Tenant Rights

The landlord-tenant relationship is governed by legal rights and responsibilities. There is an implied duty of good faith and fair dealing between landlord and tenant that requires the landlord and tenant to treat each other honestly and in a reasonable manner. It is understood neither party will do anything that will injure the right of the other party to receive the benefits of the lease agreement.

A tenant’s rights are non-negotiable, that is, the tenant cannot waive his rights provided to him by law. Basic legal rights are afforded to a tenant regardless of the language in the lease agreement.  However, to protect himself the tenant should conduct due diligence to understand his full rights by applicable laws.

Fair Housing Protections

Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (the Fair Housing Act), as amended by the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, prohibits discrimination in housing and housing related transactions based on protected classes of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability or familial status.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from taking discriminatory actions against current or prospective tenants in any protected class. Discriminatory practices could include:

  • Advertising that indicates a preference or limitation
  • Falsely denying that a rental unit is available
  • Setting more restrictive standards or adverse terms
  • Refusing to rent to members of certain groups
  • Applying different screening criteria among applicants
  • Refusing to accommodate the needs of disabled tenants
  • Terminating of tenancy for a discriminatory reason

Fair housing laws of some states or local jurisdictions provide even broader anti-discrimination protections. A landlord is required to comply with the level of law that affords the greatest protections to a tenant.

ADA Protections

Federal laws (1) prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities, (2) require housing providers to make reasonable accommodations at all stages of the housing process (including application, tenancy, or to prevent evictions) for persons with disabilities, and (3) require housing providers to allow persons with disabilities to make reasonable modifications.

Reasonable Accommodation

A reasonable accommodation is when, at the applicant’s/tenant’s request, a landlord voluntarily makes exceptions to standard rules and/or policies to accommodate the applicant’s/tenant’s disability.

When a landlord refuses to accommodate a disabled tenant’s reasonable request for exceptions to standard rules or policies in order to accommodate the tenant’s disability, housing discrimination can occur. A tenant or applicant may bring a housing discrimination complaint against the landlord.

Landlord-Tenant Statutes

Tenant rights are afforded by state landlord-tenant statutes. There may be variances in legal rights from state to state. In general a tenant has the following rights.

Terms of the Lease Agreement

The lease agreement is a legal document binding both landlord and tenant to contract terms and conditions. When a landlord breaks the terms of the lease agreement, a tenant has the right to take appropriate action per terms of the lease agreement, landlord-tenant statutes, or legal action in the governing court of jurisdiction. Contract violations may allow the tenant to be awarded compensation or termination of the lease agreement.

Protection against Landlord Retaliatory Actions

The majority of states have laws prohibiting landlord retaliation against a tenant for exerting the tenant’s legal rights, such as a tenant’s complaint to the landlord or government agency for issues such as fair housing, habitability, building codes, health and safety. Additionally a landlord cannot retaliate against a tenant for exercising the tenant’s right to engage in political activity or involvement in tenants’ organizations. Many states presume a landlord is acting in a retaliatory manner if an action, such as terminating a tenancy, refusing to renew a tenancy, decreasing essential services, or threatening or filing an eviction action, occurs within a short time, usually six months, after a tenant exercises a legal right.

Implied Warranties

Implied warranties under the landlord-tenant lease agreement are important tenant rights.

Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment

The right of the tenant to quiet enjoyment of leased premises has been upheld by courts regardless of whether the lease agreement contains such a covenant. This covenant ensures the tenant that during his tenancy, the tenant’s use and enjoyment of the dwelling unit will not be disturbed by someone with a superior legal title to the land including the landlord. The covenant between landlord and tenant provides the tenant with the right to exclude others from the premises, the right to peace and quiet, the right to a clean and habitable environment, and the right to basic services. If the tenant is deprived in whole or in part of the beneficial use and enjoyment of the leased premises due to actual or constructive action by the landlord, a breach of the covenant has occurred.

Warranty of Habitability

The implied warranty of habitability is the legal doctrine that requires landlords to offer and maintain leased premises in a safe and sanitary condition fit for human habitation for the duration of the lease.

The lease agreement is a contract controlled by principals of contract law. The lease agreement contains mutual dependent warranties – the tenant’s promise to pay rent and the landlord’s imposed obligation to provide habitable premises.

A material breach of obligations by either party relieves the other party from his obligation as long as the breach continues. If the landlord causes a material breach of the warranty the tenant may be entitled to such remedies as damages, lease termination, rent abatement, or repair and deduct expenses.

Privacy and Control of Property

The landlord transfers possession of the rental property to the tenant by terms of the lease agreement. The tenant has the right to exclude others from the property and the right to a reasonable level of privacy. Landlord access to rental property is restricted by landlord-tenant statutes that specify circumstances when a landlord may enter the rental premises and the amount of notice required for non-emergency situations. In most states the landlord may access rental property for the business purposes of inspection, repair, maintenance, or improvements provided the landlord complies with statutory notice requirements.

Landlord behaviors that are considered too invasive of the tenant’s right to privacy and/or intrusive to the tenant’s enjoyment of the premises violate the tenant’s rights. If a landlord requests frequent inspections unwarranted by business purposes, conducts inspections or requests access outside of reasonable hours, or otherwise uses entry to harass a tenant, the landlord’s behaviors violate the landlord-tenant agreement. The landlord cannot just drop in or otherwise enter the tenant’s unit without the express permission of the tenant except in the case of true emergency.

Security Deposit Accounting and Handling

Security deposits are funds that legally belong to the tenant and remain a credit of the tenant during his residency.

State landlord-tenant statutes regulate security deposit limits, deadlines for itemization and return of security deposits, and disclosure requirements. The statutes provide clear protections to tenants for the use of their security deposit funds and the return of deposits upon tenant move-out.

A landlord is required to disclose the conditions under which part or all of the security deposit may be withheld and how the deposit is refundable. If, when a tenant vacates the rental property, the landlord retains part or all of the deposit because of unpaid rent or damages beyond normal wear and tear, the landlord must provide detailed accounting for all amounts not returned. Accounting and return of the balance of the deposit must be within the period specified by state law.

Rent Withholding and Repair and Deduct Remedies

If a landlord has not maintained the rental property in habitable condition, the tenant by statute in many states may take legal actions to force the landlord to restore the property to good condition. Actions could include withholding rent, repairing the problem and deducting the cost of repairs from the rent, reporting code violations to building or health inspectors, terminating the lease by moving out, or filing a lawsuit against the landlord in small claims court.

Landlord Rules and Regulations

A tenant has the duty to comply with the landlord’s rules and regulations set out in the lease agreement. A tenant does not a right to purposely ignore or selectively choose the rules and regulations for living at the rental property.

A tenant cannot do as he pleases if his conduct is illegal, violates lease terms and conditions, creates a disturbance, commits nuisance and waste, or could harm neighboring tenants or the rental community.

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