No doubt now that the novel coronavirus is disrupting so much of the Boston region, including its rental market (and most Bostonians rent, as do residents of surrounding cities and towns such as Cambridge and Somerville).
In particular, rising unemployment due to temporary business shutdowns because of the virus has led to income losses. In short, more tenants are worried about paying their rent—in April and beyond. Other Boston-area residents who planned on moving are now uncertain about whether it’s safe or feasible to move to a new apartment at all.
Below are answers to some key questions as the pandemic unfolds, including ones surrounding what comes after the first of each month, when rents are typically due. If you have any other queries, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m supposed to move May 1. Am I still allowed to do that?
Yes—more or less. Gov. Charlie Baker on March 23 ordered that all Massachusetts businesses and organizations deemed nonessential amid coronavirus close their workplaces and other facilities to employees and the public. But the order—which Baker updated March 31 and which lasts until at least May 4—has a long list of exceptions.
Among those exceptions are “workers who support moving and storage services.” So moving companies are still moving—but it’s at the discretion of individual firms. Check if the company you might’ve hired is working. Incidentally, moving-van rental companies such as U-Haul and Ryder are still leasing vehicles.
I can’t make rent May 1. Will I be evicted?
No. As of April 20, there’s a moratorium in place in Massachusetts pausing all non-emergency eviction proceedings, including notices of eviction. The moratorium lasts 120 days from April 20 or 45 days from the lifting of Gov. Charlie Baker’s emergency declaration due to the pandemic, whichever comes first.
At the national level, the $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package—the CARES Act—included a 120-day moratorium on most evictions at properties that receive federal subsidies or that federal entities insure. The moratorium protects these tenants from new eviction actions for nonpayment of rent and from fees related to such nonpayment.
Note the “new” bit—it doesn’t protect against eviction proceedings in progress before President Donald Trump signed the CARES Act on March 27. For more about what housing types the federal moratorium covers, check out Section II of this explainer from the National Housing Law Project.
What if my lease is expiring at the end of April?
Presumably by now, tenants and landlords would’ve already worked out whether the apartment was going to be vacated at the end of the month. If not, then the answers lies in negotiations with individual landlords about staying on past April 30.
This can be via a tenancy-at-will agreement, which allows tenants in Massachusetts to rent month to month or however long the tenant and the landlord want to be in business together, according to the state attorney general’s office. “Either the landlord or the tenant can decide to end the tenancy by giving the other party notice either 30 days or one month before the due date of the next rent payment, whichever is longer.”
What if I have an issue with my apartment—something breaks or I need an urgent repair?
You’re in luck: Baker’s March 23 order also exempted “workers such as plumbers, electricians, exterminators, inspectors, and other service providers who provide services that are necessary to maintaining the safety, sanitation, and essential operation of residences, construction sites and projects, and needed facilities.”
So you can definitely contact your landlord about an urgent repair or problem such as infestation or dodgy heat. In fact, it’s your right under state law to expect such fixes. But, due to coronavirus, it’s also at the discretion of different companies to send their workers to do such repairs at a landlord’s request. Still, you are perfectly within your rights to reach out to your property’s owner about repairs.
And if you don’t hear back, you have recourse. Massachusetts Housing Court is still handling emergency situations—though parties are encouraged to reach agreements outside of court—and tenants can always reach out to their local health boards (via their town or city governments) about potential violations of the State Sanitary Code, which governs the habitability of apartments.
Can I break my lease early?
It depends. Coronavirus has led to a lot of job losses and loss of income in the Boston area. What’s more, the virus has spurred the shuttering of several colleges, universities, and other organizations—meaning that students and others associated with these major employers don’t have to be in town anymore, so to speak.
But that does not mean that tenants have a blanket right to cut their losses and leave a lease early. Some landlords—including universities that own and lease apartments to employees and students—are allowing or have allowed tenants to break their leases due to coronavirus. Others have not. Check with your landlord.
If you do break your lease, you risk losing two months’ rent—the first and last you put up to lease the apartment initially—as well as your security deposit. And landlords are within their rights to pursue further payments for upcoming months that the now-broken lease covered.
Can my landlord raise the rent?
Yes. That’s just the way of things in the market, coronavirus or not.
Massachusetts landlords, however, must provide written notices of any rent increase ahead of a lease ending—and tenants must have time to consider and to sign onto any increase. The rent cannot go up during a lease, either.
Incidentally, tenants do not have a right to a lease renewal or other extension—again, coronavirus or not. And landlords can raise the rent for pretty much any reason at the end of a lease (except in retaliation for taking action because of a lack of repairs or other rights violations). Also, there is no rent control in Massachusetts (for now).
Can my landlord evict me if I contract COVID-19?
No. “Attempting to evict someone because they were infected with or thought to be infected with COVID-19, or another medical condition, would be a violation of existing fair housing laws,” said Andrea M. Park, housing and homelessness attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.
Do Massachusetts landlords need to inform other tenants if another tenant has COVID-19?
No. There is zero legal obligation. But landlords are being encouraged—and are encouraging each other—to help keep tenants informed of measures taken to stem the virus’ spread, including more extensive cleaning of shared areas and checking in tenants who might be more vulnerable to the virus such as the elderly.
“It’s in every landlord’s interest to have healthy tenants, and all landlords, from multi-unit property managers to single-dwelling owners, should check in with their tenants specifically about coronavirus, for several reasons,” per Mass. Landlords, a nonprofit repping smaller landlords.
Can I pay part of the monthly rent for a bit and the rest later?
It depends on the context, according to Steve Meacham, organizing coordinator of community organization City Life/Vida Urbana.
And that hinges on the larger situation surrounding the state’s reaction to the pandemic—especially the fact that Massachusetts Housing Court has pushed back non-emergency proceedings until May 4. So, although a tenant can’t pay in full, a landlord can’t set up a court hearing on an eviction until at least that date.
And that might change. That’s because there’s that moratorium legislation pending in the State House. If that passes, there would be no eviction hearings in Massachusetts until Gov. Charlie Baker’s March 10 state of emergency re: coronavirus is lifted— “likely much longer than April 22,” Meacham said over email, referencing the original postponement end for most eviction proceedings.
“That suggests that tenants should not panic,” he said. “Any offer to pay part of the rent at different times of the months should be looked on with great favor by a landlord. The alternative is no rent.”
There is a big caveat for tenants trying to partially pay, however. “Any tenant who can’t pay should realize that as of right now unpaid rent will accumulate as debt,” Meacham said. It will become due at the end of the state of emergency unless the government intervenes with debt cancellation or debt relief, he added.
“That is likely, I would guess, because the prospect of evicting thousands of renters after the crisis who fell behind during the crisis would bring the system to a halt.”
I’m renting a condo and want to extend my lease due to the novel coronavirus. But the condo building’s master deed says no leases longer than a year. What now?
While it might be possible to work out a tenancy-at-will with an individual condo owner—wherein a tenant rents month to month under set terms and can vacate relatively quickly with a sufficient warning—most condo rentals in Massachusetts are going to be subject to terms that cover entire buildings or complexes. These terms are usually spelled out under what's called a master deed.
These deeds spell out the uses of and restrictions on units, including renting them out. So, if a master deed, say, restricts leases to no more than 12 or 24 months, then to have a longer lease a unit owner would need to have the master deed amended. That would need to be approved by a certain percentage of fellow owners as spelled out in the condo building’s legal docs, according Worcester-based law firm Fletcher Tilton.