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Tenants' Rights

Published: September 27, 2012

UNDERSTANDING REFUGEES’ RIGHTS AS TENANTS
The quality of a refugee’s first home may be the single most important factor in the initial success of their resettlement. Safe, clean, well-maintained apartments with sympathetic landlords and welcoming neighbors are the ideal. Unfortunately, particularly in tight housing markets, refugees may encounter landlords who do not fulfill their obligations under the lease and the law.

Problems That May Arise:

  • Poor maintenance of apartments or common areas
  • Inadequate security measures
  • Unjustified eviction notices
  • Failure to return security deposits

Rights and Responsibilities

Refugees may be unaccustomed to having any “rights” when it comes to housing. But most jurisdictions in the United States have laws that protect tenants from uncooperative or unscrupulous landlords. Some of those laws are very consumer-oriented; some are very weak.

Refugees also have responsibilities under the lease: to pay rent, not to damage the property, etc. Except in unusual cases, those responsibilities continue even when a landlord has not fulfilled its part of the bargain.

WHAT ARE LANDLORDS REQUIRED TO DO? / HOW CAN TENANTS GET PROBLEMS FIXED?

It’s Local. The rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants are primarily determined by (1) the lease agreement and (2) state and local laws. Those laws vary widely across the United States, so it’s important for you to learn about the tenants’ rights laws in your location. We have provided annotated links to resources in the largest resettlement states below. Feel free to contact us at Mercy Housing (refugeehouseinfo@mercyhousing.org; 303-830-3449) if you are having trouble finding the information you need.

If the apartment is operated by the Housing Authority or is funded by the federal government, there may be different requirements imposed by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Check the lease for details.

Typically landlords are required to maintain the apartment and the common areas in reasonably good repair. Some state and city laws spell out the landlord’s requirements very particularly, but usually the landlord’s duties are more vague. You may need to counsel your refugee clients on what’s “reasonable” – they should not expect landlords to rush out immediately and fix a leaky faucet. On the other hand, refugees should not delay in reporting serious conditions.

Both Federal law and state law regulate discrimination complaints. See “Fair Housing – How to Deal with Discrimination” on the Mercy Housing Refugee Housing Web page for information on discrimination laws and how to pursue a discrimination complaint.

WHERE DO YOU START?

Talk. Communication is the key to resolving problems. After you’ve read the lease and looked into the laws, talk with the apartment manager or landlord. A phone call may be sufficient, but a face-to-face meeting is more effective. It is helpful if a case manager or friend goes along. Be courteous; be specific.

Write. If the landlord doesn’t solve the problem within a reasonable time after the discussion, you should write a letter to the landlord. The letter should describe the problem, its effect on you, how long the problem has existed, what you may have done to remedy the problem or limit its effect, what you would like the landlord to do and when you talked to the landlord about it. You should keep a copy of this letter.

Some state statutes require that the letter be sent by certified mail, or even require that you send two letters if you are trying to terminate the lease based on the landlord’s refusal to fix the problem (e.g., Texas). If the problem is the landlord’s failure to return a security deposit, local laws typically set out very specific steps you must take. So, try to look up the laws before you send out your letter.

Urgent Situations. If the problem has immediate impact, such as a water leak, lack of heat, or a serious safety problem, deliver the letter to the landlord immediately after the meeting or phone call in which you alerted him/her to the problem. If there is still no action, use one of the approaches below.

Consider Mediation or Arbitration. If the landlord still does not fix the problem, and the problem is serious, consider the possibility of getting outside help. A professional mediator may be appropriate for serious problems. You can find mediation services through some of the web sites we list below, by going to www.mediate.com and typing in your state in the “Locate a Mediator” box in the bar at the top, in the yellow pages, or by calling your local bar association. Tenant advocacy groups (see below) sometimes offer mediation to help solve problems.
Some states and leases permit arbitration, which is a more formal (and sometimes expensive) dispute resolution process.

Failure to Repair. If the landlord doesn’t respond, you may be able to get help from the local Department of Health or the local Building Code Inspection office if the apartment is in serious disrepair. The Building Code officials are usually found in the Planning or Zoning or Community Development offices of your city.

Some states allow a tenant to hire someone to do repairs and then deduct the cost of repairs from the rent (e.g. Georgia), so check the laws (and possibly talk to a lawyer) to see what’s permitted and whether your situation falls into that category. The problem with this approach, of course, is that the tenant must advance the money it costs to repair the problem.

