Your Rights as a Tenant
Municipal, state, and federal laws provide a variety of protections for renters and would-be renters. This article focuses on the general rights of tenants (and would-be tenants) under state and federal law.
Federal Fair Housing Law
There are reasons why a landlord may choose not to offer you an apartment. Some of those reasons may be legal; some of those reasons may be illegal. The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of:
- Race, color, ethnicity
- National origin
- Familial status (it's illegal to discriminate against children and pregnant women)
- Physical disability and mental disability (including alcoholism and past drug addiction)
- Sexual orientation and gender identity
State and Local Fair Housing Laws
States and many cities have similar fair housing laws that may prohibit other kinds of discrimination. That can include discrimination for marital status and sexual orientation.
Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws
Federal housing laws prohibit a variety of discriminatory conduct that could impact a prospective or current tenant. The following is a list of protections under Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which is commonly referred to as the Fair Housing Act of 1968:
- It prohibits advertising that contains any statement indicating a preference or limitation related to a protected class of people, and the landlord cannot make a statement of such a preference.
- A landlord can't say that an apartment is not available when it is available.
- A landlord cannot use a different set of rules for assessing applicants belonging to a protected class.
- A landlord cannot refuse to rent to persons in a protected class.
- A landlord cannot provide different services or facilities to tenants in a protected class, or require a larger deposit, or treat late rental payments differently.
- A landlord cannot end a tenancy for a discriminatory reason.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) does not apply to owner-occupied buildings with four or fewer units, to single-family homes rented without a broker, or to religious organizations, private clubs, and senior housing (which may set age restrictions).
A landlord cannot refuse to rent to a disabled person because of a "no pet" policy. If A landlord refuses to accommodate a trained service animal, such as a seeing-eye dog, they have violated federal law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.
It should be noted that at this time "emotional support" animals are not always covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), unlike the animals that assist with physical and mental disabilities, but they may be covered under state-level protections.
If your application to rent an apartment is rejected, the landlord does not have to give a reason. But under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, they do need to disclose if the rejection was based on a negative consumer report (e.g. a bad credit score, background check, or lawsuit history) or negative credit information that came from another source.
The landlord has to tell you that, for sixty days after they inform you of the negative credit information, you can ask in writing for them to disclose the negative information. After receiving your request, the landlord must tell you the nature of the information within a "reasonable time." The law doesn't indicate how much detail the landlord has to give you.
Right to a Habitable Home
You have a right to live in "habitable" premises. That's a fancy way of saying the apartment or house you are renting must be safe and fit to be lived in. Most states do not allow a landlord to put language in the lease stating that you give up that right.
The following conditions can make a property uninhabitable:
- Unsafe conditions, such as holes in the floor, crumbling walls, a leaky roof, or missing handrails
- Gross infestation of vermin such as cockroaches or mice
- The presence of toxic mold, usually from water intrusion or plumbing leaks
- Malfunctioning plumbing and drainage
- Electrical hazards
- Exposed asbestos
Under Federal law, rental housing must be free of lead-based paint. For buildings built before 1978, the law requires that the landlord disclose whether he or she has knowledge of lead-based paint existing on the premises. No matter how old or new the premises are, watch for chipping paint, peeling paint, flaking paint, and paint dust.
You have a right to privacy. Your landlord cannot come into your apartment or house without prior permission unless the landlord provides reasonable notice (as defined by state law) or there is an emergency, like an overflowing sink.
The landlord must give you advance notice before coming into your apartment to make repairs or to show the unit to a potential tenant. Some states have laws that regulate these entries. For example, under California Civil Code Section 1954, "Twenty-four hours shall be presumed to be reasonable notice in absence of evidence to the contrary."
Your landlord can require a security deposit but it can't exceed the limit set by your state's law. (Not all states have an upper limit.) Also, state statutes may allow different limits, such as:
- Reduced security deposits for senior citizens
- An increased security deposit if the tenant has a pet or a waterbed
- Different amounts of deposit based on the length of the lease
- Other factors, as long as they are not in conflict with the FHA or ADA.
A landlord must treat tenants equally when it comes to deposit requirements. If you have been required to provide a larger deposit than your neighbors, you have the right to know why.
At the end of your lease period, the landlord must return the deposit to you. In some jurisdictions, it must be returned with interest. Many states also have a statute stating how much time a landlord may take to return your deposit after you move out (14 to 60 days).
If the entire deposit is not returned, your landlord must send you an itemized list of how the money was spent. The spending cannot be unreasonable or unjustified. Common reasons a security deposit may be reduced include:
- Repairs for damages to the premises beyond normal wear and tear
- Cleaning to restore the property to the condition it was in at the beginning of the lease
- In some instances, where allowed by law and the lease, to pay unpaid rent
Protect Your Rights as a Tenant. Get Legal Help.
You have a right to take legal action against your landlord for violation of fair housing laws, or for breach of contract if they failed to make needed repairs or took unwarranted deductions from your deposit. Contact a local landlord-tenant attorney to discuss your particular situation and learn about your options.
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.