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LEGAL MATTERS: What Are Your Rights As a Tenant?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

 

If you pay rent, you're part of nearly 40 percent of Rhode Islanders--and you have a series of rights you may not realize you have. Photo: Charleston's The Digitel/flickr

Rhode Island has the highest percentage of renters of any state in New England. Indeed, close to 40 percent of Rhode Islanders rent their homes and these can be substantial payments with the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Providence at $1,030.00. Rhode Island, like most states, has put in place a number of laws and regulations to protect both landlords and tenants. The focus for this article is tenant’s rights in a residential rental situation.

Perhaps one of the most important protections is the law that bars landlords from putting anything in your lease contract that waives any of your legal rights or any of the landlord’s legal responsibilities. Despite this law, some landlords still put these in contracts either because they do not know of the prohibition or because they think tenants don’t know any better and thus will be dissuaded from suing them. If your contract contains this clause, you can recover actual damages, up to three times the rent and attorney’s fees.

Repairs

You’ve signed your contract, paid your rent and moved into your rental home. You’re abiding by all the rules, using the utilities in a reasonable manner; not destroying the place; keeping your family and guests under control; and not selling drugs. Five months later, the bathtub is stopped up, there’s no hot water and none of it was your fault.

Under the law, landlords MUST meet building and occupancy codes. Generally speaking that means a landlord must take care of all common areas, plumbing, electricity, heating and water and all appliances that are part of the agreement.

But what if your calls to the landlord go unanswered? Rhode Island law allows tenants to engage in a number of remedies.

First, tenants can give landlords notice that they consider this to be a violation of the rental agreement and/ or they believe the landlord is failing to maintain the premises resulting in a substantial health and safety problem. Under this provision, the landlord must fix the problem, pay damages or make a good-faith effort to comply within 20 days or renters can terminate the lease on a date 30 days after the landlord receives the notice. If the exact same problem occurs in the future, the tenant need only give 14 days notice. Once the lease is terminated, the security deposit and rent must be returned and the tenant can seek attorney’s fees and actual damages in court.

Under the so-called “Self Help” provision, a tenant can fix the problem himself on his or her own. In order to do this, the tenant has to notify the landlord in writing that he or she intends to fix problem; give the landlord 20 days to fix the problem after sending the notice (unless it is an emergency situation); the repair must meet code and the repair must be under $125. The tenant can then deduct the cost of repair from the next rent payment but he or she must provide the landlord with an itemized statement of the cost.

If the problem involves heat, water, electricity, gas – essential services -- the tenant can do what needs to be done to correct the problem and deduct the cost from the next month’s rent. The tenant can also stay somewhere else, forgo the rent to the landlord and seek to recover the cost of the substitute housing along with attorney’s fees; and/or pursue damages in court for the decreased “fair rental value”.

Now You’re Going to Pay

Despite all the laws, some landlords do attempt to retaliate against tenants who attempt to enforce their rights under the law and the rental agreement. This can take a number of forms, including locking tenants out of their property, interrupting services and increasing the rent in the middle of the lease term. If this happens, you will need to enforce your rights in court where you can sue for an amount equal to three months rent or triple damages and attorney’s fees if the landlord’s actions are in violation of the law.

I’m Outta Here!

We frequently handle calls in our office from frustrated renters regarding security deposits. First, landlords cannot charge more than one month’s rent as a security deposit. If your rent is $1,000.00 a month, that is all a landlord may require you to put down as a security deposit.

Second, the landlord must return your deposit within 20 days of you vacating the premises, returning the key and giving notice. The landlord must give you the full amount minus any back rent you owe and compensation for any damages outside ordinary wear and tear. The landlord CANNOT keep any future rent you may owe. The landlord must itemize every deduction in the notice. Here’s the rub: what constitutes ordinary wear and tear can sometimes make for an interesting and trying debate. Most people would agree that punching holes in the wall and ripping the carpet is beyond ordinary wear and tear. However, at least one landlord we have taken legal action against attempted to retain a substantial amount of the security deposit because the tenant left a few nail holes in the wall. If your landlord violates this provision, he or she can be ordered by the court to pay you twice the amount of money illegally held and attorney’s fees.

As noted above, Rhode Island’s laws regarding tenant’s rights are extensive. The foregoing does not cover every legal right you have. For a copy of a comprehensive list of rights and laws, 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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