Assert the Rights You Have

A couple of years ago, a tenant came into our office in the spring.  She and her husband were young professionals with a stellar rental history, renting a small single family home.  They'd just moved into the house that winter, and the tenant was eager to plant flowers along the driveway they'd so recently been shoveling. Their idyllic flower-and-bird-twittering spring came to a screeching halt, though, when they received an eviction notice for the kind of flowers they had chosen.

The house had a flower bed next to the driveway, and the lease said that the tenants needed to maintain the lawn. Excited about being able to garden, the tenant and her husband purchased some annuals to fill the empty flower bed.  The eviction notice they received said that the flowers were not "aesthetically pleasing." Now, I don't know about you fair readers out there, but to me, it sounded pretty unreasonable.  Since it was only a paper eviction notice (ie, the landlord hadn't filed in court yet), the tenant and I talked about strategies for writing a response to the eviction notice which stated that they hadn't violated the terms of their lease.  I didn't hear from them again, so I hope they were able to work it out.

One of the difficult things about renting (both as a tenant and landlord) is that sometimes, you want the other party to do things that you haven't spelled out in your lease.  It might feel very important to you, but it might be hard to make it happen.  In this situation, it's a good idea to:

  1. Negotiate (and that's why I previously wrote about negotiation tactics). Try to work it out, and if you do, put it in writing.
  2. Check your lease (both tenants and landlords should do this) and figure out the laws that govern your particular situation. Before you play hardball (or assert the rights you think you have), make sure you actually have the rights that you think you have. (If you have questions about this, you can talk to us at the TRC). Make sure to have law citations or clauses in the lease that support what you are requesting.
  3. Assert the rights you have. Start by writing a letter! Then, if that doesn't work, ask for help from outside agencies. For landlords, this is often starting the eviction process or suing in small claims court.  For tenants, there are more choices: suing in small claims court, filing a complaint with DATCP, calling a local building inspector, or breaking a lease, among other options.

Many tenants and landlords come into the TRC hoping to uphold rights they don't really have, or aren't able to prove that they have.  For example, a landlord might be very frustrated with a tenant's dog defecating on the lawn, but might not be able to prove that it really is that tenant's dog mucking up the lovely turf. So, while a landlord could feasibly have the right to evict someone for their dog's pooping pattern, it can be hard to show, in court, that the eviction is legitimate. In that case, it might be easier, if negotiation didn't work, for the landlord to evict over something else entirely (like late rent or more obvious violations of the lease).

Likewise, tenants can have needs that their agreement doesn't cover. A neighbor who has noisy kids can be super irritating for someone who regularly works the graveyard shift, but the noisiness might be totally reasonable.  Work with the landlord to insulate, to switch apartments, or to otherwise work it out, but be careful before you lay down an ultimatum. In that case, you might be better off calling the building inspector on the heat loss during the winter for low insulation, rather than demanding that your landlord evict the tenants above you.

Finally, a pro tip for landlords: be careful how you get your information. Landlords are required to be fair and non-discriminatory, but no such laws apply to complaining neighbors. If you have a tenant who complains regularly about their neighbors, find ways to reliably get your own information - you might end up scaring off the good renters and keeping the one who is disturbed by the smallest problems if you just assume that the complaints are legitimate. On the other hand, it's helpful to have folks that keep you informed about problems before they snowball. Make sure to check your facts!