When there's a dispute between a tenant and a landlord in Pennsylvania, the state's landlord/tenant laws give rights to both parties. For example, a tenant can withhold rent if there are unsafe or uninhabitable conditions on the rental property and a landlord can withhold full or part of a renter's security deposit if they damage a unit beyond normal wear and tear. If the tenant decides to withhold rent, they should put everything in writing, as the landlord may try to evict them.
Implied Warranty of Habitability in Pennsylvania
In 1979, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that landlords renting to tenants must provide them with a living space that is sanitary, safe and reasonably comfortable. This is known as the "implied warranty of habitability." The landlord cannot waive it because it is the law. Most states have some form of this law, but the types of buildings it covers and what problems it addresses vary from state to state.
In Pennsylvania, the law covers single-family homes, multi-family homes and mobile home parks. It does not address hotels or motels, RVs, or fraternity, sorority or club houses.
Problems Included in the Implied Warranty of Habitability
The implied warranty of habitability covers only serious problems with a property. If floors, walls, doors, windows or other parts of a unit or property are functional, but have normal wear and tear, the implied warranty of habitability does not cover those issues. In Pennsylvania, it covers problems, such as:
- No hot or cold running water.
- Nonworking sewage system.
- Inability to securely lock rental unit.
- Lack of heat during winter months.
- Rodent or insect infestations.
- Leaking roof.
- Unsafe doors, handrails, porches and stairs.
- Faulty electrical wiring that could cause fires.
- Lack of electricity
- Lack of food storage due to a broken refrigeration unit, if landlord claims responsibility for refrigerator under the lease.
- Unsafe structural issues that make it dangerous to occupy the unit or common areas.
City Rent Withholding Act
Pennsylvania landlord-tenant law allows tenants to withhold their rent if a landlord is in violation of any of these stated issues. However, they just can't stop paying their rent; they must follow the legal process. The tenant must first inform the landlord of the problem in writing and give them a reasonable amount of time as well as access to the unit to fix it.
If the landlord fails to correct the problem, the tenant must then give the landlord written notice that they will withhold their rental payments. Pennsylvania does not mandate notice from a landlord to a tenant before entering their rental unit.
The City Rent Withholding Act calls for a state government agency to certify that one of the problems listed above has rendered a unit or property uninhabitable. This certification puts pressure on the landlord to complete the repairs and adds credibility to the tenant's complaint. Tenants can withhold rent without this certification, but they should have a paper trail, as well as pictures and videos to further establish credibility.
How Much Rent to Withhold
Pennsylvania state law does not have a set rule on just how much rent a tenant can withhold. The Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania suggests that tenants calculate how much to keep by figuring out how much of their residence they can't use and for how long they can avoid using it. A court may follow a similar formula, which it will base on the severity of the problem and how much it affects a tenant's ability to use and enjoy their residence.
Tenants typically don't withhold the full amount. For example, if a tenant has a two-bedroom apartment but only uses one bedroom due to a safety issue, the court likely won't release that tenant from paying all of their rent. It may decide that the tenant does can deduct only a quarter of the total amount.
Creating a New Bank Account
If a tenant does end up withholding rent until the landlord fixes the problem, they should open a new bank account to put their rent money each month and not touch it. This is an escrow account separate from their personal bank account.
If a renter doesn't have access to a financial institution, they can buy money orders and document them. However they do it, renters should set aside the amount of rent owed in the event the landlord fixes the issues, or they end up going to court.
Once a government agency inspects the premises and declares it unfit according to local or state housing codes, payments to the escrow account can continue for up to six months. After six months, the deposited rent is returned to the tenant if the premises are still uninhabitable.
Extending the Tenancy Lease Term
A court may add more six-month rent periods or allow the tenant's lease agreement to continue until the landlord fixes the problems. The landlord may not evict a tenant while they make payments to the escrow account. The renter can also use their rent money to make repairs if the landlord has failed to make them within 14 days, and the repairs are urgent.
After the Landlord Fixes the Problems
Withholding rent is merely a tactic to get the landlord to make necessary repairs to the unit or common areas. If the landlord fixes the problems within the six-month period, the tenant must hand over the withheld rent, unless they have made other arrangements with the landlord, or the court agrees to give the tenant an abatement.
