Knowing your rights as a tenant can protect you from discrimination and the unfair actions of landlords and property managers. Yes, your landlord might own the apartment, condo, or home that you rent—but they don’t own you. Landlords and property managers have obligations to renters, and they can’t be guilty of fair housing violations.
Here are a few quick examples of landlord violations:
- They enter your apartment without checking with you first.
- Landlords don’t fix broken plumbing, or they’ve turned off the electricity.
- They spy on you (yes, this does happen and it’s creepy as heck and also highly illegal).
- You come home, and they’ve changed the locks.
Even some types of rent increases could be breaking the fair housing rules. Oh, and did you know that your landlord can’t ask you what country you or your partner are from? That type of question could be classified as landlord discrimination. Knowing your rights as a tenant is the only way to protect your access to housing if you start having issues with your landlord. This article will explain many common fair housing violations so you can protect your rights when renting.
What is the Fair Housing Act?
Without getting into too much legalese, many of your tenant’s rights are spelled out in the Fair Housing Act. Also, state laws and common laws protect your rights if you’re paying rent to a landlord. The Fair Housing Act says that no landlord or property manager can discriminate against you. So, a landlord can’t refuse to rent you a property based on the following seven classes:
- National origin
- Family status
Did you know that your rights as a tenant are protected before you sign any rental agreement? Even seemingly simple questions can be used to discriminate. For example:
- Are you married?
- Do you plan on having children?
- Do you attend church?
- When did you emigrate to our country?
Here are three additional examples of landlord discrimination:
- Discrimination on family status — A man calls a property manager about a two bedroom apartment and the property manager arranges a showing. The man and his pregnant partner show up. However, the landlord makes excuses that the unit is no longer available. The couple suspects that they are discriminated against because of their family status.
- Discrimination based on national origin — The landlord asks a potential tenant who looks Asian what country he is from. The landlord even suggests that he looks in another neighborhood because there’s “not many like you around here.”
- Discrimination based on disability — A person in a wheelchair comes to view an apartment. The landlord only shows an apartment on the ground floor even though there is an apartment for rent on the third floor, and the condo has an elevator. Landlords are also required—at their own expense—to install any equipment needed to accommodate disabled persons.
Of course, in some cases, it can be challenging to prove you were refused based on one or more of the seven classes. After all, landlords use their discretion when making decisions. But you should always file a complaint about blatant and obvious discrimination to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Fair Housing Laws and a Tenant’s Rights
The examples we’ve given so far only address housing violations before you sign a rental agreement. But what about your rights after you’ve signed a lease? Regardless of any fair housing violations, you still need to fulfill your part of the rental agreement. Technically, you can’t stop paying rent if say, a pipe breaks in the house and your landlord stalls on fixing it. Or if the landlord changes the locks. What else do you need to know if you start having issues with your landlord after moving in? Let’s look at a few areas where fair housing violations can happen once you sign a lease.
Depending on the terms of your lease, a landlord could be in violation of your tenant’s rights if they don’t fulfill their obligations. Of course, landlords can generally charge what the market allows—even a hefty hike in rent could be perfectly okay. But landlords are still bound to the lease as much as you are.
Here are three situations where it’s good to know your rights are if the rent increases:
- Month-to-month contract — The landlord can raise the rent at the end of the month. However, check your state laws on the “increase notice” time. This could be 30 days or even more.
- Lease — The good news is that your landlord can’t bump up the rent while the rental contract is in force. At the end of the lease—even if you renew—the landlord can ask for more money as part of the renewal.
- Rent retaliation — This is where the landlord is hiking up the rent to get you out. This is illegal and you may need legal advice to sort the issue out.
Entering the property without due notice and quiet enjoyment
You are entitled to “quiet enjoyment.” What does that mean? This legal term covers a wide range of rights you have as a tenant. Quiet enjoyment includes the following:
- Essential services, such as utilities—water, electricity, heating, and hot water.
- The property must be kept in good repair.
- The landlord is prohibited from unreasonably disturbing your peace and quiet.
- You can make full use of the property after signing the agreement.
So, your landlord has to give you notice before entering the property. Depending on the lease and state laws, this could be 24 hours or 48 hours. And, they have to come between the hours of 9.00 am and 6.00 pm—unless it’s an emergency such as a burst pipe. Also, your landlord can’t physically restrict you from entering the property through changing the locks or similar. Quiet enjoyment also means that a landlord can’t spy on you or set up surveillance in the property without your knowledge. But this doesn’t apply to common areas such as stairways, hallways, or lobbies in an apartment building.
A landlord has the right to evict you if you break part of the lease agreement—failure to pay rent, trashing the property, carrying out illegal activities, or having unapproved guests. But your landlord also has to stick by local laws and the lease agreement.
What are the rules regarding evictions? Here are a few examples:
- Failure to pay rent — The landlord can provide notice to pay rent or quit the property. In these situations, you get some time to come up with the cash.
- “Cure or quit” — For some violations, the landlord can give you time to sort the problem. For example, if you’ve kept a dog at home but there is a “no pet” clause. Or, you’ve been making too much noise and disturbing neighbors. You get some time to correct the problem.
- Notice of eviction — Your landlord could issue you an eviction notice for repeated violations or serious illegal activity. In these cases, you may only be given a short notice to vacate the property.
Generally, if you are on a month-to-month lease, and there are no violations, your landlord must give you 30-days’ notice to quit. In some states, it’s as much as 90 days. However, the landlord can’t kick you out of your place based on one or more of the seven protected classes under the Fair Housing Act.
If there are no serious violations, and you have a fixed-term lease, your landlord can’t serve you with an “unconditional termination notice,” i.e., to get out immediately or within a few days.
Tenant’s rights and occupancy
What’s the deal on having friends stay over in your rented apartment? Or, if you want your partner to move in with you? In these situations, it’s definitely worth knowing what your rights are as a tenant. Landlords have a right to know and have named on the lease all occupants in their property.
Now, a friend who stays a couple of nights on the couch isn’t an occupant. However, if you get a roommate without the landlord’s permission, you could be in breach of your lease. This means that a landlord could evict you for this particular violation.
If you decide that you want your partner to move in, you’ll have to speak to your landlord. Be aware that a landlord could view a long-term guest as an occupant, even if they live somewhere else. Some signs of a long-term guest whose taken up residence are:
- They spend most nights on the property.
- They receive mail at the address.
- A “guest” has a key and comes and goes regularly and spends nights at the property.
- The guest pays some money to the tenant to cover extra costs because they are living there.
Remember, most lease agreements should allow for tenants and their minor children to live in the property. However, for overnight guests and long-term guests, always check the small print of your agreement.
Fair Housing Violations and Your Rights as a Tenant
To protect your rights as a tenant, always put everything down in writing. Your landlord must deal with you fairly and in line with fair housing laws. Have you dealt with fair housing violations when renting an apartment? What did you do to solve the problem? Please share your experiences in the comments below.