Renters’ rights, which are more commonly referred to a “tenants’ rights,” are rights afforded to a person or group who rents, or who is interested in renting, a parcel of land, a house, or an office building. Renters are entitled to move into a home or office building that has been officially deemed clean and safe to occupy. Renters are protected by law, with regard to a number of issues that may arise, such as eviction, and entry of the landlord into their property. To explore this concept, consider the following Renters’ Rights definition.
Definition of Renters’ Rights
- The rights belonging to the person or group who rents a parcel of property, a home, or an office suite.
What are Renters’ Rights
Renters’ rights are the rights that renters are entitled to before, during, and after they sign an agreement to rent a house, an apartment, or an office building. They also protect renters during their tenancy. Examples of renters’ rights include the right to move into a clean and safe building, the right to working appliances, and the right to functioning plumbing, and heating, though specific rights vary by state. Renters should research their rights before they commit to renting or leasing a home or office building, and if they have any doubts, they should contact an attorney experienced in landlord-tenant matters for help.
Protecting Your Rights Prior to Move-In
There are certain rights that renters should protect before they even sign a rental agreement. Examples of renter’s rights that prospective tenants should be aware of when renting an apartment or house include the following:
- The home must be deemed safe and clean to live in, according to the local building and housing codes, health requirements, and zoning ordinances.
- All appliances included in the lease or rental agreement must be fully functioning, including the refrigerator, stove, and garbage disposal, as should the heating and air conditioning systems, plumbing, and door and window locks.
- The roof should not leak. Renters should check for stains on ceilings and inside closets, as well as for obvious puddles on the floor.
- The windows should not be sealed shut, inoperable, or have broken glass.
- There must be working lights outside along pathways and on porches to ensure the renter’s safety in the evenings.
Renters should be sure to participate in a walk-through before they sign their lease, should one be offered, in order to inspect these things before agreeing to rent the property. Sometimes a walk-through is not permitted right away because the existing tenants have not yet moved out. If that is the case, waiting to sign the rental agreement until after a walkthrough has been accomplished will help ensure the renter’s rights are protected at this stage.
Examples of Renters’ Rights
Renters’ rights vary depending on the state in which the renter lives. However, there are some rules that are typically enforced by a majority of the states. Examples of renters’ rights that are considered common include:
- The amount of rent or security that a renter may be charged.
- The condition of the rental property: Most laws require that rental property have certain standards for habitability. While this may seem subjective, habitability typically means a vermin-free space with functional plumbing, electricity, and heat.
- Landlord entry into the dwelling – unless an emergency occurs (like a flood resulting from a leak), landlords must notify their renters in advance before they enter the property.
- Eviction notice and disposal of renter’s property – Just how notice of eviction is to take place, and the method of service varies by state. Some states allow landlords to put an evicted renter’s personal belongings out to the curb, while others state that the landlord must hold on to the belongings for a set amount of time in order to allow the renter enough time to come back and claim them.
Local laws normally address issues involved with liability, as well as how and by whom those issues should be handled. Local laws will dictate what to do if someone has an accident on the premises, or if a health problem like lead paint or mold is present.
Tenants’ rights extend to the eviction process, in which there is a specific set of rules that must be followed by landlords who want to get a tenant out. Eviction rules vary by state, and both landlords and tenants can obtain this information from the state’s housing division. Landlords who do not follow the proper eviction process may be held civilly liable for a tenant’s damages.
Eviction rules for landlords typically dictate that a landlord cannot even begin an eviction lawsuit without providing the tenant with written notice to correct whatever problem exists, which may be anything from troublesome behavior, to failure to pay rent. Written notice must be made in a specific manner, as specified by state law.
Eviction rules allow for three types of written notice, which a landlord can provide to a tenant who is not abiding by the renters’ agreement. These include:
- Pay Rent or Quit Notice — A notice issued to tenants who are late with their rent. Most states allow the tenant three to five days to pay what is owed, in full, else the tenant will be forced to move out (or “quit” the property).
- Cure or Quit Notices — A notice issued to tenants who are in violation of their lease or rental agreement for a reason other than late rent. This may include having pets despite a no-pets clause, or making excessive noise. In these cases, the tenant is given a set period of time in which they are permitted to correct whatever it is they are doing wrong.
