COVID + CREDIT: Your Rights as a Renter
Reading time: 6 minutes
When you sign a lease, you likely aren’t thinking too deeply about your rights as a tenant. After all, you’re probably more excited about securing a new home than agonizing about a worst-case scenario before it ever arises.
However, understanding your rights as a renter has never been more important, as millions of Americans are experiencing joblessness and pay cuts during the Coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic. Complicating the matter, every state and city has its own rules regarding landlords and tenants, making it difficult to navigate and understand the various laws. If you’re worried about being able to afford your monthly rent or simply want to better understand the protections you have under the law, we’ll walk through the information you need.
Knowing your rights will come in handy if there's a dispute with your landlord or your apartment is damaged, and it may help you navigate the challenges of renting during the pandemic.
How Covid-19 is impacting renters
One of the largest impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on renters is the staggering unemployment rate. With millions of Americans facing pay cuts, furloughs or layoffs, many have been left wondering how they’ll keep a roof over their heads. Fortunately, many landlords and municipalities have promised to halt evictions for the duration of the pandemic, and some are offering rent relief or reduced/delayed payment options to tenants.
If you find yourself unable to pay rent, contact your local renters rights association and your landlord to learn more about options available in your area. Renters rights organizations may be able to help you navigate any legal protections you may have and determine whether you’re being treated fairly by a landlord. If you’ve been a reliable tenant in the past, your landlord may be willing to offer a temporary rent reduction, though there is no legislation requiring them to do so at this time.
While residents in many large metropolitan areas — including New York, L.A. and Chicago — have called on their local and state governments to institute temporary rent freezes, no such action is currently in place. Therefore, even if you're currently out of work, it’s important to contact your landlord about your situation and pay as much as you can toward your rent. If you’re lucky enough to be covered by a temporary eviction halt, it’s still wise to avoid souring your relationship with your landlord. Down the line, when eviction proceedings resume, you don’t want to find yourself at risk of losing your home due to missed payments.
If you’ve recently been laid off, furloughed or taken a pay cut, adjusting your budget may help you pay bills that seem out of reach. Take a look at your current spending and saving habits to determine how much you can reasonably afford and where you can make cuts. Figure out how much savings you’ve accumulated, and map out how long you think that money will last. This can help you determine exactly how much additional financial support you’ll need per month in order to stay afloat.
Even without the current pandemic, there are certain things that your landlord is required to provide.
Rental units — when initially offered and continuing throughout the duration of the lease — must meet basic structural, health and safety standards. Each state has laws that determine the minimums that landlords must provide to renters for light, ventilation, heating, etc.
At the very least, landlords should maintain a unit so that it's in a habitable condition. That includes plumbing maintenance and pest control, as well as immediately addressing any health or safety concerns such as mold or burned-out lights in stairwells.
While renters laws vary from state to state, their intentions are universal:
- Prevent neglect by the landlord
- Secure the safety of tenants and the habitability of the property
- Remedy poor conditions that affect tenants
- Prevent unreasonable collection or withholding of deposits
- Protect tenants’ privacy
- Prevent unlawful eviction
Other legal protections for tenants
Although laws vary from location to location, the rights of renters living in private properties generally govern the release of security deposits, tenant safety, subleasing and eviction procedures.
Renters also have protection against discrimination under the federal Fair Housing Act. While in many jurisdictions you can be refused an apartment for poor credit history, negative references or a criminal background, you can't be turned down because of race, color, creed or any of these other attributes:
- National origin
- Gender identity
- Sexual orientation
- Familial status (having children)
- Physical or mental disability (including alcoholism and past drug addiction)
- Marital status
Note that there is a different set of rules governing rent-subsidized and public housing, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). For example, if you want to lodge a complaint against a HUD-subsidized property, you have to call the federal government's Multifamily Housing Complaint Line at 800-685-8470.
How do you protect yourself before you sign a lease?
Although many people have put a hold on moves while the pandemic continues, if you’re in the middle of leasing a new rental property, know your rights under local and state renters laws. Then, find out whom you can call if there's a problem.
Read your lease carefully, as it should spell out what you and your landlord are responsible for. If you don't understand the language, have someone review the lease who is familiar with these types of agreements.
Most large cities have agencies that deal specifically with landlords. Some local agencies are more responsive than others, and you may need to be persistent to ensure that your rights are honored.
Remember that along with renters rights come responsibilities. Renters are expected to keep their units clean and well-maintained, dispose of garbage and properly use all existing fixtures without willfully destroying any part of the dwelling.
Hopefully, the relationship between you and your landlord will remain a pleasant one throughout your time renting, but in the event that it doesn't, it's better to be prepared and know your rights.