Governed by state and federal law, tenants’ rights are a series of non-negotiable landlord-tenant codes that spell out your rights to a safe and functional living space.
With renting being the new normal, it’s important that tenants know their rights and legal responsibilities so that they are able to handle disputes with landlords and ensure that they receive fair treatment.
This article explains six fundamental rights that every tenant should know.
1. Right to Protection Against Housing Discrimination
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits housing discrimination, ensuring fair treatment and equal housing opportunity throughout the United States (US). Under this federal law, a potential tenant’s rental application cannot be refused based on any of the following:
- Familial status
The FHA also safeguards disabled renters’ rights to special assistance and removal of barriers to physical access within their rental accommodation.
2. Right to Quiet Enjoyment
Quiet enjoyment is a tenant’s right to possess and use their rental accommodation without any interference from their landlord.
A malfunctioning smoke alarm, persisting pest infestation issues, unannounced property inspections, and maintenance work continuing past the proposed deadline are all examples of violations of this tenant right.
However, scheduled repair works, sounds of the surrounding natural habitat, phone calls and summons to inquire about overdue rent, and announced routine inspections are acceptable disturbances that do not constitute a legal nuisance.
3. Right to a Habitable Residence
Maintaining the leased premises in a habitable condition is one of the most important obligations of a landlord. The landlord is responsible for providing a rental that meets basic habitable residence requirements, such as:
- Compliance with safety regulations
- Functional and reliable electrical, heating, and water systems
- Protection from foreseeable criminal activity
- Preventative measures against environmental hazards
In the event of a landlord failing to meet habitable residence requirements and refusing to make the necessary repairs, the tenant can take action by:
- Withholding rent payment
- Making repairs and deducting the cost from the rent
- Breaching the lease agreement and moving out of the rental
- Taking legal action against the landlord
However, there is a fine line between normal wear and tear, excessive damage, and damage (other than normal wear and tear) caused by the tenant.
With a malfunctioning heating system as the example, let’s look at what constitutes normal wear and tear, damage, and excessive damage:
1. Inefficient heating of your unit due to a deteriorating heating system.
This is an example of normal wear and tear. Mechanical components have a limited lifespan, and it is the landlord’s responsibility to replace an overworked heating system with a new one.
2. Inefficient heating of your unit due to heater broken intentionally or accidentally by the tenant.
A heater broken due to the tenant’s actions is a negligent damage issue that is the tenant’s responsibility. The tenant must pay for the repairs, and if they fail to do so, the landlord can deduct repair costs from the security deposit.
3. Inefficient heating of your unit due to a faulty heater
Your landlord is obligated to ensure that the leased unit has a functioning heating system. A defective heater is an excessive damage issue with the repair work being the landlord’s responsibility.
A comprehensive lease agreement can resolve these complicated unit repair issues by categorizing repairs into normal wear and tear, negligent damage, and excessive damage. The agreement can assign the repair work responsibilities accordingly.
4. Rights Involving Rent Increases
Rent control laws are regulations that set price ceilings on the amount that a landlord can demand for leasing their property to a tenant.
At the state level, rent control laws are not common, with 37 states forbidding the enacting of rental control measures.
For states without rent control, landlords have the right to increase rent by any amount. If you’re a tenant housed under a leased rental agreement, your landlord cannot increase the rent until either the end of the lease period or as dictated in the agreement.
5. Rights in the Event of Eviction
If a tenant fails to comply with the lease agreement, such as on-property pet restrictions or failure to pay rent on time, the landlord can start the eviction process.
The eviction process includes the serving of an eviction notice, which details the notice period within which tenants must vacate the rental. Landlords are required to first file this notice with the local court before ordering eviction from their property.
Tenants have the right to protest against the notice in the court, and are not required to vacate the rental before the conclusion of the eviction proceedings.
Eviction laws vary widely across the states. Some states allow tenants the right to remedy a rental agreement violation within a set deadline, while other states allow landlords to pursue eviction regardless of the correction of lease violation(s).
6. Right to Your Security Deposit
Under most state landlord-tenant laws, landlords must return the security deposit within 30 days of lease termination. Unless the landlord deducts damage costs and unpaid rent from the deposit, the deposit must be returned in full.
If your landlord does not refund you your security deposit, or fails to provide a list of deductions upon returning a deducted deposit, you have the right to claim the deposit by taking legal action against the landlord.
You can avoid court proceedings by entering terms mandating the return of the deposit in your rental agreement.
Housing trends have evolved largely over the past decade, with more states now reporting a renter majority over a homeowner majority.
To successfully assert your renters’ rights, it is crucial that you are knowledgeable about state laws and how they guarantee your right to a habitable residence and fair treatment. Knowing your rights as a tenant along with an in-depth understanding of your rental agreement are essential for a healthy landlord-tenant relationship.