Guide to Tenant Rights – Investopedia
As a renter, you’re bound by the terms and responsibilities in your lease or rental agreement. At the same time, federal, state, and local laws protect you against unlawful landlord practices. Here’s what you need to know about your rights as a tenant—under normal circumstances and in the age of COVID.
When you rent a place to live—whether it’s an apartment, house, or condo—the lease or rental agreement that you sign includes the terms by which you are bound, including:
A lease helps safeguard both the renter and the landlord, but certain tenant rights are protected under federal, state, and local laws. While specific laws vary by state, tenants generally have the following five major rights.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), “The Fair Housing Act protects people from discrimination when they are renting or buying a home, getting a mortgage, seeking housing assistance, or engaging in other housing-related activities.”
Numerous prohibited actions constitute discrimination when you rent. For example, a landlord or property manager can’t refuse to rent, set different terms and conditions, limit privileges, or evict a tenant based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin—these are the federally protected classes.
At the local and state level, landlords can also be prohibited from discriminating against potential renters based on:
English proficiency is not a protected class under the Fair Housing Act; however, it is considered a subset of national origin. Therefore, if a landlord refuses to rent to someone because they aren’t proficient in English, it could constitute national origin discrimination.
HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) enforces the Fair Housing Act under the direction of the secretary of HUD. One of its roles is to investigate complaints of housing discrimination. If you feel that a landlord has violated Fair Housing laws, you can file a HUD complaint or a federal court lawsuit. As there are time limits, you should file a complaint or a lawsuit as soon as possible.
All tenants have the right to live in a habitable home that meets building, health, and safety codes. To meet the “implied warranty of habitability,” landlords must:
In addition, practically every state has requirements for installing approved smoke detectors, while carbon monoxide detectors are additionally mandated in 27 states.
Most state laws prohibit landlords from adding language to a lease to waive the tenant’s right to a habitable home.
Meanwhile, tenants are generally obligated to keep the premises in a safe and clean condition. While standards vary by state, this requirement usually means that nothing in the tenant’s unit can put another tenant in danger or cause permanent damage to the property.
Even though the landlord owns the property, they can’t access the home whenever they like. That’s because tenants have the right to privacy, and the landlord can enter only for specific reasons. If your landlord must enter the property to check on something or do a repair, they generally must give you advance notice. Most states require landlords to provide at least 24 hours' notice before entering, except in the case of emergencies, when they can enter without notice.
A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on Aug. 26, 2021, struck down a national eviction moratorium ordered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set to last until Oct. 3, 2021. Pending further action by Congress, the only remaining COVID-related eviction moratoriums are those enacted by states or local jurisdictions.
If your landlord plans to evict you, they must give you adequate notice, usually in writing. What constitutes “adequate” varies, but it is usually 30 or 60 days, depending on location and circumstances. If you have violated your rental agreement, however, it can be as short as three to five days.
There are two broad types of eviction notices:
If you receive an eviction notice, you have a few options:
If you do nothing and continue to live in the rental, your landlord will file a lawsuit to evict you (this is usually called an unlawful detainer lawsuit). The court will set a date and time for your hearing or trial before a judge. To win, your landlord must prove you did something that justifies ending the tenancy.
Eviction procedures vary by state and locality. If you have a complicated eviction case, consider contacting an attorney who can help you understand your rights and provide recommendations on how to proceed.
If you have a disability, your landlord must accommodate your needs, within reason, at their own expense. (Landlords must also allow tenants to make reasonable modifications to their unit or common area at their own expense, provided that the changes don’t make the space unusable for the next tenant.) Your landlord’s accommodations should give you an equal opportunity to use and enjoy your unit or common space.
For example, if a tenant uses a wheelchair, the landlord might assign a spacious parking space close to the tenant’s unit. The landlord does not have to accommodate unreasonable requests. If, for instance, a tenant uses a wheelchair and prefers to be on the third floor of a walk-up instead of the ground floor, the landlord would not be expected to pay to install an elevator.
Federal eviction protection was offered under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
In August 2020, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) announced that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would “extend the moratoriums on single-family foreclosures and real estate owned (REO) evictions until at least December 31, 2020.” The moratorium was subsequently extended through Jan. 31, 2021, as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, and again by President Biden when he signed an executive order on his first day in office to extend it through March 31, 2021, and later through July 31, 2021.
On Aug. 3, 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) extended the moratorium until Oct. 3, 2021. A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on Aug. 26, 2021, struck down that moratorium.
Minnesota, Oregon, and California were the last states with eviction moratoriums in place until June 2022.
The most recent national eviction moratorium by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court on Aug. 26, 2021. According to Eviction Lab and local news sources, California, Minnesota, and Oregon were the last states to have valid moratoriums until June 2022.
Generally speaking, a landlord can’t access a rental property without advance notice. Most states require at least 24 hours’ notice before entering. The only exception would be in the case of an emergency.
Tenants have a right to safe and livable housing. This includes the right, in most states, to withhold rent or to repair the problem and deduct the cost of doing so from the rent (known as “repair and deduct”). States without a “repair and deduct” statute typically require tenants to notify the landlord about the problem and give them a certain period of time to address it.
As a tenant, you have rights that protect you from unlawful landlord practices and help to ensure that your rental home is safe. Keep in mind that while there may be some flexibility in your lease terms, your tenant rights are always non-negotiable. State and city laws vary, so use the HUD website to be sure to find out tenant rights specific to your area.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Public Housing Occupancy Guidebook, December 2020: Lease Requirements.”
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Housing Discrimination Under the Fair Housing Act.”
Zillow. “Fair Housing Act: The Basics of Fair Housing Laws.”
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Frequently Asked Questions,” select “What is Title VI and how does it relate to providing meaningful access to LEP persons?”
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “File a Complaint.”
Nolo. “Tenant Rights to a Livable Place.”
Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. “Implied Warranty of Habitability.”
First Alert. “Smoke Safety Laws & Legislation by State.”
National Conference of State Legislatures. “Carbon Monoxide Detector Requirements, Laws and Regulations.”
Justia. “Tenant’s Right to Privacy.”
U.S. Supreme Court. “Alabama Association of Realtors, et al. v. Department of Health and Human Services, et al.”
Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. “Eviction.”
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Reasonable Accommodations and Modifications.”
Federal Housing Finance Agency. “FHFA Extends Foreclosure and REO Eviction Moratoriums.”
Congress.gov, U.S. Congress. “H.R.133 — Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021,” Pages 2078–2079.
The White House. “Fact Sheet: President-elect Biden’s Day One Executive Actions Deliver Relief for Families Across America Amid Converging Crises.”
The White House. “Fact Sheet: Biden Administration Announces Additional Actions to Prevent Foreclosures.”
Eviction Lab. “COVID-19 and Changing Eviction Policies Around the Nation.”
Nolo. “State Laws on Rent Withholding and Repair and Deduct Remedies.”
Government & Policy
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