Your living situation is a disaster: the sink has been leaking for months and nobody will repair it, and the heater is on the fritz, so you spend your days alternating between blankets and bikinis. Your landlord has been totally unresponsive to your verbal and written requests for repairs. Or maybe your landlord has served you with an eviction notice even though you don’t think you deserve it, since you pay your rent on time and keep things reasonably clean. What can you do? This article covers some of the ways in which you can legally dispute your landlord’s actions (or failure to act).
If your landlord has failed to respond to repeated requests for repairs, you may be able to have a local building inspector determine whether the un-repaired problems certify your apartment “uninhabitable.” If the condition of your apartment can be described in this way, you might want to consult an attorney or legal aid for information about breaking your lease or withholding rent until repairs are made. You may even be able to have your landlord arrested for negligence if the state of your apartment is certifiably dangerous to your health and well-being.
Before taking action against your landlord, be sure that the repairs in question are the responsibility of your landlord to conduct–if the damage resulted from your own destructive activities or negligence, the landlord is not required to pay to fix it. You’ll also need to make sure that you made documentable written requests for the repairs in question, so take care to make these requests and keep dated copies.
Withholding rent is a last resort in “resolving” landlord problems, as it leaves you open to being evicted if you don’t proceed carefully. Be sure to verify the legality of withholding rent before beginning to do so, as you don’t want to be evicted for withholding rent if you only did so in response to uninhabitable conditions caused by your landlord. Withholding rent is usually best done with the aid of an escrow account, managed by your local court, to which you pay your rent in lieu of giving funds to your landlord. This way, the money is clearly available to the landlord as soon as the desired actions are taken.
You need to notify your landlord in writing of your intent to withhold rent, and explain your reasons for doing so. It may be helpful to include proof of your apartment’s need for repairs (you do have pictures, right?) and your previous requests that the landlord make those repairs (you did make previous requests, right?). (If the answer to either of those parenthetical questions is “no,” you have some work to do before you can think about withholding rent.) When you notify your landlord of your intent to withhold, you need to specify your reasons for withholding rent, what you want your landlord to do to rectify the situation, and how long you intend to withhold payments. Be aware that withholding rent is not an appropriate action to take if you simply don’t have the funds
You can refer to our previous article on fighting eviction for more information on this topic. As always, keep careful records and research your legal rights and restrictions before taking action. You’ll need to be able to prove that your landlord is attempting to evict you for untenable reasons, or defend yourself for taking the actions prompting eviction. For example, if you’ve withheld rent, you’ll need to back up your reasons for doing so and prove that you notified your landlord of your intent and justification for taking this step. If your landlord claims you’ve caused damage to the apartment, but that damage was actually the result of your landlord’s failure to make repairs, you’ll also have to prove this in court.
Landlord-tenant disputes can become extremely tendentious and drawn-out legal fights. Keep this from happening by addressing issues immediately, both orally and in writing, and keeping careful records of all the communication that transpires between you and your landlord. Know your rights and perform your responsibilities, and address tiny problems before they get out of hand.