A Landlord’s 2-Year, $80,000 Effort to Evict a Non-Paying Tenant

Peter Avitabile sat in his pickup truck outside his Rockland townhouse — a place he hadn’t set foot in for two years — fuming about the tenant who refused to pay rent and refused to leave.

“God forbid someone pay to live in their property,” Avitabile said, staring at the front door of the apartment he first rented to the tenant in November of 2020. “I paid for this woman to live there for two years now, on my own dime, and I’m probably never going to see that money again.”

Evicted Shutterstock_503228062 With sky-high rents and a lack of affordable housing, it can be hard to have sympathy for landlords. Massachusetts has instituted strong protections against unscrupulous property owners, but it can feel next to impossible to reclaim an apartment from a tenant who won’t follow the rules.

Avitabile, 34, has felt the weight of the system ever since his first go at being a landlord. By day, he’s a facilities manager, overseeing commercial property maintenance. He was living in that Rockland townhouse, south of Boston, when he met his future wife. They decided to buy a single-family home, where they’d raise the baby that was on the way. And they’d hang on to the townhouse as an investment.

“We’d either rent it out, or we could sell it later on down the line,” he said, “obviously hoping that it would appreciate in value.”

At first, everything went as planned. They leased the apartment to a local hospital worker, Cassandra Schnider, with decent references. But in late 2021, she started missing rent payments, and by July 2022, Avitabile was out five months rent at $2,100 a month. And he couldn’t get Schnider to respond to calls or emails.

That’s when he did something landlords generally hope to avoid — he went to housing court to get Schnider evicted.

The federal government’s COVID eviction moratorium had expired, and Avitabile found his case among a major influx of new filings against tenants not paying rent.

It took Avitabile nine months of legal proceedings and lawyer’s fees to win an eviction. Then, Schnider appealed.

Avitabile said his lawyer assumed the appeals court would be unlikely to halt the eviction. But less than a week before the scheduled move-out, an appeals judge put the eviction on hold. Schnider had 10 days to start paying rent.

Those 10 days went by with no payment, and yet the case lingered for another seven months. Avitabile said he was beside himself.

“We filed every single month with the court saying, ‘Hey, by the way, she’s been court-ordered to pay rent. She’s refusing. This isn’t going anywhere,’ ” he said.

Finally, in November 2023, the appeals judge ruled in Avitabile’s favor. A spokesperson for the appeals court declined to explain the delay.

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WBUR reached out to Schnider multiple times to request an interview and hear her side of the story, but she declined. In court records, she suggested her daughter’s father had recently died, and said the eviction would be hard on the young girl. Schnider also filed eight counterclaims against Avitabile, alleging discrimination, bad conditions in the home and retaliation for not paying rent.

He denies those claims. The judge wasn’t convinced either. Avitabile won a new eviction for December 2023. Schnider would appeal again, but the case was dismissed after she failed to appear in court.

A week before the eviction was slated to happen, Avitabile said in an interview that he’d only believe the ordeal was over when he finally set foot in his apartment.

“I’m still scared to death because she’s going to appeal again, I’ll bet money on it,” he said. “I’m just hoping at one point in time, the appeals court will finally just say, ‘Enough’s enough.’ ”

‘Professional tenants’

There are many instances where tenants rely on protections against bad landlords. But the rules can also be exploited for what some call the “free rent trick,” where tenants use the courts to get months, or even years, of rent-free housing.

“A professional tenant,” is how Doug Quattrochi describes such renters. He heads the nonprofit MassLandlords, representing mostly small property owners. Tenants who abuse the system make up a small minority of those who appear multiple times in housing court, Quattrochi said, perhaps 1%.

But, he noted, “There are people who know how to make the system fail for a property owner.”

Quattrochi estimates landlords in the state lose more than $3 million a month on non-payment of rent. Some of those cases he refers to as “non-payment in bad faith,” when a tenant capable of paying decides not to do so. If a landlord and tenant can’t come to terms on their own, it’s the court’s job to help landlords get their property back, he said.

“The only reason these professional tenants exist and can operate is because the courts don’t do that,” Quattrochi added.

