UPDATE (April 2020): some states and cities have enacted moratoriums on evictions as the country deals with the COVID-19 outbreak. The Eviction Lab at Princeton University is keeping an up to date list of those public policy changes on this webpage. Additionally, for those at risk, see this list of additional resources.
Image from bill lapp
Steps tenants can take to fight an eviction:
- Talk to your landlord.
- Correct the issue in a timely manner (if possible).
- Dispute the eviction (if required).
- Attend the hearing.
- Present a legal defense.
- Appeal the ruling.
Before we look at how to fight an eviction, it’s important to understand how the eviction process works. We’ve briefly outlined the ins and outs of what the eviction process should (and shouldn’t) include.
Understanding the Eviction Process
Landlords can evict tenants in different ways and for different reasons depending on the state. In most states, it’s illegal for the landlord to do a “self-help” eviction, although that’s not true for every state.
This is when the landlord:
- Changes the locks without telling you
- Dumps your belongings outside the apartment
- Shuts off your utilities
- Or otherwise prevents you from physically entering or living in the rental unit
Again, this is illegal in most states.
Eviction Notice Requirement
Most states (not all) require landlords to give you a written eviction notice before they can move forward with an eviction. This notice will typically give you a certain amount of time to:
- Pay past due rent
- Correct a violation (like too many people in the apartment, minor property damage, or pets in an apartment with a no pets policy)
- OR move out
The amount of time the notice gives you to correct an issue or move out varies from state to state and can even be different depending on what the alleged violation is.
In some states, you’ll only have 24 hours’ notice, while in others, you could have 30 days’ notice or more!
If you aren’t able to pay/correct the issue before the deadline, and you don’t move out, the landlord is usually allowed to file an eviction action (or lawsuit) with the court. BUT, you probably don’t have to move out yet!
For states that don’t require your landlord to give you a written eviction notice, you may not know your landlord has filed an eviction action against you until you receive court papers ordering you to appear for a hearing.
Don’t panic! Read everything carefully so you understand when and where the hearing is, and what you need to do to prepare for the hearing. Hearings can set for a few days to a few weeks after you receive the notice. You still don’t have to move out yet. (But do attend the hearing—more on that in steps 3 and 4 below.)
Typical Flow of the Eviction Process
1. Rent is late or the landlord becomes aware of another violation – you really want the landlord to hear about it from you first.
2. Landlord gives you a notice to quit/vacate or comply/pay (if required in your state) – these are different names for eviction notices.
- Notice periods can vary from 24 hours to 30 days (or more!), depending on how serious the issue is and the state you live in.
- If you get a notice to quit or vacate, you’ll be told to move out after a certain number of days without getting the option to correct the issue.
- If you get a notice to comply/pay, you have the option to correct (“cure”) the issue or comply with a provision of the lease/law within a certain number of days in order to avoid being evicted.
- If you were unable to pay past-due rent, comply, or cure the issue within the notice period, then the eviction process continues.
3. Notice period ends but you have not complied/paid or vacated (in states that require written notice) – Now the landlord can file an eviction action and ask the court to force you to move out. BUT you typically don’t have to move out at this point.
4. Court hearing is scheduled – once the landlord files an eviction action with the court, you’ll be served with court documents letting you know that an eviction action has been filed. They should include the date, time, and location of the hearing, and whether or not you can file a response to the eviction before the hearing.
Some courts don’t allow documents to be filed until the hearing, so it may be wise to get legal advice on what the requirements are in your specific state.
5. Court hearing is held – this is your chance to present your side of the story and explain to the judicial officer why you shouldn’t have to move out.
6. Order for eviction is issued – this can look different depending on the state. In some states, all the landlord needs to force you out is the official eviction order, while in others, the order has to first go to a local law enforcement agency, and they will act on the order within a specific time period that varies by state.
7. You are forcibly removed from the rental unit – finally, if you haven’t moved out by this time, law enforcement or other authorized personnel will forcefully remove you from the premises. Your personal belongings could be forfeited to the landlord to pay for back rent, cost of repairs, etc., depending on which state you live in.