- Unconditional Quit Notices — A notice ordering a tenant to vacate the premises immediately, without an opportunity to pay back rent, or correct another violation. In states that allow unconditional quit notices, they generally can only be served when the tenant has done one or more of the following:
- Been repeatedly late with the rent
- Repeatedly violated the lease or rental agreement
- Caused serious damage to the property
- Engaged in illegal activities on the premises (like drug dealing)
In some states, however, landlords are permitted to jump right to the unconditional quit notice without being required to provide either of the less-serious notices as warnings beforehand. If the tenant does not follow the demands of these notices, the landlord is permitted to file a lawsuit to have the tenant evicted. This kind of lawsuit is called an “unlawful detainer.”
Of course, sometimes things happen and a landlord needs to get a tenant out before the end of the rental or lease term, without the tenant having done anything wrong at all. Maybe the apartment complex is being sold or, if the tenant is renting a room in the landlord’s house, maybe the landlord has a family member who needs to move in with him, or the landlord may need or want to relocate.
In a month-to-month tenancy, which means there is no signed lease, this can be accomplished by simply providing the tenant a 30-day notice to vacate. This is similar to a tenant being required to give 30 days notice to the landlord of his intent to move out. If there is a lease, for instance, a one-year lease, the landlord must serve the tenant with a Notice for Termination without Cause, also known as a Notice to Vacate. These notices typically provide the tenant with notice that he will need to move out within a 30- or 60-day period. Some states do not allow this practice, instead requiring that landlords provide their tenants with a legal reason for their eviction, or “just cause.”
Renters’ Rights in an Eviction Lawsuit
Just because a landlord gives notice to a tenant to move out does not necessarily mean that the landlord has the right to evict. Renters can defend their right to stay in the home or other property, but such a defense can take anywhere from weeks to months to process in the legal system. By then, the renter’s case may simply be an effort to recover damages, since it is very unlikely that a landlord will wait that long to evict. The average eviction lawsuit is decided within a matter of weeks.
If the landlord is victorious in an eviction lawsuit, a judgment is entered against the tenant demanding that possession of the property be turned back over to the landlord, as well as any unpaid rent. The renter still has rights in an eviction, as the landlord cannot simply go into the renter’s home, apartment, or other property, and move all of his stuff to the curb. Renters’ rights allow tenants to defend against an eviction lawsuit. The grounds for such a defense may include:
- Mistakes in the eviction notice
- Improper delivery of the notice as the law dictates
- Uninhabitable living conditions
In all states, landlords must follow the appropriate procedures in notifying the tenant of the steps involved in the eviction, including how and where the tenant can move their possessions into storage. Some states do permit landlords to do whatever they want with a tenant’s property once the tenant has moved out, but this is only legal if it has been properly established, in writing or otherwise, that the tenant has permanently left the premises and will not be returning.
Renters’ Rights Example as a First Amendment Violation
In 1968, Joyce Thorpe, a tenant of the McDouglas Terrace public housing community, was evicted, shortly after becoming president of the building’s Parents Club. The Housing Authority of the City of Durham did not give Thorpe any reasons as to why she was being evicted, and when she tried to find out, her requests were ignored.
The Housing Authority ultimately obtained a court order to force Thorpe out of the community. Thorpe argued that the Housing Authority had violated her First Amendment right to free speech, and that she was only being evicted because of her dealings with the Parents Club. However, she lost two appeals, and took the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As Thorpe’s case was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) issued a notice that specified that all evicted tenants had the right to be provided with an explanation for their eviction. The North Carolina Supreme Court refused to acknowledge the notice, saying essentially that they could not apply it retroactively. The question for the U.S. Supreme Court then, was whether or not a tenant in a federally-assisted housing development could be evicted without explanation, even though HUD’s rules changed after the eviction had been initiated?
The Court’s unanimous decision was “No.” Thorpe had remained in her home during all these proceedings, and since she had not physically been removed from the home, the notice to provide a reason for eviction applies. As a result, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Supreme Court of North Carolina, requesting that it issue a ruling with the HUD’s new notice in mind.