Pro-tenant laws have made evictions increasingly difficult to achieve in Massachusetts, according to Jeffrey Turk, a lawyer who has represented landlords in housing court for three decades. They also allow cases to drag on — not infrequently for years at a time. Turk said there’s practically a “playbook” some tenants use to delay evictions.

“So it’s ask for a jury trial, file discovery, file motions, file appeals,” Turk said. “It’s just delay, delay, delay, delay.”

In Schnider’s case, records show she represented herself in court. There are standard legal forms available online for tenants without lawyers, and it appears she used those to file claims against Avitabile.

That means costly litigation for landlords — and protracted legal battles can lead to foreclosures and bankruptcy, Turk said. He added that there’s a trickle-down effect when landlords don’t get paid.

“They’re going to raise their rents to other people, they’re not going to have the money to make repairs, they’re not going to have the money to make upgrades, they’re not going to have the money to provide services,” he said.

Housing advocates counter that most tenants in housing court are not trying to skirt the law; they’re trying to keep a roof over their heads during tough times.

“Yes, there are people who abuse the system,” said Ethan Mascoop, a housing and public health expert at Boston University. But for the most part, people in housing court “just need a place to live.”

Mascoop said the legal landscape has changed dramatically since the early 20th century, when landlord/tenant law was all about protecting owners. Even if an apartment burned down and left a tenant homeless, they still owed the rent, he said. Today, tenants have a host of protections — including around lead paint, problems with utilities, pest infestations and discrimination — many of which can be legitimate causes for withholding rent.

Mascoop said landlords often feel they’re dealing with problems society more broadly should be addressing, like the lack of affordable housing and inadequate health care.

“Quite often mental health issues and also economic issues play a huge role, and landlords are in that world,” he said. “You’re dealing with people’s lives and their health.”

Taking back the apartment

On a January day at 8 a.m., a moving truck idled outside Peter Avitabile’s townhouse in Rockland. It was the morning of the third-scheduled eviction. He said he had just learned his tenant filed yet another last-ditch effort with the appeals court, but this time there was no order to pause the eviction.

They knocked on the door, and no one was home. A cranky constable stood next to Avitabile as he jiggled a key in the lock to swing the door open.

“Jesus,” said Taylor Avitabile, Peter’s wife. They hadn’t set foot in the apartment for two years. They looked stunned as they walked inside.

Avitabile sloshed across a soggy carpeted floor and discovered the cause: a clogged toilet. The floors were covered with disheveled clothing and pill bottles. Half-empty ice coffee cups were everywhere, and a melted ice cream cake sat in the sink. The basement was set up as an illegal bedroom.

The constable said the state of the apartment was about average for forced move-outs. It’s worse, he said, when a place is overrun by rodents.

Three serious-faced movers — specialists in evictions — muttered in Spanish as they packed up all the items considered salvageable. The boxes would go to a storage unit where the tenant will have six months to claim them. Avitabile would get a bill for $4,000 from the movers, an expense he found steep for three hours of work.

Taylor Avitabile said she had to take a second job to cover the payments on the place. She looked disgusted as she surveyed the damage.

“This has been like a literal nightmare for us, and then to walk into this is even more of a nightmare,” she said.

Upstairs was the one well-kept room in the apartment — a young girl’s bedroom, decked out in pink and purple, with a princess theme. The scene leaves a lot of questions unanswered. It’s a reminder that everyone pays a heavy price in an eviction.

Households with children are more likely to be among the roughly 1 million evictions executed annually in the United States, according to a paper in JAMA Network; one in seven kids will experience an eviction before turning 15.

Despite the grim state of the apartment, Taylor Avitabile said she was relieved to get it back after such a long period wondering how they could reclaim the property.

Looking back, the couple wishes they’d paid Schnider to leave rather than going to court. It’s a deal known as “cash for keys,” and some landlords shell out thousands to get their apartments back.

The whole experience cost the couple nearly $80,000 and consumed their lives for nearly two years. That’s enough to make some people get out of the rental business for good. But the Avitabiles have a new tenant coming in soon.

Unlike last time, they said, they did a thorough background check. And they’re hoping for a better outcome.

Source: WBUR