Legal Update: Housing Rights for Victims of Domestic Violence, Rape, Sexual Assault, and Stalking

This Massachusetts law applies to all landlords, private and public.

Many of us have heard of the federal law entitled the Violence Against Women Act, commonly known as VAWA, which provides protections to victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking who receive publicly assisted housing benefits, including but not limited to, public housing, Section 8 vouchers, project based Section 8 and Low Income Tax Credit properties.  What many landlords are less familiar with is a 2013 Massachusetts law entitled “An Act Relative to Housing Rights for Victims of Domestic Violence, Rape, Sexual Assault, and Stalking” which is found in General Laws Chapter 186, Sections 23-29.  In contrast with the protections in VAWA which applies to publicly assisted housing, this Massachusetts law applies to all landlords, private and public.   Among the protections provided by this law is allowing victims of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or stalking to break their lease, or terminate a rental agreement or tenancy, if the notification to the landlord is made within three (3) months of the most recent act of domestic violence or if the tenant is reasonably in fear of “imminent serious physical harm.”  General Laws Chapter 186, Section 24.  A landlord has the right to request proof of that the tenant is reasonably in fear of imminent serious physical harm and such proof may include, but not be limited to, copies of valid protection of harassment prevention orders, a record from the police or law enforcement of an incident and the name of the perpetrator if known, or written verification from a qualified third party such as a counselor, social worker and mental health professional to whom the tenant has reported the domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or stalking (MGL Ch 186, Section 24).  Any documentation given to you by the tenant in connection with this request must be kept confidential (MGL Ch 186, Section 24).

Also under this law, a tenant can also request that the landlord change the locks if the tenant or a household member believes they are under “an imminent threat of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or stalking at the premises”  (MGL Ch 186, Section 26).  Similar to breaking the lease, a landlord has the right to request proof from the tenant of such threat (MGL Ch 186, Section 26).  A landlord is statutorily obligated to change the locks and provide a new key within two (2) business days of the request or give the tenant permission to change the locks (MGL Ch 186, Section 26).  The owner may charge a reasonable fee for the expense of changing the locks (MGL Ch 186, Section 26).  If you fail to comply with the request, the penalties can be steep: a landlord who takes action to prevent the tenant from changing the locks or who changes the locks but fails to make a good faith effort to provide a key to the tenant requesting the lock change “shall be liable for actual and consequential damages or 3 months’ rent, whichever is greater, and the costs of the action, including reasonable attorney’s fees” (MGL Ch 186, Section 26).  Damages cannot, however, be imposed if a Court finds the landlord acted in good faith (MGL Ch 186, Section 26).  Additionally, a landlord will not be liable for damages for refusing to provide a key to an individual that the landlord believes to be the perpetrator of domestic violence if the refusal was made in good faith compliance with this statute or a court order (MGL Ch 186, Section 29).

Finally, it is noteworthy that a landlord cannot “refuse to enter into a rental agreement, nor shall a housing subsidy provider deny assistance, based upon an applicant having terminated a rental agreement under Section 24 or based upon an applicant having requested a change of locks under section 26” (MGL Ch 186, Section 25).

Katharine Higgins-Shea, Esq.
Lyon & Fitzpatrick, LLP
14 Bobala Road Holyoke, MA 01040
Phone 413-536-4000
Fax 413-536-3773

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