Landlord rights? To this Boston tenant, they’re a joke

Katrina Langer
Katrina Langer | 4 min. read

Published on December 22, 2014

Tenant horror stories are a dime a dozen, but whenever we hear one, we’re relieved to know that even the worst tenants have to leave eventually. But this week, we heard about a terrible tenant who’s made it impossible to be evicted, and we have to wonder if there’s a way this type of situation can be avoided.

According to reports, this tenant owes back rent, all his roommates have moved out, and he’s got, what seems like, a pretty terrible disposition to begin with. If you’re anything like us, at this point you’re thinking, “Just evict the guy!” If only it were that simple.

Adam Schatten moved into his apartment in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain in November of 2013, a replacement roommate of a replacement roommate. Landlords Irene and Hilbert Nickerson live upstairs, and they originally rented the property to an engaged couple. When their engagement ended and the woman moved out, her former fiancé got a roommate. Then the original tenant moved out and a new roommate moved in. This is how Schatten found the place just over a year ago.

It wasn’t long before it was clear that Schatten was going to be trouble. In April, he called the police to the property and alleged that his roommate “yelled at him really loudly.” Needless to say, that guy moved out before June, leaving Schatten to foot the rent bill. Something he never intended to do, anyway.

When the Nickersons attempted to evict him for nonpayment of rent in September, he owed them nearly $7,000.  However, because of the aforementioned police report, which Schatten claims is evidence of “domestic abuse,” they could not proceed. As it turns out, Massachusetts passed a law in 2013 (PDF) protecting all victims of domestic abuse from retaliatory evictions in the event that they call the police.

So what can you do to avoid the unfortunate consequences of a bad tenant twisting a well-intentioned law into something awful?

There are a number of ways to make sure you’re in good standing with all your tenants, but it all starts with the background check. Use the tenant screening process to your advantage, no matter how urgently you’re trying to fill a vacancy.

Here are some of the most important things property managers can do during the screening process:

  • Perform a thorough background check with a verifiable service (look for a criminal history, a lot of addresses, or civil violations in small claims court).
  • Check references from current landlords and/or employers. Prospective tenants who do not want to provide the contact information of their current landlords may be trying to hide something.
  • Interview them! You can ask about their pets, the number of people who will be living in the unit, how they spend their free time, etc. This will give you a chance to get a sense of what kind of tenant they’ll be. Shifty eyes and awkward answers could be a red flag. There are things you cannot ask about (including race, religion, and sexual orientation), so proceed with caution.
  • Specify the terms of subleasing or reletting. Use the original lease to outline the tenant’s responsibilities if they need to sublet their apartment. If you allow sublets or reletting, have each subsequent lessor sign a new lease (all other tenants in the unit should resign the lease as well). Just as you would with a new group of tenants, perform a thorough background check and interview them carefully.
  • Document everything. When you move to evict a tenant, it’s your responsibility to provide the evidence that you’re doing so within the limits of the law. It’s within a tenant’s rights to claim the eviction is retaliatory, but it’s within yours to prove otherwise. (In other words, the best methods of communication with a tenant is in writing. Email and text are your best friends.)

Like we said, this is a worst case scenario. And we’re always looking for ways to help other property managers and landlords avoid these situations. That said, we’d love to hear what you have to say about this. What would you do to avoid this type of situation? Leave a comment below!

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Katrina Langer

Katrina is the author of several Buildium ebooks and guides. She holds a B.A. in English from Northeastern University.

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