Around two-thirds of Americans own their homes (well, they share ownership with the banks that issued them mortgages). Those of us who cannot afford to do that rent. Renting a home isn’t technically taking out a loan, but rent is type of debt. It’s sort of like a landlord loans you the unit you’re living in and you pay back that loan while you’re living in it. Like other creditors, landlords have found a way to make money off of our basic needs. Once again, it’s the rich hoarding assets and charging the rest of us for access to them.
Throughout U.S. history and abroad, tenants have had to join together to fight back against the abuses of landlords. In places where there are more renters, there tends to be more tenant power and more tenant-friendly laws. In some places during some historical moments tenants gained so much power that they kicked landlords out: either gaining collective ownership over their buildings or replacing profit-oriented private landlords with a government agency dedicated to preserving affordability.
The fight continues. And the first step is always knowing your rights.
Just as the terms of a loan are contained in a promissory note, the terms of a rental agreement are contained in a lease. Leases come in a few types.
Most common is a yearlong lease—where both you and the landlord are committing to at least one year, usually with an option to renew.
You can also get longer or shorter leases: month-to-month leases are the second most common. Unlike yearlong leases, month-to-month leases automatically renew each month. In fact, in most states if the full year of your yearlong lease has passed, you are now technically on a month-to-month lease with auto-renewal.
In some states “tenancy at will” is also a possibility. That is where either you or your landlord can cut off the agreement at any time (subject to some exceptions).
Although the lease contains most of the rules that govern your relationship with your landlord, other rules depend on where you live. Some terms in your lease may even be illegal and unenforceable.
Even more so than with other types of debt, the way landlord-tenant law works depends on the state and city you live in. This section contains some general statements about how landlord-tenant law tends to work everywhere, but you should also familiarize yourself with any local protections (or lack of protections). This is a list of landlord-tenant laws by state (if you type in the citation on this list into a search engine you are likely to find the actual text of the law). Many states and cities also have non-legalese summaries of the laws. A good ol’ Googling will help: “[state/city name] landlord-tenant guide”.
Especially in big cities, rent just keeps going up. It’s not because owning the same apartments is getting more expensive for landlords; it’s because they know that they can charge more for the same apartments because demand is high. Why is demand up? More people are looking for rental units after millions lost their homes and money in the housing crisis, and more rich people who used to live in the suburbs are moving into cities. When more people (and people with more money) are trying to get into the same number of apartments, landlords know they can charge more. Building more apartments can divert some of that new demand away from existing tenants’ apartments, but generally rich people oppose new buildings (preventing that from happening) and usually new building can’t keep up with demand.
Organizing to resist rising rents can also stop rents from going up. Tenants can bargain collectively with landlords, including collectively refusing to pay rent if the landlord won’t keep it reasonable: a rent strike. Rent strikes focused on affordability come with risks, but if you are truly unified with your fellow tenants those risks are lower: it is hard to evict an entire building at once.
Even if you can’t convince your neighbors to work together, you have some bargaining power with your landlord. Generally landlords prefer to keep the same tenants and they definitely prefer not to evict, so if you’re polite but stubborn you can likely talk down rent rises. Remember: landlords usually raise rent just because they know they could get somebody else to pay more rent (not necessarily because their costs are going up), so it’s not like you’re causing them to lose money when you bargain over the rent. You’re just insisting that they not profit so much off of you.
It’s getting harder and harder to find reasonable rents. If you aren’t making much money, you are likely eligible for one or another affordable housing program. The problem is that rich people don’t like to fund these programs, so there are long waiting lists for most of them in most cities.
A good place to start for affordable housing programs in most areas of the country is your local Public Housing Agency. They usually have information on multiple affordable housing programs, not just public housing. Find yours on this (crappy) website.
It’s worth noting that housing prices vary a lot geographically, so if it makes sense for you to move to a different city, that could help you save a lot on rent (even accounting for moving costs).
Back to affordable housing programs. There are four basic types:
In every state, if something is seriously wrong with your apartment that can’t be attributed to your actions (an infestation, structural problems, etc.), the landlord has to fix it. You should notify your landlord as soon as possible and keep records of when you notified them and their responses.
If things are really bad, you are generally allowed to stop paying rent altogether (in a rent strike) until the problem is resolved (but check your state law, as discussed above). In most states, if the landlord fails to deal with it, you are also allowed to pay to fix the problem yourself and deduct the cost from your rent or send the landlord the bill.
