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LEGAL MATTERS: What Are Your Rights As a Landlord?

Wednesday, September 05, 2012


If a sight like this greets you as a landlord, what recourse do you have? Know your rights. Photo: Regina Rentals/flickr

Last week, we addressed some of the more common problems residential renters face and their remedies under the law in Rhode Island. This week, we tackle the issues landlords deal with on a daily basis and the legal steps they must take to address them.

Walk into Sixth District Court in Providence any day and you will see any number of Providence landlords pleading their cases before Court. Although it may seem daunting, Rhode Island statutes spell out everything landlords need to know. You can even download forms to help you through it.

What the tenant must do

Under Rhode Island law, tenants must keep their dwelling in such order that it does not cause health and safety problems. An example of this would be a tenant who failed to dispose of garbage and just let it pile up. Under the law, a landlord can send notice to the tenant demanding that the repairs, cleaning or replacement be done within 20 days (sooner if an emergency). If the tenant does not comply, the landlord can enter the property, take the necessary action and bill the tenant as part of the next rent payment.

What do you do if your tenant is late with the rent? First, the rent must be late by 15 days. The landlord can then send written notice stating the amount due and that payment of the amount must be made in five days or the rental agreement will terminate and the landlord will seek a court order to evict the tenant.

What are your rights?

If the tenant does not comply, the landlord can file a Section 56d “Complaint for Eviction for Nonpayment of Rent” form in District Court. The court clerk will supply the landlord with a copy of the complaint, a summons and a tenant answer form. This must be sent first-class mail by the landlord to the tenant. On the date of the hearing the landlord must show up in court. If the tenant pays the back rent before or on the date of the hearing, the eviction may be halted by the court --  although if other late notices have been sent in the past six months, the tenant may not avail themselves of this option. Note, also that if the tenant attempted to pay you the FULL amount and you refused, the court will not grant the eviction.

If the tenant is involved in criminal activity, you may be able to evict the tenant immediately. Under the law, a landlord can file for an immediate eviction if the tenant is  involved with illegal narcotics, controlled substances, a crime of violence in the unit or on the premises or on public property near the dwelling. Again, the action must take place in the District Court and the clerk will provide you with the proper form.

If the actions simply violate the agreement and are not criminal in nature, you must serve the tenant with notice that the violation must be rectified within 20 days or the agreement will end. If the tenant does not heed the warning, then you can seek eviction in District Court. If this is the second time around within six months, you can just terminate the lease but you must give 20 days notice.

Self-help not allowed

A very strong word of caution --- Landlords cannot use what is referred to as self help. You cannot go in and remove a tenant’s property or send someone else in to remove property no matter what happens. You also cannot cut off services or change the locks. If the rental agreement is terminated and the tenant is holding over you will have to go to court to take appropriate legal action.

There is one exception to this – abandonment by the tenant. If the tenant abandons the property, the landlord must send a certified letter -- return, receipt requested – to the tenant’s last known address notifying the tenant that they must reply within seven days or the dwelling will be rented to someone else. If the tenant does not reply, the landlord MUST make every attempt to mitigate his damages by attempting to re-rent the premises. Anything left in the premises must be stored in a safe place for a “reasonable” time period.  You can seek payment for rent up to the point that the dwelling was re-rented and/or the end of the lease as long as you made an honest attempt to rent the dwelling, but you cannot demand payment from the tenant in return for the tenant’s property.

These are some of the more common problems with which landlords need assistance. For more information, you can download the Rhode Island Landlord-Tenant Handbook, here.

The foregoing is offered for informational purposes only and is not legal advice nor does it create an attorney-client relationship.

Susan G. Pegden is a litigation associate with the Law Firm of Hamel, Waxler, Allen & Collins in Providence.  She is admitted to practice in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Rhode Island Association of Justice (RIAJ) and a member of the Rhode Island Women’s Bar Association.

Sean P. Feeney is a partner with the Law Firm of Hamel, Waxler, Allen & Collins. He is admitted to practice in Rhode Island, Illinois and Wisconsin. Mr. Feeney is a former special counsel to the City of Providence, military prosecutor with the United States Marine Corps and Special Assistant United States Attorney for the Central District of California.

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