When a landlord neglects unsafe living conditions on a rental property, tenants can usually report the misconduct to proper authorities. Housing code enforcement is a powerful tool tenants can use to secure their rights.
What Are Considered Unsafe Living Conditions?
Standards for safe living conditions differ quite a bit from state to state. In general, any “substantial” threat to health or safety on the rental property is a habitability violation.
This means a landlord doesn’t have to fix an issue just because it’s annoying, inconvenient, or even dangerous. For example, air conditioning that’s a few degrees too hot probably doesn’t count as a “substantial” issue. By contrast, black mold under a kitchen sink would always be serious enough to require action.
If a problem makes tenants consider moving out, or spend time and effort on keeping themselves safe, it’s more likely to be a substantial issue. Urgency also counts when thinking about seriousness. A landlord almost always has to fix a broken heater, but not necessarily in the summer, as in Arizona.
Tenant Responsibility for Unsafe Conditions
If the tenant is responsible for an unsafe condition on the rental property, the tenant is usually liable for fixing it. These are the reasons a tenant may be responsible for a particular problem:
- The law makes the tenant responsible for that feature of the rental property.
- The lease requires the tenant to upkeep the feature (in some specific cases; landlords often can’t pass off their legal responsibilities to tenants).
- The tenant, or someone invited by the tenant, caused the issue deliberately or through a lack of reasonable care.
The following table shows who is usually responsible for repairs, based on where the issue is and who caused it.
|Tenant or Invitees?
|Tenant Sometimes Responsible
|Landlord or Invitees?
|Landlord Sometimes Responsible
|Third Parties or Natural Causes?
|Landlord Responsible (except acts of God)
|Landlord Responsible (except acts of God)
|Usually No Responsibility
What Should Tenants Do Before Reporting a Violation?
Once tenants confirm the landlord’s legal responsibility for a health or safety violation on the rental property, they should give the landlord notice for repairs. Government agents will not accept a report until the landlord has refused or failed to do repairs after proper notice.
A tenant’s rights and remedies often depend on the specifics of notice and response. This makes documentation critical to success. Before reporting a violation, tenants should collect as much of the available record as possible, especially written and photographic evidence.
How Can Tenants Report a Violation?
Tenants report violations to whichever government agency is locally responsible for code enforcement. Reporting is usually a straightforward process. Many cities, like New York, have online tools which make reporting as easy as filling out the requested forms. If there isn’t a reporting website, tenants usually have to make a phone call.
A violation report must provide a specific address for locating the violation, and a detailed description of the issue. In most cases, the government asks for the tenant’s contact information (and occasionally for the landlord’s). There’s typically also an opportunity to attach supporting documentation like pictures or unanswered repair requests.
Including as much information as possible is important for a quick and thorough inspection. Government officials often dismiss or deprioritize complaints that lack comprehensive details.
What Could Happen to a Landlord After a Complaint?
After a tenant files a complaint about health and safety issues on a rental property, the local government usually schedules a property inspection. The inspector examines the property for problems and issues citations to the landlord. Sometimes a citation comes with fines, sometimes not.
After receiving a citation, the landlord gets a certain amount of time (often 30 days or less) to fix issues on the property. After the compliance period ends, the local government inspects the property again.
If the property is still not up to code, the government will fine the landlord and possibly issue injunctions against him or even condemn the property. In some states, like Rhode Island, it’s a crime to deliberately allow code violations, which could lead to a landlord being arrested and jailed.
In almost all states, filing a complaint with a government agency activates special protection from anti-retaliation laws. It’s illegal afterwards (usually for a specific period of time, like 3-6 months) for the landlord to “get back” at the tenant through things like filing eviction or raising rent.
Who To Call When a Landlord Won’t Fix Property Issues
Most cities have code enforcement departments to call when a landlord won’t fix property issues. Even small towns that lack a budget for an independent department still usually do code enforcement directly through city hall, the fire department, or the local police. Residents unsure how to begin can typically start with the local 311 service, or equivalent, and escalate to higher levels of reporting from there.