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Rent Withholding Laws in Massachusetts

If a landlord won’t make a major repair—or violates key parts of the lease—tenants in Massachusetts are allowed to withhold rent.

In Massachusetts, tenants are protected by something known as the implied warranty of habitability. Essentially, this is a guarantee that the landlord will keep the apartment in good condition while the tenant lives there. If the landlord fails to do so, Massachusetts tenants can stop paying some or all of their rent—a tactic known as “rent withholding”—as long as they’ve already notified the landlord of the problem. Unlike other states, tenants can immediately start withholding rent once they’ve alerted their landlord. There’s no need for them to give the landlord a reasonable amount of time to fix the problem first.

The issues with the apartment must be serious to warrant rent withholding

Not every problem with a rental unit qualifies for rent withholding. In order to justify rent withholding, the conditions in the apartment must be at least one of the following:1

These are typically major issues, not just minor inconveniences like a crack in the ceiling paint or a loose doorknob. According to previous Massachusetts court cases, this could include:

  • A loss of heat and hot water2
  • Mice or roach infestations3
  • A broken septic system4

That said, a tenant isn’t allowed to withhold rent if the problems with the apartment were caused by the tenant or their guests, family, or pets.5

Tenants must notify the landlord before withholding rent

Before withholding rent payments, a tenant must notify their landlord (or the person they pay rent to) of the conditions in the apartment.6 If a tenant doesn’t notify their landlord, a judge will allow their landlord to evict them for not paying rent—even if the issue was major enough to qualify for rent withholding otherwise. In one real-life case, a tenant notified her landlord of the problems in her apartment two months after she began to withhold rent. The court decided that the landlord was allowed to evict her for nonpayment of rent.7

Rent withholding can begin once the landlord is provided with notice

Massachusetts courts have ruled that a tenant can begin withholding rent as soon as a landlord is notified of the conditions in the apartment that are in violation of the warranty of habitability (or the lease or another law). Unlike most other states, there’s no need to give the landlord a reasonable amount of time to conduct a repair before withholding rent.8

Tenants can’t withhold rent if the repairs require the premises to be vacated

If the landlord can prove that repairing the problems in a rental unit would require the tenant to move out, a tenant isn’t allowed to withhold rent.9 In one 1999 case, a Somerville landlord was operating an illegal boarding house. The city ordered him to return the property to its original state, a three-family dwelling. Because there was no way for the landlord to do this without the tenant vacating, the tenant was not allowed to withhold rent.10 In that kind of situation, a tenant would be able to seek money damages from the landlord for the early eviction—but they aren’t allowed to stop paying rent and keep the lease from being terminated.

Tenants can be sued for withholding rent

If a tenant withholds rent, a landlord may try to evict them for non-payment of rent. The judge may side with the landlord if they decide that the conditions weren’t serious enough to justify rent withholding—or if the tenant failed to give sufficient notice. So a tenant should proceed carefully if they decide to withhold rent.

[1] General Laws, Chapter 239, Section 8A

[2] Berman & Sons, Inc. v. Jefferson, 379 Mass. 196 (1979)

[3] Huezo v. Chelsea Housing Authority, 2008 WL 4975328 (Mass. Sup. Ct. 2008)

[4] Grundberg v. Gill, 2002 WL 31834779 (Mass. App. Ct. 2002)

[5] General Laws, Chapter 239, Section 8A

[6] General Laws, Chapter 239, Section 8A

[7] Jablonski v. Casey, 835 N.E.2d 615 (Mass. Ct. App. 2005)

[8] Berman & Sons, Inc. v. Jefferson, 379 Mass. 196 (1979)

[9] General Laws, Chapter 239, Section 8A

[10] Singer v. Opuka, 1999 WL 24695 (Mass. App. Div. 1999)

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.