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Ask an Expert: What Are Your Rights as a Renter?

MYMOVE Asks an expert Eric Dunn Director of litigation National Housing Law Project

In 2021, renters made up around 36% of the U.S. population. While it’s normally viewed as the more affordable option, that’s not always the case anymore. Between 1985 and 2020, median rental prices increased by 149%, compared with an income increase of only 35% in the same period. 

With rental budgets stretched thinner and thinner, we reached out to Eric Dunn, Director of Litigation with the National Housing Law Project, to ask him about what rights renters have and how to exercise them. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our phone conversation.

MYMOVE: Are there any best practices renters should follow when signing a lease? 

Eric Dunn: It’s increasingly common for leases to have all sorts of additional fees hidden in the lease. So make sure you understand how much you’re actually responsible for on a monthly basis. A lot of times people overlook the details around what happens at the end of the lease term, too. If you’re signing a 12-month lease, what happens at the end of that 12 months? Does it automatically renew for another 12 months? Does it become a month-to-month tenancy? Does it just end and you need to move out and if so, what sort of notice is required? Sometimes it might require the tenant to give 30 or even 60 days notice of something or else the lease may expire. People can be on the hook for another year even if you’re planning on moving out.

MYMOVE: What about security deposits?

Yeah, a lot of time people overlook security deposits when they’re looking for housing. This is a common area where we’ll see landlords asking for more than the state law allows for. There’s either going to be some kind of walkthrough inspection, or at least some kind of checklist where the tenant can make a record of any problems. It’s really important to actually take advantage of that. 

29 states limit how much landlords can charge for security deposits. Check this state-by-state guide for details on how your state handles security deposits. 

Similarly, at the end of the lease, if there’s not an opportunity for a walkthrough inspection, it’s really important for tenants to do what they can to try to document the condition of the property when they moved out. Then if the landlord comes back later and claims that the tenant caused damage, there’s some evidence. It’s not just going to be the landlord’s word against yours.

MYMOVE: What if there is a disagreement about damage?

Dunn: These types of procedures really differ from one state to the next. But nowadays, most landlords will assign that claim to a collection agency and report it as a debt owed on the person’s credit report. And then when that person goes to apply for housing somewhere else, they’re going to be turned down because almost no landlord will rent to somebody if their background check shows that another landlord claims money owing. Whether you actually owe that money or not, if it appears on your credit report, it’s going to be a real barrier to getting into housing somewhere else. 

What do you have the right to do as the tenant is to bring your own case — usually in small claims court. This works best if you’ve paid a security deposit. You say well, the money that you claimed I owed you withheld from my security deposit wrongfully. So you sue to get your security deposit back. 

But of course, that puts the burden on the tenant to bring that case. It can be risky, because you might lose the case. Then not only do you have it on your credit report, but you’ve actually got a court judgment against you which can now be collected. It’s a tough spot to be in. If you’ve at least taken pictures or a video or something to document the condition of the premises, that puts you in the best position to dispute that sort of thing. You can usually just show the pictures to the landlord and get them to drop it. 

MYMOVE: Is it expensive to take something like that to small claims court? 

Dunn: In most jurisdictions, the whole point of small claims court is that people can represent themselves. You don’t have to have a lawyer, but it’s obviously to your advantage to have one. Some tenants will also qualify for things like free legal aid programs. 

“People having landlord-tenant debt claims on their credit report is probably the number one most common reason that people are denied housing in my experience. It’s almost universal among landlords that they will just reject people immediately if they see something like that on there. I can’t think of too many things that would be more pressing for someone to resolve that however they could.”

MYMOVE: What kind of resources are available to people experiencing housing insecurity? 

Dunn: Most, if not all, communities in the U.S. have some sort of a legal aid program available that can help at least some people. The federally funded legal services programs have an income level where they can provide assistance, and it tends to be pretty low. It’s usually 135% of the poverty level. But I still encourage people to contact those programs anyway even if they think they might make too much money. 

They may have other grants they can utilize where the income requirement is significantly higher — sometimes even up around 200% of the poverty level. Even for low-income homeowner issues, I’ve even seen it go as high as over 400%, but that’s uncommon. And even if they can’t help you, a lot of times legal aid programs have lawyers that can refer you to other places.

If there’s not a legal aid program available, the next best bet would be a local bar association. They can always connect you with lawyers in the area that do the type of work. And then a lot of times there is quasi-legal assistance available through things like tenant organizations or social service agencies that work with tenants that may be able to provide some assistance.

MYMOVE: What action can a renter take if their landlord isn’t making necessary repairs?

Dunn: Just about every state has some basic requirements that the landlord maintain the property in a way that’s consistent with local building codes and that’s safe and suitable for persons who live there. Nevertheless, in a lot of states, the tenant is required to give the landlord a certain amount of time in which to make the repairs. So you can’t just assume the landlord knows that there’s a problem. You’ve got to actually make the request for the repair and you probably need to do that in writing. A lot of times the statute will specifically require that it be done in writing.

And then, if the landlord ignores the request or doesn’t make some reasonable effort to have the repairs made within a reasonable amount of time. If it’s not made, at that point, the tenant could bring some type of judicial proceeding, asking the court to order the landlord to make the repair. 

Then the tenant has the ability to basically hire a contractor to make the repair and then pay the contractor directly and deduct the cost from the rent. Those can be really tricky for tenants to do. For example, you may have to make sure it’s a licensed contractor. You may have to get multiple estimates, that sort of thing. There can be a lot of pitfalls in those types of remedies. 

MYMOVE: I know that a lot of the eviction moratoriums have expired recently. Are there any other protections in place for renters facing eviction?

Dunn: Probably the most important one right now is under the Cares Act, which was passed in 2020. That statute imposed a four-month moratorium on some evictions. And even though that moratorium on evictions expired two years ago in July 2020, there’s still a provision of that statute which requires that before a landlord can evict the tenant, they have to give at least 30 days notice. And that’s a lot more notice than what’s usually required under state law. In most states, if you’re being evicted for not paying the rent, you can only get between about three to seven days. Yeah, there’s a few states that require more. There’s actually some states that don’t require any notice at all. But under federal law, if it’s a covered property, it’s going to require at least 30 days notice. 

A lot of landlords and a lot of lawyers that represent landlords and a lot of judges think, well, that that statute expired two years ago. Right, but that’s only the moratorium part. But they don’t think about the notice part. So we see violations of that happen all the time. And if the landlord doesn’t provide that notice, then can’t be evicted. 

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