It’s Cold Out There—So if You’re a Tenant Know Your Rights
Welcome to winter in all its glory: snow and ice and subzero temperatures when the wind chill decides to kick in, as it did most of the last week—and as it’s sure to do again. Accompanying these feats of the elements are frozen pipes and broken furnaces or, if you live in an old, drafty house, the need to hang blankets from doorways and use a blow dryer to adhere plastic to your windows. Otherwise, all your heat will escape even if the wood stove or fireplace is in good working order.
“Fine,” you say, “but tell that to my landlord. He’s threatening to evict me if I don’t pay my rent—and I won’t pay it because I’ve been without water for a week and haven’t had heat in three days. I finally bundled up my kids and took them to my mother’s, after my three-year-old came down with pneumonia from being in a cold apartment.”
I read an email quite like this one recently, from a single parent I’ll call “Jane” in West Virginia. Jane read my memoir and wondered if I had any suggestions. As I typed my reply, 25-year-old memories as fresh as yesterday jumped to the forefront of my mind.
I was then a 28-year-old single mother myself, confronting a different water problem: sometimes it came out of the spigot an ugly orange, other times a brackish shade. No matter the hue, it always smelled like rotten eggs. The worst part, however, was that it ruined our clothing.
The landlord told me, in essence, to live with it.
Right! You try carting dirty clothes for a family of five while simultaneously dragging four little ones into a laundromat and see how much fun it is—especially when four of the five are age 10 and younger. And that doesn’t even count my financial outlay, which cut into my already meager income.
Instead, I withheld rent and sued him in magistrate court—where I won, because tenants have something called “rights.” They are very similar to employee rights, in the sense that tenants cannot sign them away.
What does that mean? Just this: even if you signed a lease that says, in effect, “The wiring is bad but if the house burns down, you have to pay the landlord for the damages,” the law will not hold you responsible. Essentially, that portion of the contract is null and void, even if you signed it.
Clearly, I am exaggerating. But you get the point: a landlord can’t write up a lease that holds you responsible for his putting you up in a place that could essentially be a firetrap.
I guess I should give you this quick disclaimer: I am not an attorney. (Although I did sign up to take the LSAT once.) I am merely an author, who happens to know her rights as a tenant. That’s because I love doing research, so when I grew frustrated with my landlord, I began digging away at the library (Remember, this was before the Internet, folks.), until I came up with the state code for West Virginia. And there it was, in Chapter 37, Article 6, in bolded letters: “§37-6-30. Landlord to deliver premises; duty to maintain premises in fit and habitable condition.”
The longer I read, the more excited I became because, guess what? Landlords can get away with a lot, but not as much as they often lead you, the tenant, to believe. In fact, the law frowns on landlords who let tenants live in unsafe or uninhabitable (meaning it isn’t comfortable or clean enough to live in) buildings. West Virginia state law says as much, as I’m sure every other state in the country does. (In Massachusetts, the law even stipulates that during winter the heat inside a rental property can be no less than something like 68-degrees.)
States do this to protect us, people who are consumers, because if they didn’t, many bad landlords would do whatever they want, without fear of reprisal, and their tenants would be stuck. States also do this because safety is a basic human right. If you are without heat or water, your rights are being violated.
That being said, you don’t need an attorney if you are living in a place that is unsafe or unsanitary. You just need to know your rights.
So let’s say you’re like Jane, who has been without water for a week, and heat almost as long. And to make it even more exciting, let’s say you, again like Jane, refuse to pay rent until your landlord fixes the problems. Of course, your landlord, great guy (or gal) that he is, might threaten to evict you. What do you do?
You could use the money you would have paid for rent to pay a plumber or electrician, to fix the problems. Then you present the landlord with copies of those expenses, by way of an explanation for where your rent money went.
You can also head down to your local court. Here in West Virginia, that’s magistrate court. There you ask to file paperwork charging your landlord with neglect and endangerment. (If you don’t have much income, they will even waive the filing fee, so don’t forget to ask about that, too.) And please, consider citing a financial number if you feel he owes you for damages. For instance, Jane would include the amount of her child’s hospital bill, lost wages if she had to miss work due to the landlord’s negligence, and, if she paid someone to repair the furnace, she should include that amount, too.
To do this, you must keep copies of the receipts showing those expenses were legitimate. It’s also important to document any phone calls to and from your landlord, any professionals you hired to fix the problems, and anything in writing (Please, put all correspondence with your landlord in writing, such as an email, so you have a paper trail showing you notified him of the problem!) that shows you’ve done your part, but the landlord simply refuses to do his. Which means you had no choice but to take matters into your own hands.
Yes, your landlord may try to evict you. He may even succeed, eventually. But the law is on your side—even more so if you have children or someone with a serious medical condition living in your home. Here’s the real kicker, though: if you refuse to pay rent because of a serious problem and/or you file a complaint about your landlord and he threatens eviction, that’s called retaliation. It’s illegal in most states, and your state attorney general’s office would love to hear about it.
To be on the safe side, though, it would not hurt to keep your eyes open for a better place with a better landlord, so that if and when you are evicted, you don’t have to go live with Aunt Bessie or sleep in your car. (Trust me, if you have little ones, sleeping in your car will make hades look like a cool dip in the pool. Don’t even try it, especially in wintertime.)
Throughout all your interactions, your landlord may get ugly, but that doesn’t mean you have to. Maintain a professional, courteous tone of voice at all times—even if, like Jane, you could scream because your three-year-old’s coughing is so bad you’re afraid the child’s going to die. Trust me, having your blood pressure rise out of control will only make you feel worse.
Finally, most landlords don’t want to go to court any more than you do, so sometimes all it takes is politely telling your landlord (again, in writing) you know the law requires he fix any serious problem such as being without heat or water. Then ask him to do this, and say what you will do if he refuses to act.
In the end, that’s the best way to handle it. But if you’ve got a stubborn landlord, sometimes going to court—or at least filing a complaint—is your only option.
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I have four books. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and Sister of Silence placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”