We’ve listed several things you can do to fight an eviction below. Follow as many of the steps as possible, and you may end up being able to fight or even stop your eviction altogether.
Step 1: Talk to your landlord
You should always try to talk to your landlord if you know that an issue is going to come up, or if you’re afraid you’ve done something that could violate your lease. It’s better if the landlord hears it from you first, instead of finding out about it on his or her own later.
When should you alert your landlord about a potential problem?
- As soon as you realize you won’t be able to pay rent for the current period.
- As soon as you become aware that another occupant in your rental unit or a guest has caused property damage or violated some other lease term.
- If your lease is about to end but you want to stay in the rental unit.
- If you have caused property damage or violated a provision of your lease/rental agreement.
- As soon as you become aware that another occupant of your rental unit or a guest has threatened, harassed, or injured other tenants.
- As soon as you become aware that another occupant of your rental unit or a guest is involved in illegal activity.
Don’t wait until you get a notice from your landlord stating you need to move, or receive court papers saying you need to show up for an eviction hearing.
If you know that you’re not going to be able to pay your rent on time, explain the circumstances, and see if your landlord will be willing to work with you on a payment plan for late rent, especially if you or another member of your household has lost a job or had to cut back on hours.
Some landlords may be willing to work with you, especially if you’ve been a good tenant and don’t have a history of late payments.
Ask if your landlord would be willing to:
- Set up a temporary payment plan
- Temporarily reduce rent
- Accept a partial payment for the current period
- Push back the rent due date by a few days or a week
Be sure that any agreement you and your landlord come up with is in writing, in case they decide to continue with the eviction action. This way, you’ll have proof that you were acting under the terms of this temporary agreement, no matter what the landlord says in court.
Get a receipt for any rent payments/partial rent payments made, as well. You may need to use these documents in your eviction case if the landlord tries to claim that you didn’t follow through on a temporary agreement.
In a few states, you are allowed to pay the full amount of past-due rent even after the eviction hearing has been held and still avoid being evicted. Be sure you understand what the law says in your state when it comes to the final, final deadline for paying past-due rent.
Other Violations of the Rental Agreement/Lease Provision
If you’ve violated a lease provision, the first step is to talk to your landlord right away. You’re showing good faith by alerting your landlord as soon as possible, instead of letting them stumble onto the issue on their own.
One of the more common violations is having too many people in your rental unit.
Maybe a friend or family member is staying with you because they lost a job or had some other financial or physical hardship, and now you’ve got too many people living in your apartment.
Explain the unusual circumstances to your landlord, and see if they’d be willing to allow your temporary guests to stay for a set time period. That way no one gets evicted from your apartment, including you.
Maybe the issue is damage to the apartment. In many states, landlords are required to give you a written notice and a specific time period to fix the damage before they can proceed with an eviction.
Regardless of what the violation is, discuss your options with the landlord, and see if they are willing to meet you half-way, or if there’s anything you can do, like paying for damage, to avoid being evicted.
Again, whatever agreement you reach with the landlord, get it in writing. This way, your landlord can’t come back and say they weren’t aware of your situation or that you weren’t willing to work with them on coming up with a solution.
No matter what, don’t give up and simply stop communicating with your landlord. If you don’t talk to them, they’re more likely to assume the worst and move forward with an eviction.
If you and your landlord are unable to come up with a solution at this stage, the landlord will either give you a written eviction notice (in states that require this) or serve you with court papers saying you’re being evicted.
Don’t give up—there’s still hope in both situations.
Step 2: Correct the Issue in a Timely Manner (If Possible)
The next step in the eviction process is for your landlord to give you a written eviction notice — but only if this is required in your state.
In some states, landlords don’t have to give you any written notice that you’ve violated a lease provision, law, or rental property rule/policy, and can immediately file an eviction action with the court.
In those states, the only notice you’ll get is the court summons stating you need to appear for an eviction hearing (discussed in step 3 below).
In most states, though, you can’t be evicted without getting a written eviction notice from the landlord that says they intend to evict you.
