Guide to Tenant Rights

Investing News

As a renter, you’re bound by the terms and responsibilities in your lease or rental agreement. At the same time, federal, state, and local laws protect you against unlawful landlord practices. Here’s what you need to know about your rights as a tenant—under normal circumstances and in the age of COVID. 

Key Takeaways

  • Federal, state, and local laws protect tenants against unlawful landlord practices.
  • Your landlord can offer flexible lease terms—such as letting you choose between a one-year lease or a month-to-month agreement—but your rights as a tenant are always non-negotiable. 
  • Basic tenant rights include the right to a discrimination-free process, privacy, a habitable home, and a healthy and safe living environment. 
  • Federal eviction protection offered under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act has expired as of 2022.

Lease Terms

When you rent a place to live—whether it’s an apartment, house, or condo—the lease or rental agreement that you sign includes the terms by which you are bound, including:

  • The term of the tenancy and renewal options
  • Names of occupants and limits on occupancy
  • Rent price and payment details, including acceptable payment methods and applicable late fees
  • Deposits and fees
  • Restrictions on disruptive and illegal activities
  • Limits on the number, size, and breed of pets
  • Repairs and maintenance (who is responsible for what), including restrictions on tenant repairs and alterations
  • Landlord’s right to access the property and how much notice they must provide before entering
  • Requirements on how to communicate between tenant and landlord
  • Required landlord disclosures, such as lead-based paint or bedbug history

A lease helps safeguard both the renter and the landlord, but certain tenant rights are protected under federal, state, and local laws. While specific laws vary by state, tenants generally have the following five major rights.

1. Right to Freedom from Discrimination

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), “The Fair Housing Act protects people from discrimination when they are renting or buying a home, getting a mortgage, seeking housing assistance, or engaging in other housing-related activities.”

Numerous prohibited actions constitute discrimination when you rent. For example, a landlord or property manager can’t refuse to rent, set different terms and conditions, limit privileges, or evict a tenant based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin—these are the federally protected classes. 

At the local and state level, landlords can also be prohibited from discriminating against potential renters based on:

  • Citizenship
  • Age
  • Veteran or military status
  • Genetic information
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity or expression 
  • Source of income
  • Criminal history

English proficiency is not a protected class under the Fair Housing Act; however, it is considered a subset of national origin. Therefore, if a landlord refuses to rent to someone because they aren’t proficient in English, it could constitute national origin discrimination.

HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) enforces the Fair Housing Act under the direction of the secretary of HUD. One of its roles is to investigate complaints of housing discrimination. If you feel that a landlord has violated Fair Housing laws, you can file a HUD complaint or a federal court lawsuit. As there are time limits, you should file a complaint or a lawsuit as soon as possible.

2. Right to a Habitable Home

All tenants have the right to live in a habitable home that meets building, health, and safety codes. To meet the “implied warranty of habitability,” landlords must:

  • Ensure that the basic structural elements of the building are safe and intact.
  • Maintain safe electrical, plumbing, heating, air conditioning, ventilating, sanitary, and elevator systems.
  • Keep common areas, including stairways and hallways, safe and clean.
  • Provide sufficient hot water and reliable heating. 
  • Ensure that environmental hazards, such as asbestos and lead paint dust, don’t pose a danger (and disclose any lead-based paint if the building was built before 1978).
  • Take reasonable precautions against criminal intrusions, such as by installing deadbolts.
  • Exterminate rodents and other pests, including cockroaches and bedbugs.

In addition, practically every state has requirements for installing approved smoke detectors, while carbon monoxide detectors are additionally mandated in 27 states.

Most state laws prohibit landlords from adding language to a lease to waive the tenant’s right to a habitable home.

Meanwhile, tenants are generally obligated to keep the premises in a safe and clean condition. While standards vary by state, this requirement usually means that nothing in the tenant’s unit can put another tenant in danger or cause permanent damage to the property. 

3. Right to Privacy

Even though the landlord owns the property, they can’t access the home whenever they like. That’s because tenants have the right to privacy, and the landlord can enter only for specific reasons. If your landlord must enter the property to check on something or do a repair, they generally must give you advance notice. Most states require landlords to provide at least 24 hours’ notice before entering, except in the case of emergencies, when they can enter without notice.

