Most renters find landlords to be a mixed blessing: great when they take care of clogged drains or leaky ceilings, abysmal when they don't. If you live in a multi-unit dwelling, your landlord will have to comply with certain regulations outlined in each state's tenants' rights code. These will include rights such as non-discrimination, as well as obligations to maintain, repair and secure the premises, and, depending on the city and state, provide heat and hot water, locks and abatement for nuisances such as rodents or bugs.
But there may be instances in which a landlord's performance falls short of his obligations, or that quality of life issues such as noise, smoking and pets are routinely ignored. What's a tenant to do? Plenty, it turns out. Serious complaints that continue to be ignored may be filed in housing court, but many issues can be handled through mediation between tenants and landlords.
When upstairs neighbors kept a tenant awake all night, the resident appealed to her landlord for relief. The lease for her apartment in the Queens borough of New York City contained a common provision that 75 percent of its floor be covered by carpet. The tenant, who asked to be identified only as "Tina" because of her ongoing landlord issues, gathered some intelligence on her own and confirmed that, indeed, her neighbor was bare-floored -- but not bare-footed.
Tina wrote a series of letters to her landlord, convincing him to perform an inspection and enforce the house rules. When the stomping tenant upstairs refused to cooperate, the landlord started the eviction process. The situation was resolved when the tenant decided to move. Tina, whose second-floor apartment faces a landscaped courtyard, also was bothered by smokers hanging out below her windows. She asked her landlord to enforce a non-smoking policy in the courtyard. She was lucky he did. (He put up the "no smoking" sign pictured at left.)
Tenants should know the difference between a law, a provision of a lease and a nuisance before taking action, said real estate attorney Dean M. Roberts of Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, P.A. Not all are enforceable. And, he warned, people often lose out when the law doesn't keep up with social norms. "The biggest dilemma is with nuisance cases," he said. "Most people are happy to complain to the landlord but are not willing to take a day off and testify, because they're concerned about retaliation."
When the landlord won't cooperate, however, some tenants are forced to take matters into their own hands. Yvette Duran, a long-time renter in Manhattan's East Village, organized a tenant's association in her building when, she said, repeated maintenance requests were ignored. A massive construction project made matters worse, Duran said, with unsafe work conditions added on top of the other problems.
"The hallways were a mess -- they weren't cleaning properly. The garbage wasn't taken care of. They just didn't care," Duran said. (Her hallway is pictured at right after construction work.) "We just wanted to get an agreement that they would be there 9 to 5, keep it clean and be responsible. Then it turned into something bigger and they pretty much forced our hand to go to court." The tenants spent more than a year in housing court and an estimated $70,000 in legal fees.
Duran said that they won a yearlong agreement from the landlord, but as soon as it expired, the conditions worsened. She and her fellow tenants continue to document conditions in case they have to go back to court for a second round of hearings. "We use that to remind them we are still here and we will go back to court if we have to," she said.
What you can legally enforce: Repairs; maintenance; pest abatement; provisions of certain safety features such as carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, as well as window guards; provision of utilities and trash removal; abatement of mold; rodents and pests; lead paint in certain households.
What you can likely enforce: Smoking policies in communal areas; recycling; house rules on pets and carpet coverage; use of laundry facilities and other common areas; provision of mail services; use of illegal substances by other tenants.
What you cannot (easily) enforce: Noise complaints; substance abuse by other tenants in common areas; overcrowding (more occupants than the apartment is intended); some pet policies.
More about tenants' rights:
Who's Responsible for Mold in Your Apartment? (VIDEO)
Gun Owner Sean Blakley Says Landlord Is Evicting Him Over Firearms
Tenants' Rights in Eviction: When Do Landlords Go Too Far?
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