The notice will give you a deadline, from a few days to a month (or even more!) to either move out or comply with the lease/rule/law, or pay past-due rent.
If it’s possible, comply with whatever the notice is asking you to do. If you’re able to correct the issue within the time frame specified in the notice, then in most states, you cannot be evicted.
- Get more information from the landlord If the notice is unclear about what you need to do. You want to be sure you’ve done the correct thing to stay in the rental unit.
- Write down exactly what you did to comply and the date it was done. If you are doing anything that requires you to pay, make sure you get a dated receipt.
- Keep any receipts for repair work you’ve had done to the rental unit for proof the repairs were made within the time frame indicated on the eviction notice. You may need to use your receipt(s) as evidence if your landlord proceeds with the eviction action.
- Keep any receipts for rent paid. You may need these receipts for proof that you paid the full amount of past-due rent owed within the time period given on the notice, if your landlord decides to move forward with the eviction.
- Document any calls you’ve made to law enforcement regarding illegal activity in your rental unit. Alerting authorities to the illegal activities of others in your rental unit can be a defense if you are evicted for someone else’s illegal activity, and will be addressed in more detail in step 4 below.
If you’ve done everything you can to comply with the notice, or have been unable to comply with the notice, and your landlord moves forward with the eviction, hope is not lost yet!
You have several options still available to you, including filing a written response to the eviction, which is covered in step 3 below.
Step 3: Dispute the Eviction (If Required)
Depending on the state, the legal process of dispute involves either filing a response or “contesting” the eviction.
Filing a Response
Some states will require you to file a written answer/response to the eviction action with the court, and will give you a deadline to do so. The answer/response allows you to put in writing why you don’t think you should be evicted.
If you don’t do this, or you file your response too late, the court may not set a hearing date at all and will automatically rule in your landlord’s favor.
This is called a “default” and means that you will have to move out.
In other states, you have the option to file a written response but are not required to do so, and a hearing will still take place even if you don’t file a written response/answer with the court.
This is a crucial step to get right, since you don’t want to be evicted because you didn’t realize you had to file a written response with the court.
Seek legal help in your state to determine if you’re required to file a written response or not.
Even in states where this is not required, it might be a good idea to file a response anyway, since it will help you think through your defenses for the hearing, which we discuss in more detail in step 4 below.
Contesting an Eviction
In some states, if you want the chance to defend yourself in court, you have to “contest” the eviction. If you contest the eviction, you’re telling the court you don’t think you should be evicted. This is typically a document you file with the court.
You may also be required in some states to specifically request a hearing date if you are contesting the eviction. Otherwise, the court could rule in the landlord’s favor without giving you the chance to share your side of the story, and this would also be considered a “default.”
Understand that going through the step of contesting the eviction is not required in all states. If you are unsure of your state’s requirements, seek legal advice.
Once you contest the eviction, and the hearing is set, you absolutely need to attend the hearing, as explained in more detail below.
Step 4: Attend the Hearing
In nearly all states, if you fail to show up for the eviction hearing, the court will rule in your landlord’s favor and you will have to move out. This is also called a “default.”
If you attend the hearing, you at least have a fighting chance. The judicial officer will listen to why you don’t think you should be evicted, and in many states, this is when you would present any evidence you have for why you should get to stay.
Requesting a Continuance or Stay
If you didn’t have enough time to get an attorney or gather all the evidence you wanted to bring, you may have one additional tool at your disposal.
In some states, you are allowed to ask the court to continue the hearing to a later date so you can get an attorney/legal aid, or gather additional evidence for the hearing.
Some states only allow you to request one continuance, while others will allow you to request a continuance several times. Keep in mind that a few states don’t allow continuances for certain eviction types, like illegal activity, or may not allow continuances at all.
If your continuance request is granted, this means that the court will set a second hearing date at some point in the future, where you will be expected to attend with your attorney and/or provide more evidence in your favor, like witnesses.
This new hearing date could be only a few days later to several weeks later, depending on the state and the reason for the eviction.
