commercial tenant in your building.]

If you have an absentee landlord, and you receive a letter from the Water and Sewer Commission threatening to shut off your water, call the Water and Sewer Commission immediately and remind them of this rule. If you are have trouble getting your right enforced, call a tenant advocacy organization or a legal service center, they can put pressure on the Water and Sewer Commission to do the right thing.

***Keep Records Now, Avoid Problems Later***It is generally advised for all tenants to keep a log or journal of relevant things that happen during your tenancy in any apartment, and keep it in a very safe place. If anything should ever happen between you and your landlord (like a simple dispute over bills, an arbitrary rent increase, eviction, or negligence to make repairs or maintain the apartment in a proper way) and especially if you choose to fight it in court, having a dated journal of events and records will help you enormously! Include a copy of your lease (if you have one), all important conversations between you and your landlord, write down when repairs are made, and other significant events. Be sure to include the dates of when things happen. Also, make copies of ALL documents that pass between you and your landlord, as well as all inspection reports, repair receipts, and relevant letters. Also, if your landlord makes any promises, make sure to get them in writing; tell him to give you a letter that states the promise. You will never regret keeping a journal, but you may regret not keeping one.