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How Can a Tenant's Rights Lawyer Help Me With My Landlord?

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In a Nutshell

Renters have to deal with landlord-tenant disputes more often than anyone should. Although the law won't help in every situation, it’s good to know what it can help with. In this article, we’ll cover some of the important federal and state laws that protect tenants and explain how a tenant lawyer can help resolve landlord-tenant disputes.

Written by Natasha Wiebusch, J.D.
Updated November 11, 2021

What would you do if your landlord refused to fix your heater in the middle of winter or if you discovered dangerous lead paint in your apartment? Can you tell your landlord to leave if they come in without giving you notice? What happens if a discriminatory landlord won’t even give you a lease?

Renters have to deal with landlord-tenant disputes more often than anyone should. Although the law won't help in every situation, it’s good to know what it can help with. In this article, we’ll cover some of the important federal and state laws that protect tenants and explain how a tenant lawyer can help resolve landlord-tenant disputes.

How Federal Law Protects Tenants

If you have a landlord-tenant issue, most of the laws governing your legal issue will likely be state laws. This is because property rights are usually governed by state law. However, there are some important federal laws that protect renters, including the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

The Fair Housing Act (FHA)

The FHA is a federal law that protects renters and other individuals involved in housing-related activities against discrimination. Specifically, the FHA prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status, and disability. To comply with this federal law, landlords can't make housing unavailable, create different terms, or provide different services or facilities because of a person's identity.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)

The FCRA regulates how credit bureaus collect the information that will ultimately create your credit score. It also gives you consumer rights. This law is important because it prevents landlords from obtaining your credit report without “permissible purpose.”  Under this rule, landlords can check your credit before approving a lease application, but they can’t check your credit while you’re living there just because they want to start an eviction process.

Landlords also report to credit bureaus. Credit bureaus are the agencies that calculate your credit score. If you suspect your landlord reported incorrect information to the credit bureaus, it’s very important that you check your credit report since errors could harm your score. Under the FCRA, you have the right to obtain a free credit report once every 12 months.

Environmental Laws Requiring Disclosure

The federal government has also passed several environmental laws that require landlords to disclose information to renters about environmental hazards in their buildings. By law, landlords must tell renters any information they have about any known potential lead-based paint hazards on the property. They must also provide renters with information about lead hazards and include language specific to lead in their rental agreement.

Asbestos is a hazardous substance that is known to cause cancer. There are no federal guidelines that require landlords to disclose the potential existence of asbestos to renters, but landlords are responsible for locating any asbestos on the property.

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Tenants’ Rights Under State Law

State landlord-tenant laws mostly deal with the tenant’s rights to the property itself after they've signed the lease agreement. State laws deal with issues like getting your security deposit back, eviction procedures, and how and when your landlord can enter your home. Below is a list of legal issues that are usually governed by state law.

1. Lease Agreements

The lease agreement is the document that governs the landlord-tenant relationship. State laws govern what kinds of terms can and cannot be in leases. For example, landlords can’t ask California tenants to give up their security deposit in a lease agreement.

State laws also govern what kinds of disclosures about the property or rent the landlord must make and to what extent the landlord can limit their responsibility through the lease agreement. 

2. Privacy

State laws determine when and how a landlord can legally enter your apartment. In most states, landlords have to give you notice before they can enter your apartment for repairs or for an inspection.

3. Rent Increases

Many states and cities have laws governing rent, including rent control laws. These laws prevent landlords from raising rent above either a certain maximum amount or a certain percentage. State laws also govern which properties are considered affordable housing. There are also special laws that provide tax breaks to rental property owners who agree to use some of their rental units for affordable housing.

4. Eviction Process

Eviction procedures are determined by state law. The eviction process is a legal action that occurs in court, so landlords have to follow certain rules to respect the tenant’s rights in the eviction process. If the landlord doesn’t follow the eviction process laws, they can be found guilty of wrongful eviction.

These laws will determine how and when the landlord must send you an eviction notice, what kind of legal rights you have to remove your property, and how much time you will have to stay in the property.

5. Habitability

Landlords are responsible for ensuring their housing is habitable. That means there are no issues impacting the living conditions that are severe enough to make the property uninhabitable. This includes severe mold damage that the landlord won't repair. State law will determine what remedies are available to tenants in this situation. For example, in some cases, tenants receive reimbursements for expenses they incurred making necessary repairs.

6. Tenant Obligations

State law will determine what the tenant’s obligations are to their landlord. For example, tenants must pay rent on time, cannot purposely damage the property, and must pay for any damage discovered during an inspection.

Although the laws controlling the landlord-tenant relationship generally depend on the state, many states have adopted the same landlord-tenant law, called the Uniform Residential Landlord-Tenant Act. Even though these states have adopted the same law, the way they interpret the law can differ depending on the case law in the state.

Tenant Rights Lawyers

If you have a legal issue involving a landlord, you should seek the legal advice of a tenant lawyer. A tenant lawyer will have experience with all the laws mentioned in this article as they apply in your state and city. They will be able to provide you with the legal help you need by representing you in a wrongful eviction action, helping you get your security deposit back, challenging an unfair term in your lease agreement, and protecting your legal rights in other ways.

Tenant rights attorneys will also know about local tenants’ unions and other resources that can help with tenant matters. It’s important to distinguish between these community resources and a law firm. A law firm can provide legal services and advice. Other community resources, on the other hand, will likely only be able to provide general information and self-help forms that you can use to represent yourself. Common self-help forms include a discrimination complaint or a request for your security deposit.

Let’s Summarize…

Whether you’re experiencing a wrongful eviction or just a stubborn landlord who doesn’t want to fix your dishwasher, landlord-tenant issues can be stressful. There are two federal laws in addition to state laws that provide protections for tenants. If you’re having issues with your landlord, a tenant lawyer can help, and they’ll usually give you a free consultation.

Written By:

Natasha Wiebusch, J.D.


Natasha started her career as a lawyer representing labor unions and other investors in multi-state class action lawsuits. Passionate about the civil rights elements of her cases, she moved into practicing employment law to represent employees against discrimination of various ki... read more about Natasha Wiebusch, J.D.

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