Remember, in states that prohibit self-help evictions, you can’t be forced out of your home until after a final judgment has been issued in favor of the landlord, no matter how many times the hearing has to be rescheduled before the final ruling is issued.
And, in some states, if you request a jury trial, that will also cause the hearing to be rescheduled to a later date. Depending on the reason for the eviction, it could be a good idea to have a jury hear the case.
There may be circumstances beyond your control (like a death in the family) that would make it necessary to temporarily stop an eviction from happening. This is called a “stay.”
Explain your situation to the court and ask for more time if you need it. After all, it’s your home on the line!
So, what happens if, after all that, the court still rules in favor of your landlord? Is there anything else you can do to fight the eviction at this point? Yes! You can file an appeal, which we look at in step 6 below.
Step 5: Present a Legal Defense
We take a look at several common defenses to an eviction that could apply to your situation in more detail below. If the court accepts your defense and rules in your favor, you will not have to move out.
- Rent Wasn’t Past Due When Notified
- Compliance Was Made in Time
- Written Notice Wasn’t Given
- Full Time to Comply Wasn’t Given
- Reason Is for Domestic Abuse / Violence
- Reason Is a Fair Housing Violation
- Landlord Obligations Weren’t Fulfilled
- Didn’t Have Involvement, Awareness of Illegal Activity
- Eviction Process Wasn’t Legal (i.e. “Self-Help”)
- Lease Was Renewed
- Proper Notification, Documentation Wasn’t Given
- Reason Is for Illegal Retaliation
Rent Wasn’t Past Due When Notified
If you can prove the rent was not past due at the time you received the eviction notice, the court may rule in your favor.
You may need to provide documents, such as canceled checks and receipts to prove this, along with documentation showing when you received the notice and the amount it claimed was past-due.
If you and your landlord created a temporary agreement to accept a different rent amount or change payment due dates, etc., then having this agreement in writing and presenting it to the court will go a long way in your defense.
Another defense could be showing that your landlord had a habit of accepting late rent payments in the past.
Compliance Was Made in Time
If you can prove you complied with everything the eviction notice asked you to do within the time frame on the notice, the court may rule in your favor.
This is where you’ll be glad you kept those receipts for any repairs you had done, or got the landlord’s approval of the final repairs in writing to show the court.
Maybe you had a pet in the rental unit that wasn’t allowed, and you gave the pet to someone else within the time period on the eviction notice. That person could testify to when they received the pet, for example.
In addition, a few states allow you to avoid eviction if you began the repair/began to comply within the time period set forth on the notice, even if you couldn’t completely repair the damage/comply during the time frame.
You should also provide any written proof you may have showing you complied with any other requirements from the notice or bring witnesses who can corroborate the fact that you complied with the terms of the eviction notice within the time frame set out in the notice.
Written Notice Wasn’t Given
If you can prove you never received a written eviction notice (in states that require one), the court may rule in your favor.
This may be harder to prove, especially if the landlord claims you did receive the notice.
Full Time to Comply Wasn’t Given
If you can prove the eviction notice didn’t give you as much time to comply as state law requires, the court may rule in your favor.
For example, the notice only gave you three days to pay past-due rent, but your state’s laws say you have 14 days to pay past-due rent before the landlord can file an eviction action.
You will need a copy of the eviction notice you received that shows the discrepancy in the time allowed.
Reason Is for Domestic Abuse / Violence
If you can prove you were evicted for being the victim of domestic abuse or domestic violence (in states with applicable protections), the court may rule in your favor.
Most states have laws that prevent a landlord from evicting you solely for this reason.
Reason Is a Fair Housing Violation
If you can prove the eviction is discriminatory and was done on the basis of your race, sex, familial, status, sexual orientation or other legally protected class, the court may rule in your favor.
It’s critical to understand whether you’re in a protected class under either federal or state law. Some protected classes may seem obvious, such as race or sexual orientation, while others aren’t as obvious.
For example, in many states, marital status is a protected class, so a landlord can’t evict you based on whether you are single, married, or living with someone you’re not married to.
Discrimination can also include a landlord attempting to evict you so they don’t have to provide “reasonable accommodations” for a disability as required by federal or state law.
