Renting a home is an important decision for many people, and it comes with certain rights and responsibilities. Unfortunately, some landlords exploit their tenants by engaging in illegal activities. Knowing your rights as a tenant can help protect you from these unscrupulous actions.
This article will discuss the most common types of illegal landlord behavior so that you can know what to look out for when renting a property. It will also provide information on reporting violations and the legal recourse available if your landlord has broken the law. With this knowledge, you can ensure your rental experience is safe and secure.
Types of Illegal Landlord Actions
Like most laws, landlord-tenant laws vary by state and locality. However, some illegal activities are common no matter where you live. As more states and localities pass rental housing ordinances, these laws are subject to change. But here are some common examples of illegal landlord activities:
Discrimination based on protected characteristics
Landlords are not allowed to discriminate against renters based on color, race, religion, national origin, familial status, sex, or disability. This means the landlord cannot deny your rental application or set different terms for you based on these factors. Due to the Fair Housing Act, it is illegal to advertise or make statements that indicate a preference for tenants of specific backgrounds.
For example, a landlord cannot say they will only rent to “professional couples” or “families with children.” This type of language could be interpreted as discriminatory. Another typical example is charging different rent or security deposits based on a tenant’s race, religion, etc. This is also a violation of the Fair Housing Act.
Legal protections against discrimination
If you believe you have been the victim of discrimination, you can file a complaint with your local housing department or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). You can also contact a local civil rights organization or a fair housing advocacy group for assistance. If you succeed in your case, the landlord may be ordered to pay damages, change their practices, or even face criminal penalties.
Retaliation and Harassment
Retaliation for exercising tenant rights
It is illegal for a landlord to retaliate against a tenant who has exercised their legal rights. For instance, if the tenant has complained about poor living conditions or requested repairs, the landlord cannot use eviction as retribution. This is considered a form of harassment, and it is illegal.
Forms of landlord harassment and its consequences
Different states and localities have their own laws regarding landlord harassment, but some common forms include the following:
- Verbal threats or insults
This includes threats to increase rent or verbal abuse to intimidate the tenant. Insulting a tenant because of their race, gender, religion, or other protected characteristic is also illegal.
- Unlawfully entering the rental unit
The landlord must give reasonable notice before entry, and they cannot access the unit without permission. If the tenant repeatedly refuses entry, the landlord must get a court order granting access.
- Interfering with the tenant’s quiet enjoyment
The landlord cannot disrupt the tenant’s right to “quiet enjoyment” or peaceful and private use of their rental unit. This includes making excessive noise, cutting off essential services (such as water or electricity), or repeatedly entering the space without permission.
- Intimidating tactics
The landlord cannot use intimidation tactics to try and force the tenant out of the unit. This could include locking them out, changing locks, or refusing to accept rent payments.
- Physical violence or destruction of property
This includes any physical contact with a tenant, threatening a tenant, or damaging the tenant’s property.
Compensation for landlord harassment
If you have been the victim of landlord harassment, you may be able to recover damages or other remedies. Depending on your state and local laws, you may be able to:
- Recover unpaid rent
- Receive compensation for emotional distress (pain and suffering)
- Request a court order to stop the landlord’s behavior
- Terminate your lease agreement without penalty
- Receive a rent abatement (reduction of rent)
- Recover attorney’s fees and court costs
Failure to Maintain the Property
Neglecting repairs and maintenance obligations
The landlord is legally obligated to maintain the rental property in safe and habitable condition. They must make necessary repairs and ensure the unit meets applicable building and health codes. This includes making repairs, ensuring the rental space is free from pests, and providing running water, heat, and other essential services.
The tenant can also expect the landlord to follow state and local laws regarding security measures, such as providing adequate locks on exterior doors and windows. If these obligations are not met, the tenant may have legal recourse against the landlord.
Health and safety hazards caused by a landlord’s negligence
When a landlord fails to maintain the rental unit properly, it can create unsafe living conditions for tenants. This includes hazards such as mold, lead paint, faulty electrical wiring, and inadequate ventilation. In addition, failing to provide locks or other security measures can put tenants at risk of harm from intruders. Many states have laws that require landlords to disclose potential health and safety hazards, so tenants can make informed decisions about their rental choice.
Illegal Rent Increases and Fees
Unauthorized rent hikes
In some states, it is illegal for landlords to charge specific fees or increase rent without notice. Tenants should know their state and local laws regarding rental expenses. For example, some states prohibit late fees beyond a certain amount, while others cap security deposits at an established amount. Landlords may also be restricted from charging “double rent” if the tenant pays late.
Prohibited fees and charges
In addition to rent, some landlords may try to charge illegal fees. Examples include application fees, pet deposits, prepayment penalties, and other non-refundable fees. Many states have laws that prohibit charging certain types of fees or require the landlord to disclose them beforehand. Depending on the laws in your area, these fees may be considered illegal, and you could take legal action against the landlord.
Invasion of Privacy
Unauthorized entry into the rental unit
Landlords are not allowed to enter the rental unit without permission or notice. In most cases, the tenant is entitled to a 24-hour notice before a landlord enters their home. Some states and localities have laws that require more than 24 hours of advance notice for non-emergency entry. Due to privacy considerations, it is illegal for landlords to enter the rental unit at any time without permission or proper notice, except in cases of emergency or as required by law.
Improper handling of tenant’s personal information
The landlord must protect a tenant’s personal information from unauthorized access or release. This includes the tenant’s name, address, phone number, and credit reports. Landlords must provide written notice in many states if they share tenant information with third parties. If a landlord fails to do this, they may be liable for damages.
