Renters' rights, explained
The Biden administration announced new federal actions to protect tenants as rent prices continue to climb. What rights do renters have already?
About 35 percent of the U.S. population lives in a rented accomodation, according to the White House. That amounts to about 44 million households. Many of these people are subject to the ongoing rental affordability crisis: Costs are "soaring at the fastest pace in more than three decades," writes Bloomberg. This, combined with a shortage of properties, is "giving landlords the leverage" to increase rents. Eviction bans have also lapsed, and evictions are on the rise.
The Biden administration recently announced new federal actions to protect renters as rent prices continue to climb. The announcement is part of a larger plan to protect access to safe, affordable housing that includes a proposed blueprint for a renters' bill of rights. Though there isn't a set of federal laws that control the rental market, renters are still protected by various state and local ordinances. Here are six rights that renters already have.
Right to fair housing
The only federal law that protects tenants' rights in the U.S. is Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, commonly known as the Fair Housing Act. The law, and its 1988 amendment, prohibits landlords and rental companies from denying prospective renters housing based on race, religion, sex (including gender and sexuality), age, nationality, family status, or physical disability. It ensures that tenants have fair and equal access to safe and habitable rentals. The Fair Housing Act also makes it illegal to refuse to make reasonable accommodations or modifications for people with disabilities, such as installing ramps. Additionally, HUD enforces Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability by public and private entities that lease places of public accommodation.
Similarly, the Violence Against Women Act protects renters from discrimination if they are survivors of domestic or dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking. The name of the law is a misnomer, as it applies to any survivor "regardless of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity." When Biden reauthorized the law in March 2022, Congress required HUD to enforce and implement the act's housing provisions. Tenants can lodge complaints of housing discrimination with HUD's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, which enforces the housing discrimination laws at the federal level. If you are denied housing due to your credit history, you have the right to submit a written request for an explanation from the landlord, per the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970.
Right to a safe and clean home
Most state and local governments require landlords to provide tenants with a habitable residence. To meet the "implied warranty of habitability," landlords must comply with health and safety codes. That means renters have the right to live in a safe, clean home with functioning heat, utilities, and water systems. "Your landlord is required to make any necessary repairs to keep your unit in reasonable condition while you live there," writes former attorney Brette Sember for LegalZoom. Depending on the local and state codes, the warranty of habitability could include exterminating pests, keeping common areas clean, maintaining elevators, disclosing the presence of lead-based paint in buildings built before 1978, and taking precautions against criminal activity.
Right to privacy
Renters also have a right to privacy in the homes they lease, which means they have to receive reasonable notice from landlords or property managers before entering unless it is an emergency. "Landlords are not entitled to go through your unit and belongings at will," legal information website Justia.com explains. Some state laws entitle renters to between 24- and 48-hours notice for maintenance or any other property visits, while others only require the notice to be reasonable. Your lease might outline different situations for which the landlord may enter the apartment after giving notice, such as showing the apartment to prospective tenants or buyers. Sometimes, if an inspector or police officer requests access to the apartment, the landlord may accompany them without the tenant's consent. "Inspections sometimes lead to fees," Justia.com says, "especially if the inspector finds a violation."
Right to advance eviction notices
Landlords may be legally allowed to evict you if you break the agreements in your lease, including failing to pay rent, having unauthorized people or animals on the premises, or committing a crime. They can also choose to evict tenants whose leases have expired. As a tenant, you are entitled to be notified in advance of an eviction claim and given time to remedy what you've done to breach the lease, like paying back the rent you owe. The length of required notice can vary from 30 to 90 days depending on state eviction laws, but "if you have violated your rental agreement," explains Investopedia, "it can be as short as three to five days." If you don't fix the problem that led to the eviction notice, the landlord can file an eviction proceeding against you in court. You are entitled to be notified of this and should have a chance to file a response in your defense.
Security deposit rights
Tenants also have rights surrounding security deposits governed by state laws. Landlords are required to return the deposit to renters after the lease ends. Some states have rules that dictate the timeline needed for the return of the funds and laws concerning interest rates attached to the security deposits, "which is why every renter should be aware of their local rental ordinances," writes Realtor.com's Avail. If the landlord uses the deposit for repairs, the renter is entitled to a written explanation of how the money was spent. Landlords are also not allowed to charge some renters more for their security deposit than others without reason. They can't make unnecessary deductions from the deposit for repairs that are not the renter's fault or keep the money for themselves.
Right to quiet enjoyment
Renters also have the right to quiet enjoyment, also known as the "covenant of quiet enjoyment" in most lease agreements, per Cornell Law School. This protects the renter's right to enjoy the rental property without disruptions or unwarranted interference, such as unannounced maintenance or noisy neighbors. It is the landlord's responsibility to enforce this agreement to maintain the peace, and sometimes do so with mandatory quiet hours or instituting a smoke-free building policy.