Security Deposits. The landlord’s obligation to return a security deposit is frequently covered by very specific laws that establish deadlines within which the landlord must act. Those laws also may dictate specific actions the tenant must take to obtain a refund. Some statutes allow the tenant to collect three times the amount of the security deposit if the landlord doesn’t follow the law.

WHEN TALKING HASN'T WORKED HOW DO YOU GET MORE HELP?

Legal Aid. Most states have ”Legal Aid” or “Legal Services” offices that may provide free legal advice to low-income tenants. In addition, many localities have additional free or low-cost legal clinics. The Legal Services Corporation web site provides a map that links you to Legal Services Corporation law offices they fund in your state: www.lsc.gov. A broader listing of legal resources in all states can be found at the Pine Tree Legal Assistance web site, www.ptla.org. Click on “Links” on the left of the bar at the top, then choose “Legal Services Sites.”

Law Schools. If there is a law school in your state, call or look at their web site to see if they have a “legal clinic” or other low-cost legal advice program.

Advocacy Groups. Larger cities may have Tenants’ Rights organizations that counsel or represent tenants. You can search for them on the Internet or by calling your city’s Housing Department. The Pine Tree Legal Assistance site, www.ptla.org, identifies some of the advocacy groups as well as legal services offices in all states. Click on “Links” on the left of the bar t the top, then choose “Legal Services Sites.”

Small Claims Court. If you can’t find other help, consider filing a suit in Small Claims Court. Most states have published information describing what you have to do. These courts are designed to resolve disputes without lawyers and try to be “user-friendly”.

Publicizing the Problem. If the landlord has a reputation for operating substandard properties, consider contacting the newspapers with your story – but be sure you’re right before “going public”. If the apartment complex is federally-funded or operated by the Housing Authority, or your clients are receiving Section 8 rental assistance, call the Housing Authority or your HUD office and file a formal complaint.

DON'T FORGET THE RESPONSIBILITIES

Unless advised by an expert not to do so, tenants should continue paying rent as they try to work through the problem. Failure to pay rent is almost universally a legitimate reason for a landlord to evict the tenant. The circumstances in which tenants are not required to pay rent are very limited.

RESOURCES BY STATE ON TENANTS' RIGHTS ISSUES

Most states have resources to help tenants understand what the local laws require and what to do when tenants believe their rights have been violated. The following lists some of the most prominent resources by state, but there are usually many others. Try calling one of the tenant advocacy groups, the local bar association, the Housing Department of your city or HUD for more information. You can also contact us at Mercy Housing for additional help (refugeehouseinfo@mercyhousing.org 303-830-3449).

ARIZONA

The Supreme Court publishes a booklet in English and Spanish entitled “Overview of Arizona Landlord/Tenant Law” and “Landlord/Tenant Residential Evictions for Nonpayment of Rent.” Both can be downloaded at www.supreme.state.az.us. Double-click “Entire Web Site” in the far right top box. In the query box, type “landlord”, and then click on the first or second item that the search returns. Information for picking up a copy of the booklet or ordering multiple copies is provided.

The University of Arizona College of Law discusses the issues in a reasonably useful “Q&A” format at www.law.arizona.edu. Click on “Library” in the left column, and then “Publications”. Under Publications, choose “Library” and then “Legal Guides” and then “Arizona Landlord Tenant Law.” Contact information for the Southwest Fair Housing Council and Arizona Legal Aid is near the bottom of the article.

The Arizona Tenants Association can be found at www.arizonatenants.com/library.htm

CALIFORNIA

A very complete and annually updated handbook entitled “A Guide to Residential Tenants’ and Landlords’ Rights and Responsibilities” is available through the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Go to www.dca.ca.gov. In the very top right corner, type “tenants” into the “Search” box. Click on the first entry, “Landlord/Tenant Book Index.” You can either print the Handbook directly from the PDF file or you can order copies.

Be sure to look at Appendix 3 for Tenant Information and Assistance Resources by county. Also, Appendix 4 has useful information that can be ordered (scroll down below the “books” section):

  • Legal Guides (for example, LT-3 is entitled “Who’s Responsible for What and How to Get Repairs Made”)
  • a Program Directory for the California Dispute Resolution Programs Act
  • information about using Small Claims Court

Several cities in California have their own rules governing landlords and tenants, including rent control. Look at your city’s “Housing Department” web site or call them to get information on local law

CONNECTICUT

The Law Library of the Judicial Branch web site provides an excellent list of resources. Go to www.jud.state.ct.us/lawlib. On the right, “Law by Topic”, choose Landlord/Tenant from the drop down menu. The “Frequently Asked Questions” section is not as helpful as “Rights and Responsibilities of Landlords and Tenants in Connecticut”, a lengthy discussion of both the legal requirements and how they can be enforced in the Connecticut courts. It includes a discussion and complete listing of Fair Rent Commissions available in some cities and towns (page 13). The last page lists all of the Legal Aid offices in Connecticut.

