The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated in September 2019 that in the previous year, Americans spent more than 25 percent of their pre-tax income on keeping a roof over their head. Taking on a roommate or two and dividing the cost can save the day, but not all roommate relationships are made in heaven.
A roommate’s recourse when things head south often depends on the type of roommate the individual is, a co-tenant or a subtenant. And in either case, a roommate’s rights depend heavily on state laws, which can vary.
Co-Tenants’ Rights and Responsibilities
Co-tenants, sometimes referred to as joint tenants, are equal partners. They’ve each individually entered into a legal rental agreement or lease with the landlord. Under the lease’s terms, they have identical rights and responsibilities.
Each roommate is “jointly and severally liable” for paying the rent, and this term is often specifically cited in leases. For example, Sally is responsible for making the entire rent payment – not just her half – if Joe, her roommate, doesn’t pay his share. The term also means that their landlord is legally entitled to require that they both move out if Joe commits a serious, eviction-worthy lease violation.
Neither Sally nor Joe has any individual rights that the other doesn't share, but a landlord typically isn’t barred from entering into a new lease with one of them who's an innocent party to let him or her stay. Likewise, if Joe simply moves out, he’s violated the lease, and Sally would not have any personal rights in this situation. She would need the landlord’s approval to find another roommate to replace him or to remain in residence by herself.
A subtenant is someone who moves in after a lease has been entered into by other tenants and who isn’t added to the existing lease or to a new lease with the landlord. Otherwise, the original tenant would be loosely considered to be the new tenant’s landlord. The subtenant has no specific responsibilities to the original tenant's landlord.
Again, the landlord has most of the rights in the situation. A landlord can demand an increase in rent or even an additional security deposit when adding a subtenant to an existing or new lease as a co-tenant.
Roommate Harassment Laws
Roommates’ rights can be limited when their behavior gets seriously out of line. One co-tenant cannot evict another co-tenant, no matter how despicable the behavior. Only a landlord has that legal right.
Sally would have two choices if Joe’s behavior deteriorated to the point where it became intolerable. She might appeal to their landlord for assistance in evicting him, or she has the right to call the police if Joe’s behavior should become dangerous, threatening or abusive in any way, just as someone who’s not living with him could do.
Reasons to Sue a Roommate
A roommate’s right to sue a subtenant can depend on whether an agreement is in place between them and, if so, whether it’s in writing.
This might be the case if a subtenant fails to pay rent. The original tenant would have the right to sue in small claims court, but the odds of success decrease dramatically if no written agreement is in place between them. The same would apply to a co-tenant who had to make an entire rent payment because a roommate didn't contribute his portion.
The matter can escalate beyond small claims court if a roommate dispute centers around everyone being evicted because of the actions of just one of them. The injured roommates can sue for damages – monetary compensation in exchange for all the associated headaches, trouble and grief this would cause.
Read More: Rights for Roommates Not on a Lease
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.