If a landlord does not provide certain things for you that cause a serious problem, such as a working sewer system, heat in cold weather, or drinkable water, the landlord may be violating the “warranty of habitability.” In these situations, you have the right to end your lease and move out.
• Do not just leave. If you plan to move out, you should first write to your landlord to briefly explain the problems. Ask that the problems be fixed within a reasonable period of time. Try to be brief, but include some details of the problem. For example,
“Since the neighbor moved out two months ago, we have seen an infestation of cockroaches. We have asked you to call an exterminator, but you have not done so. My child’s doctor says this may be what is making her asthma worse.”
“None of the radiators are working on the second floor. Because of that it is very cold and uncomfortable. We are afraid the pipes will freeze.”
• Set a reasonable deadline for the repair. Keep a copy of your letter. (There are sample letters on the website).
If the landlord does not fix the problems within a reasonable time, plan your move.
When you know when you will be moving out, write to your landlord again to tell him that he has violated the warranty of habitability because the landlord did not fix these problems and, as a result, you are moving out. You may also want to request your security deposit back and some back rent for the time the conditions were bad.
Send or deliver the letter when you know you are moving out. Always take pictures to show that you have not left behind trash or damaged the home. Also take pictures of the conditions you complained about, if possible.
Withholding rent may be appropriate for you only if:
• you cannot afford to pay for the repairs, and
• your problems are so serious that your home is uninhabitable.
But be careful, withholding the rent is often not the most appropriate choice and many courts do not look favorably on it. While you are withholding rent you should be looking for another place to live, because the landlord may then try to evict you for nonpayment of rent.
Examples of what would not be appropriate problems for withholding rent are torn carpeting, leaky faucets, toilets that won’t stop running, cracked walls, or a small or minor amount of insects or rodents. Examples of what may be appropriate are no hot water, no heat in the winter, dangerous conditions in the structure of your home, a seriously malfunctioning sewage system, or a serious infestation of rodents or insects.
The safest way to withhold rent to try to get the landlord to improve conditions is to put the rent money into a separate bank account from your other funds. This way, if your landlord tries to evict you or sue you for the money, you can prove to the court that you were not using the money for another purpose. • The first step in this process would be to write to your landlord to tell them about your problem(s) and ask your landlord to fix it. Do not skip this step— you must tell your landlord in writing, even if you’ve already told them before about the problem.
• Be detailed about the problem— explain how seriously it affects your family’s home, life, health, safety, cleanliness, etc. If you can, also take pictures of the problem.
• Always keep copies of all your letters.
• Give your landlord a reasonable time to do the repairs.
• If no repairs are made, write the landlord again. Tell the landlord that because he has not fixed your problem, your home is uninhabitable and, therefore, you intend to withhold your rent. (There are sample letters on the website).
• Do not spend the rent money. Put the money into a separate account (escrow account). You can ask your local bank how to do this. This way, if your landlord takes you to court and wins a judgment against you for nonpayment of rent, you will have the money to pay it back.
Repair and Deduct may be a good solution for you if:
• You don’t want to move,
• Your problem is something specific that a repair person can fix, and
• The repairs will cost less than what you pay for your monthly rent. If you have already called or texted the landlord about the repair, but gotten no response, you must write to your landlord about the conditions that need to be repaired. Do not skip this step — you must put it in writing so that the landlord is aware of the situation, even if you’ve already talked about it many times. (There are sample letters on the website).
• Be brief but detailed about the problem — explain how it affects your family’s home, health, safety or cleanliness. If you can, also take pictures and/or videos of the problem.
• Always keep copies of all your letters.
• Give your landlord a reasonable time to do the repairs.
If the landlord doesn’t respond to your request, call around and get about three written estimates of how much the repairs will cost. Write the landlord again and let the landlord know that you plan to get it fixed yourself and to subtract the cost from your rent. Choose the most reasonably priced company. Remember, you can only use the repair and deduct option if you can pay for the repairs yourself and they cost less than a month’s rent.
Before you get the repairs done, take pictures or video and make sure that other people have seen the problem and its effects. You want to have proof that the problem was serious in case you need to go to court. In addition, it would be helpful to ask the repair people to describe the problems in their written estimates or receipts.