The site also has links to Legal Services and Public Interest Research Group publications about landlord-tenant issues.

FLORIDA

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services provides a brochure on its web site: www.800helpfla.com. Click on “Site Map” (to the right of the logo) and then scroll down to “Publications”, and choose “Florida’s Landlord Tenant Guide”. It contains the basics, but no links to other resources.

GEORGIA

Go to www.dca.state.ga.us, click on the “Housing” tab on the top, and scroll down to “Landlord/Tenant Handbook.” It provides basic information on various topics, followed by a very practical “Q & A” section answering common questions.

The Legal Aid web site, www.legalaid-ga.org, provides limited information on landlord-tenant relations. From the Home page, scroll down to the “Housing” topic and click “Apartments”. Several of the topics on that page discuss specific housing issues (e.g., evictions, security deposits).

IDAHO

The Attorney General’s office has published Landlord and Tenant Guidelines. Go to www.ag.idaho.gov/publications/consumer/LandlordTenant.pdf.

ILLINOIS

Basic landlord-tenant information can be found on the Attorney General’s website, www.ag.state.il.us. Go to the box “Other Issues” at the bottom right side of the home page and click on Publications and Brochures. Scroll down the page to the “Housing” section and select “Landlord and Tenant Rights and Laws.” For links to low cost legal services, on the Attorney General’s home page click on “Legal Assistance Referrals” in the “Other Issues” box on the bottom left side of the page.

Illinois Legal Aid (Chicago Kent College of Law), www.illinoislegalaid.org, provides a very complete, but legalistic, discussion of landlord-tenants relations, which you can find by clicking “Housing” under the “Practice Areas” column on the left side of the home page and then choosing the “Landlord/Tenant (Non-Federal Housing Programs)” topic.

More consumer-oriented information can be found at www.illinoislawhelp.org. Choose the “Housing” topic and then “Landlord and Tenant”. Some of the topics are more helpful than others. The last one, Apartment Conditions and Repairs, discusses a new law going into effect in January 2005 that allows (in certain circumstances) tenants to make repairs and deduct the cost from rent. Some of the topics have very helpful local information tailored to the city you live in.

MARYLAND

The Attorney General’s office provides very complete information on landlord-tenant relations in a Q&A format. Go to www.oag.state.md.us. Under “Services to the Public”, click “Consumer Protection”. Choose “Consumer Tips and Publications” and then select “Landlord and Tenant: Tips on Avoiding Disputes.” Information about ordering the brochure is provided. The section “Assistance with Rental Problems” links to many resources.

A wealth of information on legal issues affecting low-income people is found at www.peoples-law.org. In the left column is a resource for finding legal help in a variety of languages for non-English speakers. For landlord-tenant information, click on “Housing” and then “Landlord and Tenant Law.” The “Tips from the Experts” section (top right) is more user-friendly than the summary of the law.

MASSACHUSETTS

The Office of Consumer Affairs has created a very informative web site outlining tenants rights, with links to resources including mediation services.

Go to www.mass.gov. In the upper right corner, enter “landlord-tenant” in the “Search” box. Choose the link to “Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation”. Under the “Tenants Rights and Responsibilities” category, scroll way down to the “Tenants’ Rights” topic. Resource links are at the end.

MINNESOTA

A very complete and readable description of laws affecting tenants, including such topics as the Public Utilities Commission Cold Weather Rule, is found on the Attorney General’s web site, www.ag.state.mn.us. Click on “Housing” in the right column, and then scroll down to “Landlords and Tenants: Rights and Responsibilities.” Note that a PDF version is available (box on right). The Resource Directory at the end is extensive.

Minnesota Legal Aid provides information on a number of landlord-tenant issues at www.lawhelpMN.org. Click on “Housing” and choose among the various topics.

Another list of resources is found at www.tenant.net. Scroll way down until you see “Other States and Areas” with a drop down menu. Choose “Minnesota” and click on “Local TenantNet Mirror”, and then choose “Additional Resources.”

NEW YORK

The Attorney General publishes a “Tenant’s Rights Guide” found at www.oag.state.ny.us. Scroll far down until you see “Ensuring the Integrity of Public Institutions” in the middle column, and then choose “Real Estate”. The Tenant’s Rights Guide is the last item under “Guides”.

