More than a third (34.7%) of homes in the U.S. are rented, and as a group, renters tend to be younger, less white and lower-income than those who own their homes. It also makes them susceptible to disputes with landlords who are often much better informed about rental laws than tenants.
Although there are federal laws about discrimination and disability access, in general tenants’ rights vary from state to state, so it’s vital for consumers to know what their rights are in the state where they’re renting. This is often easier said than done, since many states don’t go out of their way to spell out renters’ rights.
California is an exception, as it is in many areas of consumer protection. Attorney General Rob Bonta recently issued a consumer alert in 24 languages advising California tenants of their rights and protections under state law.
“I know navigating tenant-landlord relationships can be difficult, and many California families are struggling to find safe and affordable housing,” Bonta said. “As a California tenant, you have important rights: You are protected from unjust eviction, eviction without a court order, and large rent hikes. You are also protected from discrimination or retaliation. I urge all Californians to familiarize themselves with their tenant rights, and to seek immediate help if they believe their landlord is violating the law.”
Know your rights in California
- You can only be evicted by court order. It is illegal for a landlord to lock you out, shut off your utilities, or put your things out on the curb to try to force you out.
- You can generally only be evicted for “just cause.” This does not apply if you lived somewhere for less than a year or to some types of housing. A list of “just causes” for eviction is available here.
- Your rent can generally be increased by no more than 10% in one year. Depending on where you live, this cap may be even lower. This cap does not apply to some types of housing. When raising your rent, your landlord must provide formal written notice — a call, text, or email is not enough.
- Your landlord must repair health and safety issues. For example, they must provide safe and working plumbing and heating and keep the premises free from roaches and rats. If there is a health or safety issue, ask your landlord in writing to repair it, and keep copies of your requests.
- Your landlord must return your security deposit. Your landlord must itemize any deductions from your security deposit within 21 days of you moving out. Deductions can be made for things like unpaid rent, cleaning, and repairing damage beyond ordinary wear and tear.
- Your landlord must provide reasonable accommodations if you have a disability. Your landlord must also allow you to make reasonable physical modifications to your rental unit.
- Your landlord cannot discriminate against you. Discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, marital status, income source, veteran status, or certain other characteristics is illegal.
In addition to statewide protections, some cities and counties have additional rental protections, including limits on rent increases and requiring just cause for evictions. Californians should check what protections are in place where they live.
Renters in other states
What about other states? As in most areas of consumer protection, it’s a mixed bag. Laws vary widely and enforcement varies as attorneys general come and go. AGs are elected, usually to four-year terms, and while some — like Bonta — give a lot of attention to consumer protection, others don’t.
- New York has complex laws covering various types of rental housing. A recent update from AG Letitia James explains recent changes.
- Florida, home to many seasonal and year-round renters, has a recent and thorough explanation of rental laws.
- In Illinois, the Bar Association provides a rather legalistic rundown of state rental laws.
- In Mississippi, the best guide we could find came from the state’s Legal Services Association, which serves low-income residents.
- In Iowa, as in Mississippi, the Legal Aid Association provides a rental law guide for consumers.
That’s just a sampling drawn from a few of the largest and smaller states.What about your state? Go to your favorite search engine and type “[state] rental laws.” You’ll find guides for landlords and, maybe, for tenants.
But, you might ask, is there one place you can find the laws for every state? There is, indeed, and it is ipropertymanagement.com, which publishes guides intended for property owners. While their guides are written with landlords in mind, renters can also find the information they’re seeking — and they may even get an insight into the strategies landlords in their state may use to keep tenants in line.
Whatever the state, a renter’s main concerns generally revolve around evictions, security deposits and breaking a lease. Reviewing the laws for your state can help you avoid misunderstandings and disputes.
The most important step is the same as anything else involving a contract: the lease is a contract and it means what it says and it is urgent that you read and understand it. Don’t rely on what anyone tells you, what the landlord or rental agent says — the only things that matter are the lease and the law in your state. Leases must comply with the law and both tenant and landlord must comply with the terms of the lease. It’s as simple as that.
If your state attorney general doesn’t publish an easy-to-understand guide to tenants’ rights and doesn’t have a clear enforcement policy, you might want to ask why and make your voting decision appropriately.