Here at the TRC, we rarely get clients that walk in bursting to tell us some good news. (Even though we love to hear it! Let us know if we helped you!) And, we've learned over the years, so very many things can go wrong.
Tenants have a right to exclusive possession in their unit (besides the law and the lease, no one can tell you how to live in your rental home*), and their landlord is supposed to make it so they can peacefully enjoy what happens inside that home, without interference from their surroundings (to the extent that the landlord has control over those things).
We hear a wide range of problems that are, for us, resolvable under peaceful enjoyment, and those run from mundane ("I am an extremely quiet person and my upstairs neighbors walk when I wish they would be silent and still") to extreme ("a neighbor threw a knife through my wall").
But there's a way to do this! There's a method to the madness! There are cases that explain why judges look at these situations the way they do. All this and more, below.
Before we get into the specifics, if you're hoping to make an argument to your landlord about violations to your peaceful enjoyment, these 3 things need to be true:
- The problem needs to be something the landlord legitimately has control over. If the problem person is a person who owns their own house, across the street, this is not something the landlord has control over. If it's a person who rents from the same landlord/management company, than it might be something the landlord has some degree of control over. If the problem that is interfering with your peaceful enjoyment is one that can't be fixed (yucky manure smells if your rental is right next to a dairy barn?), then that's not something the landlord has control over.
- The solution can't interfere with another tenant's exclusive possession of their unit. Generally, if another tenant is bugging you, but using their own unit is a way that is compliant with the lease, and is compliant with local ordinances/laws, than this is not something that you will have many ways of dealing with through peaceful enjoyment.
- A good paper trail is crucial to successfully claiming that there are violations to your Peaceful Enjoyment. Make sure you keep a careful correspondence with your landlord. Here's a sample letter! (Here are some tips: Get It In Writing, How to Write a Letter, Write That Conversation Down!)
How Peaceful Enjoyment works:
- There's a problem with a person/group of people/environment that prevents you from fully/calmly/happily using your rental unit.
- If you feel safe doing so, please try talking to the person/group of people who is/are problematic. Tips on negotiation are here. So many folks come to us without even trying to say, "hey, this isn't really working for me." So, be friendly, and give it a shot at a time that feels calm.
- If talking to responsible parties doesn't help, then write a complaint to the landlord about the problem. (Again, a paper trail is pretty crucial to claiming peaceful enjoyment). Here is a sample letter.
The landlord may / may not take action. Examples of taking action:
- Evicting a problem tenant who was not following their lease
- Evicting a problem tenant who was breaking noise ordinances
- Explaining to you how they are not able to resolve the problem within their role as a landlord
If the landlord doesn't take action, then continue to give written updates about this situation, and if you know of something that you think the landlord could do to resolve the situation, recommend that to the landlord. Some examples of things a landlord can do:
- Make needed repairs that would lessen a noise issue
- Issue an eviction notice to a problem tenant based on violations to a lease
- Erect a fence on their property to keep a neighbor's dog out of your yard
- If there comes a point where the home becomes unlivable, you can move out as if with Constructive Eviction. (Basically: you move out mid-lease and stop paying your rent. If your landlord says that you owe the unpaid rent, and sues you in court, your argument against paying is that you constructively evicted because of violations to your peaceful enjoyment.) Constructive eviction is never a slam-dunk kind of argument (in fact, it's pretty darn risky), so make sure you have good documentation of the problem. If you have questions about whether you might be successful in court, that's legal advice and you should call an attorney.
The Law and Case Law About Peaceful Enjoyment
A tenant's peaceful enjoyment is referenced in the "History" end note at the end of Wis. Stat. 704.05. That history section says, "Any act of the landlord that so interferes with the tenant's enjoyment or possession of the premises as to render them unfit for occupancy for the purposes for which they were leased is an eviction releasing the tenant from the obligation to pay rent. First Wisconsin Trust Co. v. L. Wiemann Co. 93 Wis. 2d 258, 286 N.W.2d 360 (1980)."
Here's some things you can read and reference in order to find out more:
- The original basis of these cases was from Bruckner v. Helfaer, 222 NW 790 (1929). While a full version isn't easily available online, some excerpts are here.
- First Wisconsin Trust Co. v. L. Wiemann Co (1980)
Todd v. APEX PROPERTY MANAGEMENT, INC. (2007) is an easier read. Todd (the tenant) constructively evicted due to a neighbor violating her peaceful enjoyment, and Apex (the property management company) lost in small claims court. This document explains why the court is rejecting Apex's appeal, and contains comments from the court on what the tenant did during the problem period that made her win both the original case and the appeal.**
Two Major Limitations of Peaceful Enjoyment
Much like negligence, it's not the landlord's job to prevent problems before anyone knows that they are problems. For example: Tenant returns to find a knife lodged in his wall. It clearly came through an interior wall connected to another apartment. What is clear: tenant feels unsafe. What is not clear: exactly what occurred to make that knife end up in his apartment. Tenant had no prior concerns about his neighbors, or at least not anything that he communicated to the landlord. So, now what?
Police are called, they investigate. Tenant writes to the landlord explaining that he feels unsafe, and that he expects the landlord to take action. The landlord may take what action is available to her, but legally that may only be a 5-day notice with the right to cure. If cured (ie, no more knife throwing), then the tenant-who-leases-the-apartment-from-which-the-knife-originated has the right to stay, and our tenant might not feel like that's really a good enough solution for his sense of security. This is a major limitation of peaceful enjoyment: in following their legal remedies, landlords might not be able to do enough to make tenants feel safe. At that point, a tenant can always break a lease (link here) and/or rely on the police to make it clear who put them in danger in the first place, and take appropriate action against that person.