Not paying rent is always easier if you do it in unison with your fellow tenants. Often a landlord screwing you over will be screwing over other tenants in your building. Talk to your neighbors. Collective action makes you both more powerful.
You can also contact the local housing and/or health inspector to come look at the problem and cite the landlord for failure to keep the house up to code. This could push the landlord to doing the right thing.
It is illegal everywhere for your landlord to retaliate against you for reporting a problem. If they do so, you can probably sue them (with the help of an attorney) or, if they evict you, use their retaliation as a defense (see the section on eviction).
As well, if there are problems with the apartment that the landlord has refused to fix, they can be a defense against eviction for unpaid rent (see the section on eviction).
You always have more power when you join together with your fellow tenants. Talk with your neighbors about whether they have been experiencing similar difficulties. You can decide to all withhold rent at the same time or to protest at the landlord’s house or contact your local elected official to make your power felt.
Landlords might harass you or lock you out of your apartment for a number of reasons. They might want to make living in your apartment unpleasant so they can push you out and get another tenant (this is especially likely if you live in a rent stabilized apartment). They might want to evict you without suing you because they know they’re in the wrong. They might just be assholes.
No matter what, you have a right to your space and to not being harassed. Some states are more protective of tenants than others, but a couple general things to keep in mind:
As long as you’re living in the apartment, it’s your space. The landlord has some rights to enter in specific circumstances, but you have every right to keep them out if you want to and they don’t have a legitimate reason. If they enter your premises illegally, you can have them removed.
In no state can your landlord legally lock you out of your apartment or shut off your utilities without a court order. If they do so, you should go find a lawyer and/or go to the cops.
All states except for Florida require the landlord to give at least 24 hours’ notice before entering the premises (Florida requires only 12 hours’), unless it’s an emergency. Landlords can only come in without permission in certain circumstances, which vary by state, but generally include (for more information see http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/chart-notice-requirements-enter-rental-29033.html):
Some states have additional anti-harassment laws for tenants. Enter “anti-harassment tenant law [city/state]” into your search engine to see if yours does.
Even if there aren’t specific anti-tenant-harassment laws in your area, a landlord might be violating some other laws with their obnoxious behavior. For example, they might be trespassing or making noise past legal hours or stalking you or assaulting you. Just because they’re your landlord doesn’t make these things legal. You can file a police report and find out if a local lawyer will help you.
As with other problems with landlords, unifying with your fellow tenants will enhance your power. It’s harder for a landlord to harass you, for instance, if they can’t get into your neighbor’s apartment or if everybody in the building files a complaint against them.
If you've had a rental application denied or been evicted or otherwise mistreated and you suspect it was because your landlord was biased against you, you can take action.
Federal law prohibits landlords from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability. Some state and local laws also prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or whether you're on public benefits.
You can talk to a local lawyer to help guide you through process. You can also submit a fair housing complaint to HUD, the Federal housing agency without a lawyer and they will take up your case. State and local governments might also have agencies that can help out. Search "[state/city name] fair housing agency".
No matter how you go about complaining about discrimination, legal action is likely to come too late to actually remedy the situation. The landlord might face a penalty and might have to pay you some money, which might teach them a lesson and make your life a bit better but doesn't undo the discrimination. It's possible the landlord would be forced to rent to you or put you back in the unit, but that's not likely to happen immediately.
Changing something more quickly would probably require taking direct action, with friends, family, and allies helping out. For instance, if you submit a fair housing complaint you can make noise about it and protest outside your unit or the landlord's home to put pressure on the landlord.
If you have to move out sooner than you thought, you might have to break your lease. That’s not as big a deal as it might seem.
When you leave, you should make sure you make yourself look as good as possible in case things get bad down the road:
Breaking a lease means, basically, breaking a contract. The worst-case scenario of breaking the lease depends on what’s in the lease. So start by checking your lease.
Generally, the worst-case scenario is paying extra rent and losing your security deposit. Remember that the worst-case scenario usually requires the landlord to sue you. And landlords would rather not do that. So there’s plenty of room to negotiate between best-case and worst-case scenarios.
If your lease is month-to-month, leaving does not mean breaking the lease. The worst that can happen is you have to pay your last month’s rent, any back rent you owe, and, if you leave the apartment in disarray, lose your security deposit.
If you have a yearlong lease, you might be on the hook for the rent for all months left on the lease if the landlord can’t find another tenant. That sounds bad, but, again, the landlord would have to sue and would have to be totally unable to find a tenant despite providing evidence of having looked. And don’t be so sure that you have a yearlong lease just because your original lease was for a year. If the first year of your lease finished and you didn’t sign a new lease, you might be on a month-to-month lease or even tenancy at will, so refer to the previous paragraph.
