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What You Should Know About Tenant Rights

Devon Thorsby

The radiator stopped working in your apartment, and your landlord hasn't responded to emails or answered the phone for two days. As much as you love your new winter coat, wearing it while you watch TV -- and while you sleep -- isn't your idea of fun. The arctic chill may have you thinking: At what point is my landlord required to make repairs?

That would be two days ago. At least, your landlord should have been in contact and working to make repairs as soon as possible.

The relationship between a landlord and tenant can get tense when things go awry. To protect yourself from housing law violations, it's important to know your rights as a renter and act when you feel you are being unfairly treated.

Here are some basics to get you started on understanding tenant and landlord laws:

-- Federal law protects against civil rights violations in housing.

-- Many of your tenant rights are spelled out in state or local laws.

-- You have a right to livable conditions.

-- You have to pay your rent.

-- The lease you sign doesn't supersede the law.

-- You need to end your lease according to the law.

-- You should document everything.

-- Your security deposit should be returned in a timely manner.

-- You have a right to fight eviction.

-- You have advocates who will help.

Federal Law Protects Against Civil Rights Violations in Housing

The Fair Housing Act dictates that no landlord can refuse housing to a potential tenant based on race, nationality, sex, familial status, religion or disability.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal government's authority on housing, aims to provide affordable housing options and protect consumers from discrimination. HUD and the Fair Housing Assistance Program received 16,943 submissions from individuals seeking to file housing discrimination complaints during the 2018 fiscal year, according to a notice of proposed information collection filed by HUD at the end of 2018.

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Many of Your Tenant Rights Are Spelled Out in State or Local Laws

In a situation where you feel you are being treated unfairly for any reason, check with your state's laws on tenant and landlord rights. For the most part, tenants' rights fall under the jurisdiction of the state or local government, which means they vary throughout the country.

You Have a Right to Livable Conditions

All tenants have a right to be provided with a space considered habitable that includes working plumbing, electricity and heat. Beyond these basic details, it varies by state how a landlord is required to provide them and what tenants may do when their needs are not met.

In mold cases where tenants are afraid for their health, leaving and explaining the claim of constructive eviction -- where the landlord effectively forces the tenant out because the place is no longer habitable -- in court will at least remove any immediate danger, says David Merbaum, an attorney who handles landlord-tenant disputes among other real estate and business-related litigation in Alpharetta, Georgia.

"I can't guarantee (a judge will agree with you), but I wouldn't stay there if I didn't feel safe,'" Merbaum says. Before doing this, however, a tenant should make sure their state has legislation supporting the idea of constructive eviction.

You Have to Pay Your Rent

Landlords have a right to pursue eviction when they stop receiving rent, regardless of the reason. Some state or local laws will allow landlords to lower the cost of rent or prorate rent for the number of days a unit is unlivable. However, you cannot refuse to pay rent to provoke your landlord to perform maintenance or other duties.

Merbaum explains that rent is not a bargaining chip to get what you want from the landlord. "The obligation to pay rent is always independent of the landlord's obligation to fulfill his duties. So if the air conditioning's not working, the tenant cannot hold the rent back -- the tenant will be in breach of the lease, and they can be evicted," he says.

Many states, including Georgia and California, have a "right to deduct" policy for the tenant, which means if something is broken and you have given your landlord repeated notice and ample time to fix it, you can personally have it repaired or replaced and subtract the cost from your next month's rent. However, the right to deduct can be a dangerous game, so you should seek legal advice first. A worst-case scenario would leave the tenant with the bill for the repair and without a home.

The Lease You Sign Doesn't Supersede the Law

In many cases, landlords may be unaware of the specifics of tenant and landlord rights or they may try to take advantage of the fact that you don't know your rights. If you sign a lease that includes rules that violate tenants' rights, the fraudulent policies cannot be enforced by the landlord or law. For example, Merbaum says major repairs needed to make a property livable, like water and plumbing, cannot be placed in the renter's hands, according to Georgia law. "If it's in the lease that it's the tenant's responsibility, it's not even enforceable," he says.

You Need to End Your Lease According to the Law

When a landlord is planning to raise rent or opts to end the rental relationship with a tenant, many states have rules based on the number of days' notice required in order to keep the tenant from being forced out without enough notice. That also means that as a tenant, you also need to comply with laws for notifying your landlord of plans to move out -- you can't just vacate the home and stop paying rent without warning.

"Generally speaking, to end a month-to-month lease, there's a 30-day notice ... in either direction," says Michael Romer, managing partner for law firm Romer Debbas LLP in New York City. For a lease with a fixed term of a year or more, your state will likely have laws regarding when both tenant and landlord should make note of plans to vacate, renew or raise rent. Sixty days prior to the end of a lease is a common period of time required for tenants with a yearlong lease.

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You Should Document Everything

No one moves into a new apartment planning to get into a fight with their landlord, but it's best to be prepared for the possibility.

When you move in, photograph every room and note any needed repairs. Also keep dates and documents of every repair request should you need evidence of attempts to fix problems. When you move out, if the landlord tries to charge you for damages you documented when you moved in, you're far more likely to successfully avoid the fee.

You Security Deposit Should Be Returned in a Timely Manner

Landlords are typically required to return your security deposit after you've moved out within a certain period of time -- typically 30 days. Within that time, you should receive a check, your original canceled check or an itemized list of deductions from your security deposit and the remaining balance.

A landlord deducting for appliance replacements or renovations that weren't required based on how you left the place isn't looked on favorably by most courts. However, it's reasonable for a landlord to deduct for professional cleaning services, even if you think you left the place in good condition.

Avoid issues by ensuring your landlord has the proper forwarding address and contact information for you so there's no way to claim you couldn't be reached.

You Have a Right to Fight Eviction

All states have clear-cut processes for landlords to file for eviction with the court. First is a notice to vacate. If you move out when you receive notice to vacate, you have not technically been evicted and don't carry an eviction on your record. However, depending on the state you live in, this notice could be as little as three days before an eviction is filed with the court.

You have the option to remain in your home and fight an eviction once it's been filed with the court. Most important to successfully fighting eviction is to appear in court for every scheduled hearing; if you're not present, it's far easier for the judge to rule in favor of the landlord. To plead your case in eviction court, it's best to get professional legal advice.

"It's never in a tenant's best interest to go into an eviction proceeding unrepresented," Romer says.

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You Have Advocates Who Will Help

There are countless tenant rights organizations throughout the country that help connect renters to the resources they need to understand the privileges afforded to them by law. Some organizations operate statewide hotlines to field renter problems and requests for information, while others may specialize in providing tenant assistance for a specific metro area.

In the event of discrimination that violates the Fair Housing Act, you should also contact HUD directly, whether it's the headquarters in the District of Columbia or one of the dozens of local offices nationwide. HUD has its own investigators who look into possible infractions and can pursue violators.

However, not every complaint filed with HUD can be investigated, and not every investigation leads to further legal action or payment to victims. While a formal complaint with HUD is an excellent start, you should also contact a local tenant rights organization for advice and support. These can typically be found with a simple online search for tenant rights groups in your city or county.

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