This morning I was alerted to an excellent article on NPR.org about the situations tenants find themselves in when their landlord has been foreclosed upon and the bank fails to keep the unit habitable. Naturally, I tweeted it. This, unfortunately, is a situation that I see all too often though, so I thought it deserved a little more in-depth discussion about a tenant’s rights here in the Commonwealth.
More often than not in my experience, a landlord who is foreclosed upon is typically a landlord who hasn’t had the money or desire to pay for upkeep and repairs for quite some time. That means that by the time the bank takes ownership of the property, it’s already in a state of disrepair and the tenants are already suffering.
Generally speaking, when a bank buys a property at a foreclosure auction they’ll put a servicing/management company in charge of maintenance and repairs. That company will sometimes come out and perform an initial inspection so the bank knows what it now owns, but more often than not there will be little or no follow-up. Sometimes the banks ask for rent (through the management company), but in my experience most banks don’t ask for rent because they don’t want to be in the business of being landlords. Either that, or the volume of properties is simply too much for them to adequately track, keep organized, and administer. All the while, conditions continue to worsen.
So here’s the most important question: what do you do? I’ve got a couple suggestions –
- Don’t Just Leave
Let me preface this by saying that if the unit is unsafe or in any way a risk to your health, don’t stay in it just for leverage’s sake. With that being said, a tenant should almost never leave a unit that’s been foreclosed on, and a tenant certainly should never feel like they have to. Like any other situation, if a new owner wants to get a tenant out, they have to go through a formal eviction process and a Court must tell the tenant to leave. If a landlord ever tells you differently, it’s simply incorrect.
- Talk to an Attorney!
I swear this isn’t just a shameless plug. Hiring or at least talking to an attorney who’s experienced in landlord/tenant law is incredibly important in making sure your rights are protected and you get taken care of properly. The reason you should do it (aside from this being a complicated area of law)? It shouldn’t cost you anything. Private attorneys like myself typically handle cases like this on some kind of contingency-fee agreement, meaning they only get paid if you get paid. Of course, it depends on everyone’s unique situation, but that’s typically the arrangement.
Even if you don’t want to hire a private attorney, there are plenty of volunteer agencies who can advise on a situation like this in Boston. Go to the incredibly helpful Attorney For the Day program in Boston Housing Court on Wednesday or Thursday mornings, or contact the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association to find out some more about this area of law.
Not surprisingly, banks, when they’re on top of their game, will generally offer a nominal cash-for-keys settlement to tenants to get them to move out quickly. These offers are typically very low relative to the claims a tenant would have in a suit in Housing Court, so having an attorney to educate you on all your rights and maximize any settlement is hugely important.
- Call Inspectional Services
Here in Boston we have the Inspectional Services Department, but in each city or town there is a Health Department charged with enforcing the State Sanitary Code. You can call them to come out and perform an inspection free of charge. If there are emergency health conditions, they’ll come out immediately. Once the inspection has been performed, they’ll track down and contact the owner to put them on notice and make sure that repairs are made. Just as importantly, you’ll have a piece of paper, admissible in court, that says exactly what’s wrong with the unit and when. It’s an incredibly important document to have when negotiating with a bank, and it’s the first thing I tell any client in this situation to do.
- Take Pictures
As you can tell, much of my advice centers around preparing evidence for a suit against the bank (or a defense against an eviction action), with the hopes that by doing so you’ll put yourself in a great position to negotiate a settlement and avoid the need for a suit at all. It’s with that in mind that I tell everyone to take pictures of the bad conditions you’re facing. In addition to setting up evidence for a case, it’s simply something the that you can show the bank or the management company to get them to sit up and pay attention, which can be a big hurdle in getting these types of situations resolved.
Too often in landlord/tenant situations, there are grievous wrongs that there’s simply no way to practically right. I haven’t written a blog post in months but I read this article and immediately had to write this post because this is one of those situations where a tenant can right a wrong, but too few actually know it. So if you find yourself in a situation where your landlord has been foreclosed on and you’re struggling with bad conditions and a non-responsive bank, know that there are options and resources out there, and don’t simply let it go.
Photo Credit: Jeffrey Turner