Without a new statutory safeguard clever tenants will be able to keep using the "free rent trick," a real estate attorney told lawmakers this week.
"It's the more well educated folks who have experience in engineering - they're the ones who actually pull what's called the free rent trick," Richard Vetstein, a Framingham lawyer told the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
Vetstein, whose account was disputed by a tenants' lawyer, said some people quit paying their rent and when the landlord moves to evict them they call the authorities about some defect in the unit.
The Framingham lawyer backs putting a law on the books that would require tenants who cite the conditions of the premises in a dispute with a landlord to deposit the rent with the court or an escrow.
Republican Whelan resubmits predecessor Democrat Turner's bills
These bills were re-filed on behalf of my predecessor, Rep Cleon Turner. These bills are designed to offer fairness to landlords who own 5 or fewer housing units when involved in eviction proceedings. Growing up in the City of Worcester there were many well documented cases of 'tenants from hell' who would move in and immediately suspend paying rent, leaving these small 'mom and pop' style landlords with little room for recourse. Many of these cases involve owners of three-deckers who rely heavily on rental income from the other two units to pay their own mortgage. This bill applies minimal burden to the tenant by offering them the opportunity to present the court with documentation of substandard conditions in order to avoid the rent in escrow requirements. I believe it is fair and am proud to have re-filed these bills on Rep. Turner's behalf."
Law promulgated in 1966 and signed by Gov. Volpe
Todd Kaplan, a senior attorney in the consumer rights unit of the non-profit Greater Boston Legal Services, said judges are already allowed to order rental payments into an escrow account after a hearing.
"You can't use the outliers to determine what should be the rule for everybody," Kaplan told the News Service. He said he has not seen tenants manipulate the system the way Vetstein described.
"Within a couple of months of starting the lease they all of a sudden stopped paying rent. My client said, 'What's going on here?' And then they went to the Board of Health and got them reported for stuff like a broken window screen," said Vetstein.
Grace Ross, an activist who ran for governor in 2006 as a Green-Rainbow candidate, said she at one point denied a landlord rent because her unit was uninsulated and infested with vermin.
"I'm someone who's rented for years and I ended up in a situation where I had mice and it was so cold that it was freezing in my apartment in the winter," said Ross, who said she repeatedly asked her landlord to fix the problem to no avail. She said, "So I started withholding money."
Both of Whelan's bills would require the court clerk to waive the filing of rent if the tenant provides documentation of the substandard conditions.