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Habitability Rights: You are entitled to a safe and habitable living environment. The State Sanitary Code protects the health, safety and well-being of tenants and the general public. The local Boards of Health enforce the code. (Note: In Boston, it is the Housing Inspection Department.) Copies of the Code may be purchased from the State House Bookstore, State House, Room 116, Boston, MA 02133 (617)727-2834.

The following is a sampling of provisions outlined in the Code:

Water: The landlord must provide you with enough water, with adequate pressure, to meet your ordinary needs. You cannot be charged for water. If your lease requires you to pay for water and sewer costs, that provision in your lease is void and unenforceable. The landlord also must provide the facilities to heat the water at a temperature between 110F and 130F, however your written lease may require you to pay for and provide the fuel to heat the water.

Heat: The landlord must provide a heating system in good working order. The landlord must pay for the heat, unless your lease requires you to pay for it. From September 16 to June 14, every room must be heated to a least 68F between 7:00 AM and 11:00 PM, and at least 64F at all other hours. During the heating season, the maximum heat allowable in the apartment is 78F.

Kitchens: The landlord must provide within the kitchen: a sink of sufficient size and capacity for washing dishes and kitchen utensils, a stove and oven in good repair (unless your written lease requires you to provide your own), and space and proper facilities for the installation of a refrigerator. The landlord does not have to provide a refrigerator. If a refrigerator is provided, however, the landlord must keep it in working order.

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Cockroaches and rodents: The landlord must maintain the unit free from rodents, cockroaches, and insect infestation, if there are two or more apartments in the building.

Structural Elements: Every landlord must maintain the foundation, floors, walls, doors, windows, ceilings, roof, staircases, porches, chimneys, and other structural elements of the dwelling so that it excludes wind, rain, and snow; is rodent-proof, weather tight, watertight, and free from chronic dampness; in good repair, and in every way fit for its intended use.

Snow Removal: Every exit used or intended for use by occupants of more than one dwelling unit or rooming unit shall be maintained free from obstruction.

Rent Withholding: The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that when a landlord fails to maintain a dwelling in a habitable condition, a tenant may properly withhold a portion of the rent from the date the landlord has notice of this breach of the warranty of habitability  You may withhold rent if:

  • You have appealed to your landlord in writing to make the necessary repairs;
  • Your local board of health has inspected your apartment and found health code violations; and
  • You are current in your rent up until the time of the problem, you are not the cause of the problem and the unsanitary conditions do not require the apartment to be vacated.

Withholding your rent can be a useful tool to force repairs, but it is a serious step and should be dealt with carefully. You first should notify your landlord that you will be withholding rent and specify the reasons why. Although not required by law, you should deposit any rent you withhold into an escrow account to show good faith.

Repair and Deduct: A tenant may make emergency repairs in an apartment or common living area and deduct up to four months future rent to pay for them, if three conditions are met:

  • The local Board of Health or other code enforcement agency has certified that the present conditions endanger the health or safety of the tenants;
  • The landlord receives written notice of the existing violations from the inspecting agency; and
  • The landlord is given 5 days from the date of notice to begin repairs or to contract for outside services and 14 days to substantially complete all necessary repairs.

(Note: If ordered by the court or the local code enforcement agency to make repairs in less than 14 days, then the landlord must comply with the shorter time frame.)

If you meet the requirements for "repair and deduct," the lease or rental agreement is void. You now have the right to move if you choose not to make repairs. However, you must pay the fair value for the period you occupied the apartment and vacate the apartment within a reasonable period of time.

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