Understanding tenant rights
While states maintain their own individual laws governing landlord and tenant rights and obligations, the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA) serves as the basis for these laws in many states. Under URLTA, a landlord is required to comply with all applicable building and housing codes, keep the premises in a habitable condition, provide clean and safe common areas and maintain working electricity and plumbing, which includes providing running water and reasonable hot water and heat. If the landlord violates housing codes or the terms of the rental agreement, a tenant should first address the problem with the landlord directly to try to negotiate a solution agreeable to both parties. If this fails to resolve the problem, the tenant may need to take further action.
Reporting a landlord
If a landlord has violated the terms of a lease, or if she has failed to provide any of the basic services required by state law, a tenant should send a letter or an email to the landlord addressing the problem. If this proves ineffective, the tenant can report the landlord to the local building or housing authority. The Website of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) features a comprehensive state-by-state collection of links to the appropriate housing department for each state. Other organizations or individuals who might provide assistance are local tenant associations, consumer protection agencies, the city district attorney, and city or county rent control boards.
After a report has been made, local housing agencies will begin an investigation into the situation. At this stage, the dispute might be settled by arbitration or mediation. Both arbitration, in which a neutral third party listens to both sides of the dispute and makes a ruling, and mediation, in which a neutral third party tries to help both sides of the dispute reach a compromise, are faster and less expensive than a lawsuit. If a tenant decides to pursue legal action against a landlord, the local county bar association might be able to help him find free or low-fee legal representation.