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FAQ About Landlord-Tenant Law

Q: Does the Fair Housing Act prohibit discrimination against minorities?

A: Yes. Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (Fair Housing Act) makes it unlawful for a landlord or property owner to discriminate against potential renters (or homebuyers) on the basis of their race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability. The Act prohibits a variety of improper activities, including, among many others, lying about the availability of property, charging more rent to minorities, or attempting to keep neighborhoods or other areas free of minorities.

Q: Do gays and lesbians have a right to live in an apartment together?

A: Currently no federal law specifically prohibits discrimination in rental housing on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation. Some states and communities, however, do protect the right of gays, lesbians and transgender individuals in housing opportunities. For example, some states make it illegal for a landlord to evict a tenant based upon their sexual orientation or to prohibit them from renting an apartment. The protections afforded, if any, depend greatly on the state in which the action has occurred.

Q: Can a landlord go to jail if they violate the Fair Housing Act?

A: Yes, in certain situations. If a landlord or property owner used threats, intimidation, harassment techniques or engaged in physical confrontations or violence to prohibit an individual or family from renting a particular property, a court may decide to punish them. This punishment may include the payment of a fine, jail time or both depending upon the severity of the particular case.

Q: What can happen if a tenant doesn’t pay rent when it is due?

A: Initially, a compassionate landlord may simply make repeated requests for payment of rent. If the problem continues the landlord may take a tenant to court for payment of back rent and may also commence a lawsuit to have the tenant physically removed (evicted) from the property.

Q: What is the purpose of a security deposit?

A: A security deposit is required in a rental situation to protect the interests and the property of the landlord or owner. The deposit provides a monetary fund from which the landlord can deduct late rent and, most commonly, from which they can fund repairs or replacement of damaged property after the lease or rental agreement is terminated and the tenant leaves the dwelling. In many states, a specific law governs the maximum amount of a security deposit which may be required (usually one or two month’s rent) and the circumstances under which a landlord may withhold a portion, or all, of a security deposit.

Q: Why is it important to have a lease or rental agreement in writing?

A: A lease or a rental agreement is a contract which legally binds both a landlord and a tenant to certain rights and obligations. When a rental agreement or lease is merely discussed and never put to paper, the parties can later have a difficult time agreeing on specific terms (such as the amount of rent or what utilities are included) or general items (expectations for cleanliness, etc.). If an agreement is made in writing there is usually more clarity, which is good for both sides.

Q: Can a landlord take matters into their own hands to evict a tenant?

A: The short answer is yes, they can. The long answer, however, is that it is often illegal and can lead to a host of problems. These actions can result in extra penalties and court costs for the landlord. When a landlord skirts the legal requirements of providing notice of termination of a lease and the commencement of eviction proceedings, and instead starts throwing a tenant’s stereo out the window, they are committing an illegal “self-help” eviction. Taking matters into their own hands is never a good solution for landlords.

Q: Does a landlord have to repaint my apartment?

A: Maybe. A landlord does not have to make aesthetic changes to an apartment. So, if you really don’t like the mauve walls in the kitchen, you can ask the landlord to repaint (or ask if you may repaint them yourself), but he or she is not required to agree. If paint is peeling or severely cracked, or if there is mold or mildew present, then the landlord may be required to clean, repair and repaint the walls, however.

Q: Can I make my landlord vacuum my apartment?

A: No. The responsibility for cleaning and general maintenance of an apartment falls to the tenant. A landlord is required to keep an apartment safe and habitable; for example, if the problem is a large hole in the ceiling caused by an overflowing toilet from an upstairs unit, the landlord will have to fix the situation. A landlord also has to maintain common areas such as hallways, laundry rooms and parking lots in safe and habitable conditions, but not maintain cleanliness within individual units.

Q: Can a landlord come into my apartment whenever they want?

A: Generally speaking, no. A landlord has a right to enter rental units in the case of emergency or to make repairs. Usually, in the case of repairs, they are required to ask permission or to provide advance notice before entering. State law often governs the requirements of this notice.

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