A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on Aug. 26, 2021, struck down a national eviction moratorium ordered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set to last until Oct. 3, 2021. Pending further action by Congress, the only remaining COVID-related eviction moratoriums are those enacted by states or local jurisdictions.

4. Right to Advance Notice of Eviction

If your landlord plans to evict you, they must give you adequate notice, usually in writing. What constitutes “adequate” varies, but it is usually 30 or 60 days, depending on location and circumstances. If you have violated your rental agreement, however, it can be as short as three to five days.

There are two broad types of eviction notices:

  1. For cause—Landlords use this type of termination notice if the tenant has done something wrong or is against the lease terms, such as not paying rent or damaging the property. 
  2. Without cause—In some regions, landlords can use a notice to vacate to end a month-to-month lease when the tenant hasn’t done anything wrong. Landlords generally can’t terminate a fixed-term lease unless they have just cause to do so.

If you receive an eviction notice, you have a few options:

  • Move out by the date stated on the eviction notice.
  • Make amends with the landlord—for example, catch up on missed rent payments or find a new home for the dog—and continue the lease.
  • Do nothing and prepare for a lawsuit.

If you do nothing and continue to live in the rental, your landlord will file a lawsuit to evict you (this is usually called an unlawful detainer lawsuit). The court will set a date and time for your hearing or trial before a judge. To win, your landlord must prove you did something that justifies ending the tenancy. 

Eviction procedures vary by state and locality. If you have a complicated eviction case, consider contacting an attorney who can help you understand your rights and provide recommendations on how to proceed.

5. Right to a Disability Accommodation

If you have a disability, your landlord must accommodate your needs, within reason, at their own expense. (Landlords must also allow tenants to make reasonable modifications to their unit or common area at their own expense, provided that the changes don’t make the space unusable for the next tenant.) Your landlord’s accommodations should give you an equal opportunity to use and enjoy your unit or common space.

For example, if a tenant uses a wheelchair, the landlord might assign a spacious parking space close to the tenant’s unit. The landlord does not have to accommodate unreasonable requests. If, for instance, a tenant uses a wheelchair and prefers to be on the third floor of a walk-up instead of the ground floor, the landlord would not be expected to pay to install an elevator.

Tenant Rights During COVID-19

Federal eviction protection was offered under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

In August 2020, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) announced that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would “extend the moratoriums on single-family foreclosures and real estate owned (REO) evictions until at least December 31, 2020.” The moratorium was subsequently extended through Jan. 31, 2021, as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, and again by President Biden when he signed an executive order on his first day in office to extend it through March 31, 2021, and later through July 31, 2021.

On Aug. 3, 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) extended the moratorium until Oct. 3, 2021. A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on Aug. 26, 2021, struck down that moratorium.

Minnesota, Oregon, and California were the last states with eviction moratoriums in place until June 2022.

Are Eviction Moratoriums Still in Effect?

The most recent national eviction moratorium by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court on Aug. 26, 2021. According to Eviction Lab and local news sources, California, Minnesota, and Oregon were the last states to have valid moratoriums until June 2022.

Can Your Landlord Enter Your Apartment or Rental House Without Your Permission?

Generally speaking, a landlord can’t access a rental property without advance notice. Most states require at least 24 hours’ notice before entering. The only exception would be in the case of an emergency.

Is It Legal for Me To Withhold Rent Until My Landlord Makes Repairs?

Tenants have a right to safe and livable housing. This includes the right, in most states, to withhold rent or to repair the problem and deduct the cost of doing so from the rent (known as “repair and deduct”). States without a “repair and deduct” statute typically require tenants to notify the landlord about the problem and give them a certain period of time to address it.

The Bottom Line

As a tenant, you have rights that protect you from unlawful landlord practices and help to ensure that your rental home is safe. Keep in mind that while there may be some flexibility in your lease terms, your tenant rights are always non-negotiable. State and city laws vary, so use the HUD website to be sure to find out tenant rights specific to your area.

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