Poor Living Conditions:
What You Can Do

Whenever an apartment or house in Massachusetts is made available for rent, the owner implies that there is a guarantee that the unit is in safe and sanitary condition and meets the state’s minimum standards. This concept is known as the “implied warranty of habitability” and applies no matter what the rental amount is. In general, “habitable” means a place that is comfortable and clean enough for a person to live safely. Any unit you rent must meet the state’s minimum standards for physical condition which are outlined in detail in Chapter II of the State Sanitary Code.

If you are living in an apartment with poor, unsanitary or dangerous conditions, call the HAP Housing Consumer Education Center at 413-233-1600 immediately.

Use Caution when Making Claims

Virtually every house and apartment in Massachusetts contains at least one violation of the State Sanitary Code. It is in your best interest to use judgment and tact when making claims for violations of the Code. You should not put up with substandard conditions when the landlord knows of problems, but you should first attempt to resolve the issue with the landlord for the sake of a good tenant/landlord relationship. Even if you feel there is no hope for a good tenant/landlord relationship, it may still be in your best interest to seek the guidance of Housing Consumer Education Center staff before exercising your right to call the Board of Health for an inspection. If negotiations fail, then strict legal enforcement can and should be pursued.

The State Sanitary Code

Every rental unit must be in safe and sanitary condition. The State of Massachusetts Sanitary Code requires that landlords meet a minimum “Standard of Habitability” in each of their rental units and in the apartment building as a whole. Property must be maintained regularly so that deterioration of rental units does not “materially endanger the health and safety of the occupant” (as quoted from the State Sanitary Code of Massachusetts).

Conditions Deemed to Endanger or Impair Health and Safety

The violations listed below are examples of conditions that are considered to materially endanger the health or safety of you, your family and those who visit or live in your home. The presence of any of these violations means that you may legally withhold your rent or take other legitimate actions to protect your rights.

  •  Failure to provide heat, or improper venting of a heating system or water heater.
  •  Shut-off or failure to restore electricity or gas.
  •  Failure to supply required electrical facilities or common area lighting.
  •  Failure to provide a safe and adequate supply of water.
  •  Failure to provide a toilet and maintain a sewage disposal system in operable condition.
  •  Failure to provide adequate exits, or the obstruction of any exit, passageway, or common area, which prevents exit in case of emergency.
  •  Failure to provide adequate locks for entry doors into buildings and apartments.
  • Failure to comply with any requirements of the Code when this failure leads to accumulation of garbage, filth, or other causes of sickness which may provide a food source or harborage for rodents, insects, or other pests or otherwise contribute to accidents or to the creation or spread of disease.
  • Presence of lead paint accessible to any child(ren) under age six. Lead paint is particularly hazardous to young children. If a child under six resides in your household, state law requires that lead paint on all surfaces that are mouthable, moveable, or deteriorated must be “abated” in a manner that brings the surface into compliance with state regulations.  For further information about state and federal lead paint regulations, visit the lead paint hazard section of this website, contact the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program of the Massachusetts Department of Health or contact your local HCEC.
  • Roof, foundation, or other structural defects that may expose the occupant to fire, burns, shock, accident, or other dangers to health or safety.
  • Failure to install or maintain electrical, plumbing, heating, and gas- or oil-burning facilities in a proper manner, when such failure exposes the occupant or anyone else to fire, burns, shock, accident, or other danger or impairment to health or safety.
  • Failure to supply hot or cold water in sufficient quantity, pressure, and temperature.
  • Failure to install smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors in a manner that is in compliance with both state and municipal ordinances.
  • Any other violation of the State Sanitary Code that the inspector finds to be a danger to occupant’s health and safety.

Correcting Code Violations

If violations of the State Sanitary Code or any other codes having to do with your health and safety exist in your apartment, you should take the following action:

The first step is to inform your landlord in writing of the violation(s) and ask him/her to make repairs.

If s/he refuses, explain that it is his/her duty to maintain the apartment and all common areas in good repair, and that you are prepared to take further action to make sure these repairs are made. 

If your landlord still refuses to make the necessary repairs, the next step is to contact your municipal building inspector or Board of Health to request an official inspection.

Prepare a list of suspected violations you wish to have investigated. When the inspector makes his/her inspection, make sure that s/he writes down all of the violations.  The inspector must provide you with a copy of his/her report within 10 days, and it must specify a time period within which the landlord must make the repairs.

When and How You Can Withhold Rent

The purpose of a rent withholding is to force your landlord to make the necessary repairs. You can legally withhold your rent until such time as your landlord repairs the code violations in your apartment or in the common areas of your building that endanger your health and safety. The decision of whether to withhold all or part of your rent is up to you. Strictly speaking, you should be current in your rent at the start of rent withholding.

It is advisable to let your landlord know in writing that you intend to withhold your rent and your reasons for doing so. Keep a copy of this letter for your files. It is also advisable (but not required) to put the rent you withhold in a bank account so that it will be available to bring your rent current once the repairs have been made.

Because of the presence of code violations, the actual value of the apartment during the time you are conducting a rent withholding may be considerably less than your normal rent. For this reason, the judge will most likely abate (reduce) the rent that you end up owing the landlord for the time you were engaged in a rent withholding action, should your landlord decide to bring you to court for nonpayment of rent. Sometimes, tenants and landlords will simply agree on an abatement between themselves.    

After you have had an inspection done and have made sure that your landlord has been notified of the problems, your landlord must start and complete the repairs within the time specified in the “Orders to Correct” from the Board of Health. If s/he does not follow through within the required amount of time, then you have the right to make repairs and deduct the cost from your future rent. Be sure that all of the following conditions are met:

  • The Housing Inspector or a court must find the existence of Sanitary Code violations or other violations that “endanger or materially impair the health, safety, or well-being of a tenant.”
  • The owner or his agent must be notified in writing of the defects.
  • Your landlord must fail to begin all necessary repairs in 5 days (or fail to contract in writing with a third party for such repairs) and fail to substantially complete them within 14 days after this notice, or within a shorter time if the Housing Inspector or court ordered quicker action.
  • You must not have caused the conditions, and you must not deny your landlord access to the area to make repairs.

If you meet these requirements to “repair and deduct,” then you are permitted to treat your lease or rental agreement as broken. You may decide to move rather than to make repairs. However, you must pay the fair value for the period you have occupied your apartment and vacate within a reasonable period of time.