Anyone who has ever rented an apartment has asked about their rights as a tenant at some point. One thing that makes tenant rights even more confusing is that change from state to state. So a protection a tenant has in one state may not apply in a neighboring state. Some states are very pro-landlord, so tenants in those states are at a bigger disadvantage than more pro-tenant states. Here are six rights that tenants should be aware of but don’t’ forget to check your local state laws and city ordinances so you can be wholly informed about what rights are available.
1. Federal Anti-Discrimination Law
As stated above, state laws vary from state to state, but federal law applies to everyone. Which means, no landlord can ever discriminate against a tenant or prospective tenant based on their:
- National origin
- Familial status (i.e. not allow children, pregnant women)
- Physical or mental disability
It is important to note that the Federal Anti-Discrimination Law does not apply to housing offered by religious groups, housing provided by private organizations, senior citizen designated housing, and owner-occupied buildings with four or fewer rental units
2. State and Local Anti-Discrimination Laws
Many states, counties, and cities now have laws that also prohibit discrimination based on marital status and sexual orientation. These laws will often have exceptions to who the law applies to, so it is important to carefully review the state and local laws and ordinances to best understand the applicable rights in a particular area.
3. Accommodations for Service Animals
A landlord can enforce a no pet policy. However, they cannot refuse to rent to someone based on the no pets policy if they have a trained service animal. If the landlord refuses to rent to someone based on them utilizing a trained helper animal they have violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
4. Right to a "Habitable" Home
One of the most basic of rights for a tenant is the right to a habitable home. A habitable home has to be fit to be lived in. This means unsafe conditions, such as falling plaster, bad wiring, holes in the floor. This also means the property cannot be infested with vermin, such as mice, rats, or cockroaches. This may mean that heat has to be provided depending on the temperature. However, courts have regularly found that air conditioning does not have to be functional for a property to be inhabitable. Most importantly, in most states this right cannot be waived so even if a lease says the tenant waives the right to habitable they are usually still entitled to a habitable home.
5. Right to a Reasonable Security Deposit and Its Return
Most states have laws that limit the amount a landlord can charge for a security deposit. While some states, have no upper limit at all, other states have lower limits for senior citizens. It is important to note that landlords must treat people equally in regards to security deposits. A landlord cannot discriminate based on the factors listed above in determining how much he or she charges someone for a security deposit.
Some states require the landlord to return a deposit within so many days once a tenant moves out, and other states make the tenant request the deposit before it has to be returned. Sometimes a landlord is even responsible for interest on the deposit. If a landlord wants to keep the deposit in whole or in part, they must provide an itemized list of the damages that the deposit will be applied to.
6. A Tenant’s Right to Privacy
We have all heard horror stories about that landlord that just cannot seem to leave a tenant or a property alone. They fuss over the property or try and find reasons to come inside the tenant’s property, so they look around. Even worse, some landlords just let themselves in without notice when there is no emergency. Well, the good news is, a tenant has a right to privacy. Most states have laws that require the landlord to get permission to enter the property and provide notice that there is a legitimate need to enter the property. There are typically exceptions for emergency situations like fire and flooding.
The best way a person can protect their tenant rights is to know what they are. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s website is a wonderful resource to learn more about fair housing and federal tenant rights. A tenant should always read their state and local landlord/tenant laws and carefully review their lease before signing. If a tenant feels they have been discriminated against or cheated out of a security deposit they should contact a local attorney or legal aid society for advice.