If your landlord sues you for unpaid rent after you leave, you should show up to defend yourself. Often just showing up to court will push the landlord to negotiate. But if things get into court you can:
It’s always easier to do this with a lawyer, but small claims court is often informal and you can defend yourself on your own if necessary.
On the other hand, if the landlord doesn’t give you back your security deposit even though you left the apartment looking good, you can sue them. Generally this is not worth it, but you can do it.
All of that is worst case. Most likely what will happen is that you negotiate with your landlord. You know what your landlord is like. Some landlords might have no problem with you leaving early if they can find a new tenant quickly. Some landlords are money-grubbing sticklers. Obviously the first type is easier to deal with, but either way you should be able to come to an agreement before going to court.
Basically what a landlord is looking for is a tenant that will pay rent. If you can find them a new tenant—whether somebody who’s willing to sublet your place, somebody who’s willing to take over your lease, or somebody willing to start a new lease—most landlords will find it hard to object. Actually, they will find it hard to collect any money from you in court if they reject a perfectly good new tenant—so they’d better not object.
Regardless of whether you can find a new tenant, you should be able to negotiate an early end to your lease and even a reduced last month’s rent. Landlords don’t want to sue you—if you tell them that you can’t afford the full last month’s rent and you don’t want any problems, they should accept. Unless they’re just obsessed with squeezing you dry.
If you or your spouse is on active duty in the military and orders to deploy or to relocate are what caused you to break your lease, you have a right to break your lease regardless of the state you are in or what it says in your lease. This is a defense you should tell your landlord about and, if you are sued, tell the court about.
If you know you won’t be able to pay your rent, it is almost always better to start trying to negotiate with your landlord early. Even thought it’s stressful, don’t put off dealing with it. You might be able to strike a deal with your landlord. If you can’t, it’s better to know early on so you can prepare for other options, including moving out or resisting eviction. Doing any of these things at the last minute makes them much more difficult.
Your basic options if you can’t pay are:
No matter which of these things you do, you should prepare for the possibility of moving out.
If you get a “notice to quit” or a “notice to vacate”, it does not mean you have to leave immediately. It means you are being taken to court. Landlords cannot force you out of your unit without a court order, and in order to get a court order they have to prove in court that you violated the lease (and that you don’t have any defenses). So getting this notice means you should prepare to defend yourself while also making sure you have a place to stay if you have to leave.
Having a lawyer can really help. If you can find a housing lawyer in your area willing to work at an affordable rate, you will have better chances. Ask around in the forums about legal resources in your area.
Receiving a notice to quit means you have one last chance to “cure” by paying the rent you owe (or remedying the other violation of the lease the landlord is accusing you of). It’s also a last change to negotiate. But if all that fails you’ll either have to go to court, move out, or prepare for the sheriff to come force you out.
It’s important to show up to court to defend yourself. Just doing so makes a landlord’s life more difficult, so they might bargain with you. Plus, you might actually win. You will automatically lose if you don’t show up.
As when you're sued for a debt, the first step to defending yourself is filing an answer. You can still show up to court even if you don't do this, but you will be in a better position if you do it. If you don't have a lawyer helping you, here is an example answer for Massachusetts, which you can modify for your state.
Housing courts tend to be run informally. Landlords are often chummy with the judges. But that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck: some judges will hear you out and you still have legal rights. If you can’t find a lawyer, have a friend or relative come with you to support you and help you remember what to do.
When you get to court, you can ask the judge for more time, especially if you have a good excuse like a family emergency.
At court, a landlord will have to show your lease and prove that you violated it. You might have one of the following defenses, however:
If you are in federally subsidized housing or use Section 8, you may also have other rights. You should get in touch with your local PHA to make sure you know what they are: https://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/public_indian_housing/pha/contacts.
As well, if you live in a rent-subsidized unit you may have other rights. Reach out to your local housing authority and/or a local tenants attorney.
If you lose in court and the judge issues an eviction order, your landlord can then bring police officers with them to physically force you and your belongings out of your unit if necessary. You can resist them non-violently by refusing to leave and getting friends, family, and neighbors to form a wall preventing them from coming into your home. Doing this is illegal and you can be arrested (and likely just fined, but possibly imprisoned for a short period of time depending on the state and the judge). Still, eviction defense can work, as our friends at Occupy Our Homes have demonstrated. And sometimes if you have no place else to go it’s worth taking big risks.