Local laws are particularly important in New York, especially for New York City. For information on leasing in cities with rent control, go to www.dhcr.state.ny.us. Click on “Rent Administration” on the bottom of the left column. The “Fact Sheets” listed under “Publications” has very detailed information, but the “FAQ” may be enough to answer your question.

Legal Services provides a link to many publications at www.lawhelp.org/NY. Enter your zip code, city or county, click on “Housing”, and then click on the topic of your choice. If you go to “Private Housing: Landlord and Tenant, click on the tab “Know Your Rights” at the top. The site also shows whether a publication is available in other languages.

OHIO

A booklet entitled “Ohio Landlord-Tenant Law: What You Should Know!” can be found at www.ohiolegalservices.org. Click on “Housing” in the left column and then type “Ohio Landlord-Tenant Law” in the “Search” box on the upper right. Several other publications are also listed.

OREGON

The Attorney General’s office publishes the Landlord Tenant Act. Go to www.doj.state.or.us and select “DOJ Publications and Forms” from the bottom or the right column. Consumer Protection Brochure number 100 with that Act appears to be available only in hard copy.

Several publications by various Legal Services offices can be found at www.oregonlawhelp.org. Click on “Housing” and then choose the relevant topic. Note that a directory of all Legal Aid offices is available by clicking that item in the blue band above the topical listings.

PENNSYLVANIA

The University of Pittsburgh provides good information on tenants’ rights at www.pitt.edu. Type “renting” into the “Search” box at the lower left side. The first listing “renting guide” contains a “Renting” section covering many topics.

Lots of information collected by Legal Services can be found at www.palawhelp.org. Click on the “Housing” topic, and then choose “Tenants Rights”. There are 40 entries – don’t miss the second page!

TEXAS

There are many helpful web sites. The Attorney General’s office brochure on landlord-tenant relations is found at www.oag.state.tx.us. Click the “Consumer Protection Brochures” item under “Consumer Protection” on the left column. Then select “Tenant Rights”.

The Texas Bar Association has created a longer, more complete tenant’s handbook. Go to www.texasbar.com, click on “News and Publications” on left bar, select the “Pamphlets” box and scroll down to “Landlord-Tenant Issues.” You can order the pamphlet on-line or by calling the number shown on the bottom of the second page of the pamphlet. A few links to other resources are provided.

The Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, a nonprofit housing advocacy group, offers very extensive “Tenant Rights” information. Go to www.texastenant.org and click on the “Tenant Rights” icon on the right. In addition to providing lots of readable information, the site has a very practical, step by step guide to dealing with a variety of tenant issues. (The site is also one of the best resources we’ve seen for finding affordable housing in Texas.)

UTAH

The Utah court system provides basic information at www.utcourts.gov/howto. Click on “Landlord-Tenant Disputes”. The “Legal Assistance” topic on the same page is very useful in finding low-cost help.

Go to www.utahdisputeresolution.org for information on a low-cost mediation service.

VIRGINIA

The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development publishes a “Handbook” containing the actual working of the statute that governs landlord-tenant relations in Virginia. Most helpful is the detailed list of resources the precedes the statute. Go to www.dhcd.virginia.gov/, then click on the Handbook listed under “Publications”.

More useful information, in a Q&A format, can be found at www.vdacs.virginia.gov/consumers and click on “Consumer News and Information” toward the end of the list. On the top right, under “Featured Tips for Consumers”, choose “Landlord-Tenant Frequently Asked Questions.”

WASHINGTON

The State Attorney General’s Office provides information on its web site, www.atg.wa.gov. Type “landlord” in the “Search” box at the top right. The search results will take you to the publication, which is available in English, Spanish and Russian, and also to the like to the Consumer Protection section which contains lots of useable information on landlord-tenant relations.

The Tenants Union, a non-profit membership organization organized to protect tenants’ rights, can provide additional information. Go to www.tenantsunion.org.

Volunteers of America Western Washington offers mediation and other dispute resolution assistance and landlord-tenant training seminars. Go to www.voaww.org and click on “Dispute Resolution.”

WISCONSIN

The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection provides basic information at www.datcp.state.wi.us, but the site is not particularly helpful about what to do if you have a problem with a landlord (other thann advising you to consult an attorney). Click on “Consumer Protection”, and then choose “Consumer Information.” Choose “Top Complaints” and then click on “Tenants’ Rights and Responsibilities.”

Local jurisdictions have their own legal requirements, tenant handbooks and resource lists. For example, go to www.ci.madison.wi.us, click on “City Agencies”, and choose “Building Inspection”. In the drop down menu for “I Want To”, choose “Tenant-Landlord Rights.” The list of resources at the end is useful for tenants living in Madison.