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Fair Housing Laws in Massachusetts

State law in Massachusetts makes it illegal to deny someone housing based on sexual orientation, military status, and more.

The national Fair Housing Act protects people from discrimination when they are seeking housing. Each state also has its own set of fair housing laws, and in some cases—including Massachusetts—state law is stricter than federal law.

Massachusetts' fair housing law protects more renters from discrimination

Massachusetts state law adds eight protected classes to those already included in the federal Fair Housing Act. Under the Massachusetts Fair Housing Law,1 it is also illegal to discriminate based on:

  • Age (excluding minors)
  • Ancestry
  • Children
  • Genetic information
  • Gender identity
  • Military or veteran status
  • Marital status
  • Section 8 or public assistance
  • Sexual orientation

Different properties are exempt from fair housing laws in Massachusetts

The federal Fair Housing Act includes several exemptions. The most well-known of these is the so-called “Mrs. Murphy” exemption, which states that dwellings with four or fewer units (one of which must be occupied by the owner) are exempt from fair housing laws. The name is based on a hypothetical elderly widow, Mrs. Murphy, who wants to rent out part of her home to supplement her limited income.

Many states, including Massachusetts, have more stringent versions of the Mrs. Murphy law. Massachusetts law only exempts owner-occupied dwellings with two or fewer units from fair housing laws.

However, state law does provide an additional exemption for older residents. In Massachusetts, buildings with three or fewer units—one of which is occupied by an elderly or infirm person for whom the presence of children would be a hardship—may deny housing on the basis of familial status only. In other words, they can legally refuse to rent to a family with young children. “Elderly” is defined as someone 65 or older; “infirm” means someone with disabilities or who suffers from a chronic illness.2

These exemptions no longer apply if:

  • A real estate agency is involved in the rental process
  • The advertisements for the rental are discriminatory
  • The owner made discriminatory statements3

Additionally, in Massachusetts, all rental properties are prohibited from denying someone housing based on two factors: 1) race or 2) receiving rental or public assistance.

Massachusetts has stricter lead laws to cut down on familial status discrimination

Under federal fair housing laws, it’s illegal to deny someone housing based on their familial status. So, if a landlord refuses to rent to a family with children under six because there is lead in the unit or in the common areas—even if the intent is to protect the children—it’s a fair housing violation.

Massachusetts state law goes a step further by requiring any residential property built before 1978 to be lead safe if a child under six years old lives there.4 This “lead law,” as it’s known, applies to all residential rental property—even those properties normally exempt from fair housing rules. An owner can't avoid liability by having tenants sign an agreement that they understand and accept the presence of lead paint.

[1] Massachusetts General Law Chapter 151B

[2] G.L. c. 151B, §§4(11)(1)-(11)(3)

[3] G.L. c. 151B, §4(7B)

[4] G.L. c. 111, §199(A)

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