A tenant recently contacted us, saying that every time she asked her landlord to do a repair on the property that she was renting, the landlord raised the rent. All of those raises in rent were theoretically legal, since it was around the time for the lease to be renewed, but it seemed in direct consequence of her asking for repairs to be done. If you look at the laws on retaliation, they say that if a tenant makes "a good faith complaint about a defect in the premises," then a landlord "may not increase rent" (see Wis. Stat. 704.45 for the full set of rules). However, in order to show the timeline, and that the acts of the landlord would not have occurred "but for" the acts of the tenant, that tenant will be in the best possible position if she has her repair complaints in writing. (Then, if she's not able to work it out with the landlord, she can make a complaint to DATCP or sue in small claims court).
In this example, and in so many others, we see that one of the most important tools in tenant-landlord disputes is writing, on a piece of paper. And even though it's so important, it can be wildly overwhelming for tenants and landlords to put together a letter that makes sense to the other party, much less gets results.
Writing a letter is a process, and it doesn't have to be a stressful one! Here are some steps to take:
1. What are your concerns? Make a list. No one will see this but you, so put everything on there, no filters.
2. Edit your list. Which of those concerns are really rights that you can assert? You can clarify your thoughts by reading our post about rights you can assert! Check your lease or the laws. If it's not really a right that you have, try to negotiate about it separately.
3. Draft a letter. Here are a few samples:
- Basic format for tenant-landlord concerns
- A tenant writing to a landlord about a repair concern. (A tenant could simply call the building inspector in this case, but more of the problems are likely to be resolved if the tenant works through it with the landlord)
- A landlord writing to a tenant about a lease violation. (A landlord could go forward with an eviction in this case, without writing the letter, but sometimes it's easier to start by letting someone know what's going on and making a plan to fix it)
- We have a couple more sample letters for tenants available here.
4. It's okay to let the other person know what your next step will be (as long as it's legal. If it's not legal, why are you doing it?). That's not threatening in a bad way (it's more a discussion of where your perfectly healthy boundaries are), but make sure you let them know you'll only go that route if they don't take action on your concerns.
5. Read it out loud and correct any grammatical mistakes you find. If you have a friend who is helping you out with this, ask them to read it, too, preferably out loud, so that you can hear where they are confused about what you're trying to say.
6. Imagine how you'd feel if a judge were reading it - would you be embarrassed? Cross out everything that's rude or mean, tempting though it may be.
7. Send it! And keep a copy in your rental file! We go into more detail on sending methods on our "Get It In Writing" post, but send with a receipt through the post office, or by email where you print it and also send via stamped snail mail.