Opinion

Op-Ed: Time to reform Massachusetts housing courts

Massachusetts Housing Court is the Wild West. Landlords are stereotyped time and time again as the villains. They are portrayed as money hungry, wealthy individuals who strive to keep tenants down by providing sub-par housing at inflated prices. Tenants are often portrayed as victims of inflated housing, and unfair housing practices.

There is a trace of truth in both of these stereotypes. A landlord/tenant relationship gone awry is comparable to a divorce or heated romantic relationship breakdown. There is the landlord side, the tenant side and the truth. As in a messy divorce, both parties, included jaded landlords and tenants, can and will do things that are unbecoming and not of their normal character.

Massachusetts currently has two courts in which housing matters can be found: District Court and Housing Court. Some counties have only District Court.

District Court handles a plethora of cases, many of which are unrelated to housing. Many feel that District Court is more landlord friendly. The logic behind this thought is that District Court Judges are not as well trained as Housing Court Judges in matters pertaining to housing.

Massachusetts courts historically favor the tenant. Procedures that exist in Housing Court written under the pretense of being unbiased have turned into games and loopholes tenants can use.

In counties with both District and Housing Courts, a landlord may start an eviction in either court. A tenant who is the subject of the complaint in District Court may then opt to move their case to Housing Court. One can see that this is a game both a landlord and a tenant may play if these options are available. A tenant can “buy more time” when they opt to exercise their right to move courts. A landlord may hope a tenant does not know of their option to “move courts” and choose a more landlord friendly option in District Court.

Why does this option even exist? Why doesn’t Massachusetts allow all counties an option to Housing Court? This would only benefit landlords and tenants alike.

Landlords come from all walks of life: from the Trump-style investor to the new immigrant who has purchased his first home, taking in a tenant to help pay for his mortgage.

The same also can be said for tenants. A tenant of high means or low means can and will manipulate the court system to further their agenda. Then add in lawyers and we here in Massachusetts have a housing mess!

Lawyers can prey on tenants and landlords. They are the drivers who know the ins and outs of the manipulation process, aka Housing Court.

A tenant and a landlord represented by a lawyer truly is the only way for successful procedural and manipulation of the Housing Court system. A lawyer can be a friend or a foe. The caveat is you need to be assigned one pro bono or pay for one. This may not be feasible for a landlords or a tenant.

In Massachusetts landlords, novice or not, are held to standards that are not the norm.

If a landlord mishandles a security deposit, tenant may immediately ask for it back or, in some cases, sue when it is not handled as per Massachusetts law states.

Why is it then acceptable for a tenant who is in court for nonpayment to play a typical game of “let’s call code enforcement”? The apartment all of a sudden became full of “issues” once an eviction was filed. Next, the tenant decides to withhold rent and ask for an abatement to lower their debt. Massachusetts has specific laws on how tenants must withhold rent in escrow accounts, but rarely if ever are they enforced. Why not?

Advocacy groups like the local one that was in the news who halted an eviction (Item, Oct. 24) do more damage than good. They broke the law by stopping an eviction. They wasted community resources by requiring the ever busy police to be dispatched to their protest. They brag on social media how they halted an eviction. They called out a landlord who they claimed wronged this tenant without presenting the full story.

Again, there are three sides to the story: the tenant’s, the landlord’s and the truth. In the end the advocacy group postponed the inevitable eviction. They also harmed the tenant and used her as a sacrificial lamb. She was desperate and this group reached out to her. They put her name all over the papers and social media. Who is going to rent her an apartment now? Who wants to be bullied if they have to evict a tenant? No one tenant or landlord should be subject to these groups. They need to learn to conduct themselves in a matter that can help, not harm, relationships that have to exist between tenants and landlords.

There is so much room for improvement in Housing Courts in Massachusetts. My experience as a landlord has been that if you follow the rules, are prepared for the process to take place, keep emotions neutral, and present as flexible and fair your case will be resolved.

There are numerous changes that should occur with evictions in Massachusetts to streamline the process and procedures to make evictions a more less timely and fair process for all involved.

 

Stacey Roller has been a North Shore resident since 1998, having spent the last 20 years in Lynn. She is a real estate broker in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Florida and she has a boutique brokerage located in Swampscott. She has been a landlord since she was 20 years old and in real estate for more than 20 years.

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