Sometimes discriminatory evictions can be harder to prove. However, if you can show that you consistently paid rent on time, have never violated the terms of your rental agreement, and have been a good tenant, then the court is more likely to rule that the eviction was discriminatory.
Landlord Obligations Weren’t Fulfilled
If you can prove the landlord didn’t fulfill their obligations under the law and/or under the rental agreement, the court may rule in your favor.
This could take several forms, such as if the landlord failed to make necessary repairs to the rental unit to make it livable, failed to make agreed-upon repairs, or didn’t acknowledge a repair request you made (as long as that repair request was made in accordance with your state’s landlord-tenant laws).
You may need to provide proof like photos of the condition of the apartment, a signed checklist that shows the condition of the rental unit when you moved in, inspection reports, or even call witnesses who can testify about the condition of the rental unit, etc.
Didn’t Have Involvement, Awareness of Illegal Activity
For evictions for illegal activity, if you can prove you were not involved in, or aware of, any illegal activity that took place in the rental unit, whether done by you or other occupants, the court may rule in your favor.
In several states, if you can show that once you did become aware of the illegal activity done by others, you called the police or otherwise reported it, and/or told the parties involved to leave the rental unit, then that could be enough to stop the eviction proceedings and allow you to remain in the rental unit.
Different states have different requirements when it comes to defenses for illegal activity, and some are much more complicated than others.
If you find yourself being evicted for the illegal activities of others, consult with a legal professional in your area to determine if you took the right steps, once you found out about the illegal activity, in order to avoid eviction.
Eviction Process Wasn’t Legal (i.e. “Self-Help”)
If you can prove the landlord tried to evict you illegally (i.e. via a “self-help” eviction in states with laws preventing such actions), the court may rule in your favor.
Again, this includes things like throwing your belongings out on the sidewalk, changing the locks to your rental unit, forcibly removing you without a court order, and/or somehow preventing you from living in or entering the rental unit.
Lease Was Renewed
For evictions for not moving out at the end of a lease term, if you can prove the landlord renewed your lease (even if the landlord says otherwise), the court may rule in your favor.
This can be as simple as showing that the landlord accepted rent from you after your original lease expired, in effect extending the lease term (depending on the laws in your state). It can also be proved via a copy of the lease or lease extension signed by both parties.
Proper Notification, Documentation Wasn’t Given
If you can prove you weren’t properly served the court summons and/or eviction complaint/petition/motion, the court may rule in your favor.
If you can show that the landlord violated the law by not properly giving you the court summons or the eviction paperwork, then that could end your current eviction case, but that doesn’t mean your landlord couldn’t file a case later and make sure you are properly served the second time around.
Reason Is for Illegal Retaliation
If you can prove the eviction was to get back at you for an action that’s protected by state law, the court may rule in your favor. These are also called “retaliatory evictions.”
In most states, it is illegal for a landlord to evict a tenant for:
- Complaining to the landlord or to the appropriate local or government agency regarding health, building, safety, or housing code violations that were not caused by you/other occupants of your rental unit.
- Joining, supporting, or organizing a tenant organization or union.
A few states assume that if an eviction action occurred within six months to one year of the above, then the eviction is retaliatory.
In those cases, the burden of proof falls on the landlord, which can make the landlord’s case much more difficult to prove.
Step 6: File an Appeal
If the judicial officer issues a ruling in favor of your landlord (meaning you have to move out), you may be able to appeal the ruling, which would essentially put the eviction on hold until a higher court can review the case against you.
This means you would need to file a notice of appeal as soon as possible after the original court makes its ruling.
There’s always a chance the higher court could rule in your favor, or send the case back down to the lower court for a new trial or to allow additional evidence, etc.
In most states, you cannot be forced to move out until the higher court makes a ruling on the appeal.
When all else fails, see if you have the option to file an appeal in your state.
Note that in many states, an eviction order can only be overturned if the lower court made a legal mistake in arriving at its judgment, like not allowing witnesses when the law requires it, or not allowing you a chance to defend yourself in court.