The City Rent Withholding Act applies only to specific municipalities in Pennsylvania. In areas where it doesn't apply, tenants may find flexible remedies under the implied warranty of habitability. Renters should check with their local government code enforcement office to see if the City Rent Withholding Act applies in their area.
Tenant's Right to Repair and Deduct
Pennsylvania law sometimes allows tenants to deduct from their rent the cost of repairs that would typically be the landlord's responsibility. If the renter decides to go this route, they must notify the landlord in writing of problems that need to be fixed, as well as their intent to pay for them if the landlord doesn't take the appropriate action.
If the landlord fails to repair the problem within 14 days, the renter may take it upon themselves to make the repair or they can hire a repair person to do it. Afterward, they can submit an invoice to the landlord and deduct that amount from the rent. However, a tenant who deducts or withholds a portion of the rent may face an eviction lawsuit.
Landlord Retaliation for Rent Withholding
If a landlord's property is uninhabitable and a tenant withholds rent, it is illegal for that landlord to retaliate against a renter for acting within their rights. For example, a landlord cannot evict a tenant in Pennsylvania if they:
- Have complained to a government agency about the dwelling being unsafe or uninhabitable.
- Withheld rent due to hazardous or uninhabitable conditions.
- Have joined a tenant union.
A tenant can sue a landlord for retaliatory eviction.
Avoiding a Landlord Lawsuit
If a landlord attempts to evict the tenant, the renter should bring a copy of the letter they wrote to the landlord informing them of the habitability issue. They must also show that they gave the landlord a reasonable amount of time to make repairs.
Any additional proof that they have of the problem will help them in court. This includes photos, work estimates and invoices for repair if they paid to have the problems fixed. If a tenant has withheld rent, they should show proof in court that they have not spent that rent money or if they did, it was only for repairs. The court is more likely to consider a defense of a warranty of habitability if the tenant has not spent their withheld rent on something else.
Types of Retaliatory Acts
A landlord may attempt different kinds of retaliatory actions against a tenant who complains about a property being uninhabitable or withholds rent for that reason. These illegal actions include:
- Terminating a tenant's month-to-month lease.
- Refusing to renew a rental agreement and following up with an eviction lawsuit if the tenant does not move.
- Increasing the rent while decreasing access to services, such as forbidding use of the pool or laundry room, cutting tenant off from cable access, or cancelling security service.
A landlord may announce their retaliatory plan against the tenant, but most will not. Often, they disguise the action as something else, like saying they want to rent the unit to a relative or are financially unable to keep up with the services a tenant uses.
Responding to Landlord Retaliation
If a tenant is the object of the landlord's retaliatory actions, they can stay in the premises and fight the landlord by defending themselves against the eviction notice. They would have to prove to the court that the reason for the eviction proceedings is illegal retaliation.
If a landlord attempts a rent hike or a reduction in services, the tenant can file a claim against them in small claims court asking the court to take measures such as prohibiting the rent hike, ordering the services reinstated, or getting their rent reduced to compensate for the loss of those services. Before a landlord attempts to increase rent or evict a tenant, the tenant should file suit in hopes of resolving the issue. It is not desirable to have an eviction on a credit report.
Moving Out of an Uninhabitable Property
If the landlord does not fix the issues on the property within a reasonable amount of time, the tenant always has the option of moving out. They must plan properly much in the same way they would when withholding rent. The renter should write the landlord to let them know that the implied warranty of habitability was violated and that they are leaving as a result.
Tenants can request a return of their security deposit as well as back rent for the period when the property was uninhabitable. Before moving, the renter should take photos to show the condition of the unit.
- NOLO: Tenant Defenses to Evictions in Pennsylvania
- The Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania: Know Your Rights as a Fair Housing… It’s Your Right! Renter in Pennsylvania
- Avail: Pennsylvania Landlord-Tenant Law
- NOLO: Landlord Retaliation
- NOLO: Overview of Landlord-Tenant Laws in Pennsylvania
- Penn State: Pennsylvania Rent Withholding Act
- Law Info: Pennsylvania Landlord-Tenant Law
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.