When you get the repairs done, get a receipt. Then, when it is time to pay rent, write to your landlord again to tell them that you got the repairs done and how much money you spent. Give your landlord a copy of your receipt and subtract the amount you paid for repairs from your usual rent amount. Pay your landlord the difference for your next month’s rent. Important: only spend the money on the repairs, not on anything else. The next month you must go back to paying your usual amount.
There are many ways to get your landlord to make necessary repairs or deal with the problem yourself if that does not work. Most landlords will respond to maintenance requests and have a procedure for making sure repairs are made timely. When they do not respond to your reasonable requests, you should consider all your options.
Warranty of Habitability
The “warranty of habitability” is a guarantee that the landlord must provide safe and sanitary conditions in the rental unit. It is implied by law into every residential lease. It does not mean that the housing was inspected and/or approved to meet local housing standards. It just means that if the landlord does not provide basic conditions to ensure that the place is safe and sanitary, the landlord can be held responsible.
The landlord must provide drinkable water, heat, a working sewer system, a working electrical system, a working smoke detector, a working lock for your outside door, a place not infested with insects and/or rodents, and a safe structure both inside and outside the home. While it may be a tenant’s responsibility to pay for certain utilities, for example, the landlord must make sure the wires and pipes are in good working order.
Complain to local Code Enforcement or Health Bureau
Many areas have local Code Enforcement Officers and/or Health Inspectors whose job it is to make sure that landlords meet the requirements of the building codes. Some municipalities require the landlord to obtain a certificate of occupancy before a property is leased, which may have included an inspection. If your landlord is not providing a safe and sanitary place, then you should call your local Code Enforcement Office or Health Inspector. In rural areas, contact the township or municipal office for the name of the housing officer or Pennsylvania agency responsible for inspection of residential property.
Landlords can’t treat people with disabilities differently. That means it is illegal to refuse to rent to someone with a disability or ask someone with a disability to do more than someone without a disability.
Fair housing laws say who qualifies as someone with a disability. Someone has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment that limits their ability to do a major life activity. A major life activity includes walking, seeing, hearing, breathing, learning or taking care of yourself. You can qualify as someone with a disability even if you do not get disability benefits from the Social Security Administration.
The goal of fair housing laws is to let people with disabilities live independently in the community. Persons with disabilities have extra protections under fair housing laws to allow them to live independently. There are two types of extra protections, one is called a reasonable modification and one is called a reasonable accommodation.
What if I need to modify something in my rental unit?
A reasonable modification is a change to the structure of an apartment or house. An example would be installing a ramp to the front door for someone who cannot climb stairs. Other examples are installing grab bars, an accessible shower or a fire alarm with flashing lights.
Usually tenants must pay for the reasonable modification. A landlord must pay if the landlord receives money from the federal government. Also, a landlord must pay if the building was built after March 13, 1991 and the building does not meet fair housing accessibility rules.
You should ask your landlord’s permission before you make any modifications. Your landlord should give you permission to make the modifications. The modifications should be done in a workmanlike manner. Your landlord cannot ask you for an extra security deposit. You may have to pay to take out the modifications before you move out. You may have to put money in an escrow account to show your landlord you can afford to take out the modifications.
What is a reasonable accommodation?
A reasonable accommodation is a change or exception to a rule. The rule can be a lease term, a landlord’s policy or a landlord’s practice. An example would be the landlord assigning a parking space to a tenant with a disability when the other spaces are “first come, first served.” Another example would be a landlord allowing you to have an assistance animal even though the building does not allow pets.
You can ask for a reasonable modification or reasonable accommodation at any time. You can ask when you apply for the apartment. You can ask when you move in. You can also ask while you are living there. You can ask if your landlord is evicting you for something related to your disability.
You do not have to ask for a reasonable modification or reasonable accommodation in writing. It is best if you ask in writing so you have proof. Write the date on the letter. Keep a copy of the letter, email or text. There is a sample reasonable accommodation request letter at the end of this handbook.
Your landlord can ask for proof that you have a disability and that your request is related to your disability. But your landlord cannot ask for proof if your disability is obvious. Your landlord cannot ask for your diagnosis or for your medical records.
Your landlord should give you an answer about your request. Your landlord may be violating the law if your landlord does not give you an answer within a reasonable time.
Your landlord can deny your request if it would cause your landlord an undue financial and administrative burden. Your landlord can also deny your request if it would be a fundamental alteration of your landlord’s services. Fair housing laws do not protect tenants who are a direct threat to the health or safety of other people.