Another significant limitation is that the tenant's final possible action - constructively evicting because they are not able to peacefully enjoy their apartment - is only invoked if the unit is unlivable.*** Many questions about peaceful enjoyment come to us from tenants who have concerns about the noise that their neighbors are making.
Floors that squeak with normal sock-footed non-stompy walking are the bane of many sound-sensitive tenants, and when they have done everything in their power to deal with that situation (usually calling the landlord many times, and the police, only to be told that the neighboring tenants are making noise within legal limits), then what? Claim the unit was unlivable because of the normal walking noise? From where I sit, this is pretty far from a slam-dunk argument, if you ended up in court, explaining to a judge why you moved out and believe you shouldn't have to pay the rent.**** Of course, tenants may always break a lease (link here).
Pro Tips for Tenants:
- Look around before you move in. A couple tenants have come in lately with complaints about noise from a business located next to their rental unit. As a housing counselor, it's hard to see how they can be successful in carrying their concerns if those businesses were present when they viewed the apartment, prior to signing the lease. It's always a good idea to knock on some doors, and ask about how loud the neighborhood/building is, if that's a concern for you.
- We get a wide range of peaceful enjoyment type calls from tenants. Some want really reasonable things (to feel safe in an unsafe situation, for example), and some want things that are less attainable. When clients are asking landlords to do things that would be discriminatory on the part of the landlord, that's problematic. So, be careful if your complaint involves: ethnic cooking smells (protected class: race or national origin), reasonable noise from children (protected class: family status), etc. Actions based on discrimination are not legal for landlords.
- Before calling the landlord, try talking to the problematic person/group of people. Don't try to have this conversation when you're really worked up, but find a calm time to go by and mention that you've been hearing some noise/having some problems. Try and stay positive. Often this will solve the problem. Tips on negotiation are here. If you feel it may be difficult to do this on your own, you might try to find a mediator who can help you talk to one another, without taking sides or deciding who is “right” or “wrong.” Outside of Dane County, folks might try contacting the Wisconsin Association of Mediators at www.wamediators.org.
Pro Tips for Landlords:
- If you take action, write a letter back to the tenant! Explain what you've done and why it was reasonable.
- If you don't have grounds for eviction, say so. Explain what you'd need to evict for the reason that someone is calling. (Bonus points if you can show a written policy)
- Call the problem tenants and tell them that you're advising folks who have issues to call the police when they have a concern. This will help the complaining tenants know what you want them to do, and the problem tenants will be less likely to make your good tenants unsafe in retaliation.
- Hold an annual cookout/holiday party/gathering. Or perhaps offer a prize for tenants who correctly know the names of 6 of their neighbors? Nudging everyone get to know their neighbors will cut down on a lot of the complaints, because then folks will have some positive interaction before there's a problem, and they'll be more likely to go directly to their neighbors to resolve any problems that arise.
- When a tenant is constantly complaining about another tenant, it can feel to landlords that the complaining tenant is by far the noisiest. Find a way to gauge the accuracy of complaints before passing them along as an eviction notice – if the police don’t think they’re a problem, there might not be a problem.
- Passing along noise complaints without intervention can open you up for complaints of discrimination against people with different cultural expectations about how to use space, against families with small children, etc. Tenants aren’t required to uphold fair housing laws, but you are.
- Complete inaction isn’t a good plan. Noisy neighbors can drive away conscientious tenants. Do your best to understand the concern before dismissing it.
Sometimes Peaceful Enjoyment intersects with other issues!
Most commonly, those other issues are:
- Repairs: Lack of maintenance or upkeep can often lead to problems with noise (too little insulation = too much neighbor noise), pests (gaps in doors/walls/windows make it easy for the critters to get from one apartment to another). You could take action based on the ways to get repairs done (more info here), or through the steps above.
- Domestic Abuse protections: If a neighbor is threatening you, then you'd have rights to get help under the Safe Housing Act (more info here), though you can also seek help through Peaceful Enjoyment.
- Discrimination: We hear a lot of complaints based on different cultural expectations about how to use space, which result in complaints to the landlord. A landlord is required to uphold Fair Housing laws, so a landlord may not be able to take action for a problem that is based on another tenant's status as a member of a protected class. More info on our Discrimination page.
* Except your mom. She'll also probably tell you what to do.
** An excerpt that from that case: "Apex next argues that Todd failed to give Apex sufficient notice of the problems she was having with her neighbors or to give Apex a reasonable period of time to remedy the problems. But Todd's trial testimony, her log, and her letters to Apex, which we have described above, amply demonstrate otherwise. Todd provided very clear notice of the problems she was encountering and her expectation that Apex would remedy the situation. Apex had ample time to respond before Todd vacated."
*** In peaceful enjoyment cases, courts aren't technically looking for a standard of "unlivable," but rather if " the premises [are] render[ed] unfit for occupancy for the purposes for which they were leased." Most residential rental units are rented in order for tenants to live in them, hence the "unlivable" word choice.
**** At this point, I feel that it's important to note that I am not an attorney, that the TRC doesn't staff practicing attorneys, and that nothing written here or on this website is legal advice. If you want legal advice, here is an Attorney Referral List.