As the trials and tribulations of September's gas disaster trudge toward December, Columbia Gas has reimbursed residents for scores of different needs — appliances, temporary housing, food, lost wages — to the tune of nearly $56 million so far; but many tenants and landlords are still left wondering what they are to do about rent.
Earlier this month, Attorney General Maura Healey's office sent out a fact sheet to help clarify the state's laws. In Massachusetts, a landlord is required to provide heat — at least 68 degrees during the day and 64 at night — and hot water between 110 and 130 degrees. If a rental unit doesn't have heat or hot water, landlords are prohibited from collecting rent. If they do, it is considered a violation of the state's consumer protection law.
This enables tenants to withhold their rent, and Columbia Gas has said it will reimburse landlords in this case; but for some renters wary of angering their landlords, withholding rent feels like dangerous territory.
Jennifer Carrion had just moved to North Andover from North Lawrence in August. She was in her apartment for less than a month when the gas disaster robbed her home of its gas supply.
Carrion attempted to withhold rent from her landlord in October, but ultimately paid him when Columbia Gas told her she'd be reimbursed.
"(Angering my landlord) was a concern, but I know my rights and I knew that if I didn't have heat and hot water, there's no way for the landlord to try to kick me out into the streets," said Carrion, a mother of three. "This whole situation has me depressed, stressed out. I was crying a lot, because I didn't have answers."
Since the explosions, Carrion, her boyfriend, and the three children have been forced to move from hotel to hotel as they were overbooked or crammed into a single room. While shuffling from location to location, Carrion was trying to navigate the confusion of her rent.
When she tried to submit a claim for the rent she paid in October, Carrion said Columbia Gas refused and said she'd have to have her landlord do so; but Carrion's landlord refused to go through the claims process, and said he was told by Columbia Gas that he was not eligible to collect reimbursement because he'd been paid by the tenant.
"It's been horrible," Carrion said. "We had to make it clear to them that it was not the responsibility of the landlord or me to pay the rent, it was the responsibility on the gas company."
After Healey's office got involved, Carrion said she was directly reimbursed for the rent she paid to her landlord.
"He did what he had to do to get them to give me that check," Carrion said of the paralegal who helped her.
After Healey's office issued a set of guidelines for residents, Columbia Gas was able to create a comprehensive system for rent reimbursement, but it's still landlord-centric.
"Columbia Gas will pay the landlord rent for the period between Sept. 13 and the date heat and hot water are restored," said company spokesman Dean Lieberman in an email. "As part of this process, the landlord will be required to refund any rent collected from the tenant for this period."
It is the hope of the attorney general's office that tenants who feel uncomfortable withholding rent will be reimbursed by their landlord after the landlord has filed a claim with Columbia Gas; but those who are unable to work out an arrangement with the landlord or "who feel their landlord is treating them unfairly" should call the attorney general's office, Lieberman said.
Healey's office has created a hotline specifically for those affected by the gas disaster: 617-573-5370.
Even though Carrion and her family have since moved home to an apartment with heat and hot water, she still doesn't have a stove. When a plumber came to install it, they found unattached pipes in the basement and a leak in the building's crawl space.
"A lot of people don't think that they can speak up ... if you don't speak up, nobody's going to know what you're going through," Carrion said. "They need to finish up what they did, what they started."