What is the requirement for accessibility?
Newer multi-family housing must be accessible to people with disabilities. Requirements for buildings with four or more units built after March 13, 1991 are:
• Public and common areas must be accessible to persons with disabilities
• Doors and hallways must be wide enough for wheelchairs
• All units must have an accessible route into and through the unit; accessible light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls; reinforced bathroom walls to allow later installation of grab bars; and kitchens and bathrooms that can be used by people in wheelchairs. If a building with four or more units does not have an elevator, the requirements listed above apply to units on the ground floor. These requirements for new buildings do not replace any stricter standards in state or local law.
Your lease will say who is allowed to live in your home. If you want to have someone else move in or stay with you for an extended period of time, you should ask the landlord for permission. The landlord may want to raise the rent for additional people. If the landlord agrees to let someone else move in either permanently or temporarily, you should get that agreement in writing.
If you are pregnant or have to add a child to the lease, please review the fair housing section of this booklet carefully. A landlord covered by fair housing laws may not discriminate against a pregnant family member or a family for adding a child to the lease if they are the parent, legal custody or designee of the parent. This includes foster children and grandchildren. Discrimination could include the landlord saying the family has to move out because there isn’t enough room for everyone.
Sometimes, a tenant becomes disabled and needs a caretaker to stay with them all or part of the time. The tenant may be able to make a request to allow that person to move in, as a reasonable accommodation of their disability. If the tenant lives in public housing, the caretaker’s income should not be included as part of the household for rent calculation purposes.
If you are having problems with other tenants bothering you, report the problem to your landlord in writing. It is always best to keep a copy of any letter that you send to your landlord. Explain the problem and ask your landlord to address the situation. Short and clear letters are most effective. If you don’t hear from your landlord within a few days, follow up with another letter. Hopefully, the landlord will have spoken with the tenants and advised them to stop the bothersome behavior.
In some instances, the landlord will not address the problem and then it is up to you if you want to continue to stay in the apartment. If you feel other tenants are threatening you, you may need to call the police or file a private criminal complaint at the local magisterial district court.
Remember, you are bound to the terms of the lease so if you break it and move because of problems with other tenants, the landlord may take action against you. If the landlord goes to court, you will need to show the judge that the landlord was violating the lease by failing to enforce your right to quiet enjoyment of the property. It is important to have evidence that you did everything you could to get the landlord’s help and resolve the situation before moving out.
What if I think the landlord is discriminating against me because of my gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation?
The landlord may be violating fair housing laws if the landlord is treating you differently because you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). This includes a landlord not renting to a transgender applicant. It also includes a real estate agent refusing to work with a same-sex couple because of their sexual orientation. There are a patchwork of laws that cover discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. You have more protections if you rent from a housing authority or if your landlord receives federal funding. You should talk with a lawyer to see if your situation is covered.
Fair housing laws prohibit sexual harassment, considering it a type of sex discrimination. This means that it is illegal for a landlord to demand sexual favors in exchange for housing or for making repairs. It is also illegal for a landlord to create or allow a hostile housing environment through sexual harassment. A hostile housing environment means that a landlord, landlord’s employee, or agent engages in unwelcome sexual behavior that either creates an intimating, hostile, or abusive housing environment or unreasonably interferes with a tenant’s housing. You can file a fair housing complaint against your landlord if they are covered by fair housing laws.
As a tenant, you are entitled to the peaceful use and quiet enjoyment of the property you are renting. This means that unless your lease says otherwise or there is a serious emergency, your landlord should not come onto the property without your permission.
The landlord, as owner, is entitled to have keys to your apartment. However, this does not mean that the landlord can enter at any time. The lease may have a term allowing for entry into the apartment by the owner to make repairs, perform inspections, or show the property to buyers or prospective tenants.
Generally, if repairs are needed, the landlord should give you at least 24 hours’ notice. If you want to be home at that time, you may need to rearrange your schedule. If you don’t care if you are home or not, you can give the landlord permission to enter.
In an emergency, such as burst water pipes or smoke detectors activated, your landlord has the right to enter to deal with the situation. The landlord should inform you by calling, texting or leaving a note. If you have reason to believe someone was in your apartment, contact the landlord and discuss the situation right away