Withholding Security Deposits
The landlord must return the security deposit when a tenant moves out of the rental unit. They must provide an itemized list of deductions for any damages and expenses that may be withheld from the deposit. The remaining amount should be returned within a certain period (usually 30 days).
Prohibiting the presence of service animals
Many people with disabilities rely on service animals to assist them daily. The Fair Housing Act protects people with disabilities from discrimination and requires landlords to make reasonable accommodations for service animals. This includes allowing tenants to keep their service animal in the rental unit, even if the landlord has a “no pets” policy.
In some states, landlords are prohibited from locking out a tenant without obtaining a court order. This is considered harassment and can result in costly penalties for the landlord. Tenants should also know they may be entitled to compensation if their landlord locks them out without a proper court order.
Evicting someone without providing prior notice
When a landlord wants to evict a tenant, they must provide written notice and follow the proper legal procedure for eviction. These steps vary depending on the state and local laws. However, landlords are not allowed to proceed with an eviction without informing the tenant and giving them a chance to address the issue.
Disconnecting essential utilities
Every tenant should be able to receive essential utilities, such as water and electricity. It is considered illegal if a landlord attempts to disconnect these services without obtaining a court order. In some cases, this can even be considered harassment if it is done in an attempt to force the tenant out of the rental unit. Even if the tenant is behind on their rent, the landlord cannot disconnect essential services.
Seizing property when rent is overdue
If a tenant falls behind on rent, the landlord can demand payment. However, it is illegal for them to attempt to seize any of the tenant’s personal property without first obtaining a court order. This includes furniture, vehicles, clothing, or other belongings that belong to the tenant. They cannot enter the tenant’s unit without permission or take any of their property.
Failing to disclose potential hazards in the rental property
Some states and localities have laws that require landlords to disclose potential hazards, such as lead paint or asbestos. Failing to do so could result in legal action against the landlord if the tenant becomes ill from exposure to these materials.
Consequences and Legal Remedies
If your landlord has engaged in any of the above activities, you may have legal remedies available. Depending on your state and local laws, you may do the following:
Tenant Actions and Rights
Documenting the illegal actions and gathering evidence
This includes taking pictures, note-taking, and keeping any emails or letters from the landlord. You can also record conversations if you have permission from your state. This evidence will be helpful if you decide to take legal action.
Reporting violations to the appropriate authorities
Depending on the violations, you may be able to report the landlord’s actions to your local housing department. Different states and localities have different laws and agencies to report violations, so finding the appropriate agency in your area is essential. For example, some states have tenant advocacy groups or civil rights organizations that provide legal assistance.
Legal Remedies for Tenants
Filing a complaint with relevant housing agencies
You can file a formal complaint with the appropriate housing agency. This could result in an inspection of your rental unit and fines or other penalties for the landlord if they are found to be in violation. Some states also allow tenants to withhold rent until the landlord repairs violations.
Seeking legal assistance and potential lawsuits
It is best to consult an attorney if your landlord has violated the law. An attorney can help you understand your rights and provide guidance on any legal remedies you may have, such as filing a lawsuit against the landlord for damages or terminating your lease agreement without penalty. Look for legal aid services in your area, as some organizations may provide free or low-cost assistance.
Potential Landlord Penalties and Liabilities
Legal consequences for landlords engaging in illegal actions
If a landlord is found guilty of illegal actions, they may face criminal penalties or be liable for damages. Criminal penalties could include fines or even jail time in some cases. Additionally, the landlord may be responsible for any damages that resulted from their illegal activities, such as medical bills for injuries due to a hazardous condition or lost wages if the tenant had to miss work due to a lockout.
Civil and criminal penalties for violating tenant rights
Depending on the situation, a landlord could face civil and criminal penalties for violating tenant rights. Civil penalties may include monetary damages or injunctions ordering the landlord to change their practices. Sometimes, a landlord may also face criminal charges if they have committed a misdemeanor or felony-level offense, such as theft or assault.
How to Prevent Illegal Landlord Actions?
Before signing a lease, you should know your rights as a tenant and the state and local laws that apply to renting. You can also check with the housing department in your area for more information. This way, you can ensure that any potential landlord follows the law before signing a lease agreement.
What Can Landlords Do To Prevent Getting Sued?
First and foremost, landlords should abide by all applicable state and local laws regarding tenant rights. They should also be familiar with their responsibilities as a landlord and provide proper notice before entering the rental unit or making any changes to the lease agreement.
The landlord should also document any damages or repairs that need to be made and inspect the rental unit regularly to ensure it is in safe and habitable condition. They should also return security deposits promptly and keep accurate payments and other transaction records.
Knowing your rights as a tenant is the best way to protect yourself from illegal landlord actions. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the applicable state and local laws to spot any violations before they become problematic. You may have legal remedies available if your landlord has violated the law. Don’t fear reporting violations to appropriate authorities; seek legal assistance if necessary. With this knowledge, you can ensure your rental experience is as safe and secure as possible.
What can a landlord not do in Florida?
In Florida, a landlord cannot discriminate against tenants, including asking questions about their race, gender identity, religion, national origin, or disability. A landlord also cannot enter the rental unit without permission or proper notice of at least 12 hours.
What can a landlord not do in Texas?
In Texas, a landlord cannot evict a tenant without cause. This is due to the tenant’s right to “quiet enjoyment” of the rental unit. A landlord cannot charge more than two months’ rent as a security deposit and must consult you before changing locks or increasing rent.
What can a landlord not do in California?
In California, a landlord cannot raise the rent by more than 5% plus inflation, according to the Tenant Protection Act, for a maximum increase of 10% yearly. This rent cap does not apply if the tenant moves out on their own.