Know Your Renter’s Rights

Learn how to protect yourself in landlord–tenant disputes

Rachel Mixon (Photo by John Bashian)
Rachel Mixon (Photo by John Bashian)

In February 2010, Rachel Mixon of Cleveland was disgusted to find sewage seeping into her apartment through her toilet. When her landlord refused to fix the problem, the 46-year-old contacted the Cleveland Tenants Organization, a group that helped her fight for her rights. Mixon documented and photographed the sewage, then followed up with local authorities, including health inspectors and the Cleveland office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). A couple of months later, after the city and HUD intervened, her landlord agreed to make renovations, though legal issues continue with the case. Mixon, the mother of a 9-year-old son, Darren, serves as vice president of her building’s tenant’s council.

The lesson Mixon learned is that every tenant should know his or her rights as a renter, and what to do in the case of infringement. These rights vary by local jurisdiction, so check with your tenant association, municipality’s website, state attorney general, or local HUD office, says Ron Leshnower,’s Apartment Living/Rental guide and president of

With more people renting homes and apartments, it is important that you know your rights since landlord–tenant disputes are common. In fact, the Fair Housing Council of Orange County, California, reports that 22,000 landlord–tenant disputes are resolved there each year. Among the most common disputes are repair and maintenance issues as well as unreturned security deposits, says Bill Deegan, executive director of Renter Nation, an organization that advocates for renters’ rights.

Common Rights Every Renter Should Know
The right to your security deposit.
While a lease may require a security deposit, you should expect to get that money back when you move out if you haven’t caused any damage beyond reasonable wear and tear, says Leshnower.

The right to a fair eviction. Tenants should be given ample notice—typically 30 to 60 days—to vacate the premises. If a landlord does not follow that jurisdiction’s eviction rules and shuts off utilities, locks you out prematurely, or fails to go through the sheriff’s office, it’s called a ”self-help eviction,” which is illegal.

The right to safe and habitable living conditions. Tenants have the right to live in safe and sanitary conditions, such as buildings that are structurally sound with running hot and cold water. If a hazardous condition such as fire damage makes your apartment uninhabitable, you may have the right to break your lease, says Christal E. Edwards, a Largo, Maryland-based attorney.

The right to privacy. In most states, landlords must give tenants notice before entering their apartments unless it’s an emergency, such as a serious water leak. For example, in New York, if a landlord enters your premises to make repairs without giving you notice, your rights have been violated.

Fighting Back If Your Rights Are Violated
Put it in writing.
Make your landlord aware of the problem. Send a certified letter. Explain your grievance and indicate what portion of your lease the landlord has violated, says Edwards. Also indicate a date when you expect your grievance to have been addressed.

Seek HUD help. If you suspect a landlord of breaking the Fair Housing Act, contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development by filling out the housing discrimination form at HUD will
take on your case free of charge.

Get legal counsel. Hire a lawyer experienced with landlord–tenant issues plus Fair Housing law, says Akita M. Smith-Evans, an equal opportunity specialist investigator for the District of Columbia Office of Human Rights. Attorneys often charge $200 to $300 an hour, so it’s costly. A one-time consultation might help you determine what steps you can take on your own, or you may find an attorney willing to do pro-bono work to help you, Smith-Evans suggests. She also recommends contacting your local human rights or civil rights commission if you believe discrimination is involved.

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