Dear Apartment Guru,
I am a college student in Boston and I live in an amazing apartment - two working fireplaces, a clawfoot bathtub - you get the idea. Our troubles started in the winter when it was time for the heat to come on. Whatever they did to alter the heat from the whole house to work in the individual apartments, they didn't do correctly. One day it was 95 degrees and we would have to have all the windows open in the dead of winter and the next day it was 50 degrees. The management company came out three times to fix the problem but their "fixes" only lasted a few days.
After more than 6 weeks of this I finally went to the Boston College law library and looked up the tenant laws. From this I drafted a letter including the various codes and laws and told them I was well within my right to stop paying my rent as not providing a safe and habitable living environment and working heat was a breech of implied warranty. I mailed the letter. I received a call from a secretary at the management office who is as dumb as they get and had no idea how to respond to my letter. (I found out that she was fired not too soon after.) Finally, I stopped paying my rent. During this time, we experienced a huge blizzard and you guessed it, lost our heat.
We hunkered down with 10 layers on, all the doors shut to the living room and made as big of a fire as we could make. The management company threatened our co-signers (our parents) because we weren't paying rent - but never went after any of us legally since we were perfectly with-in our rights to stop paying (I checked with a lawyer friend who moonlighted as a bartender at the restaurant I worked at). Now we want out of our lease, which isn't up until September, but the management company is saying no and continuing to threaten legal action. What can we do?
-Just Starting to Thaw Out
Dear Thawing Out,
I am so happy to hear you and your roommates made it through the winter! I remember those Nor'easters well and am thrilled that at least your fireplaces worked.
Now, the good news here is that I was able to reach the Massachusetts Association of Health and your landlord must provide and maintain a heating system in good operating order. Not only that, it turns out there are very strict laws indicating proper temperature ranges for both day and night. From September 16 to June 14, every room must be heated to a temperature of at least 68F between the hours of 7:00am and 11:00pm and at least 64F between the hours of 11:01pm and 6:59am - unless the tenant is required to supply the fuel under a written lease agreement. It sounds like your management company met none of these requirements.
Your bartender/lawyer friend (really what's the difference as long as he can pour a good martini?) advised you correctly. You and your roommates did not have to continue payment of rent. Legally the management company has no recourse. However, since you have weathered the storm of winter, it is probable that the home is now being "heated" to the proper specifications (thanks to spring, not the management company). Therefore, I can see where you might have a difficult time trying to break your lease. However, you must remember in most cities the laws are written to protect the tenant. Most tenants however, do not know what their rights are. You have already taken fantastic initiative and should probably look into going pre-law (just make sure to work on perfecting your cocktail-making skills!). Chances are, if you do end up breaking your lease, your landlord will not go after you. And if he does, he is not likely to win, given that you are organized, have the experience well documented, and the law on your side. Furthermore, it isn't like they're gonna miss your rent check!
To start, I recommend telling your landlord that unless they let you out of your lease willingly, you will stick around while they show the place to prospective tenants and regale them with stories from the winter of your discontent. Tell them you will start with the time you "hunkered down under ten layers" the Great Blizzard of 2009...
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The Aparment Guru is Joselin Linder, co-writer of The Good Girls Guide to Living in Sin and Have Sex Like You Just Met. Having rented apartments and houses in Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Brooklyn, Columbus, OH and abroad in Prague, CZ, she knows what it means to live in home you don't own and still make it homey. Anything she doesn't know, she isn't afraid to ask.