Are Tenants Displaced by a Hurricane Still Stuck with Rent?
The U.S has suffered two serious hurricanes in two weeks-Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida. There have been deaths and injuries. Many have lost all they own, over 200,000 homes were destroyed in Texas alone. The victims of these hurricanes are in the thoughts of people around the country as they take steps towards rebuilding what they have lost. However, at least one victim of Hurricane Harvey, Rocio Fuentes, has faced another type of problem–late rent on her uninhabitable home.
Rocio Fuentes has reported to the media that her landlord has been seeking both rent and late fees on the rent for her home. This is coming at a time when Fuentes is struggling to find alternative accommodation and replace lost furniture and belongings. In speaking to the media, she has said that she and her family simply cannot afford this rent-they have nothing left.
The very idea that a landlord might demand rent could seem ludicrous at first glance. However, there are some legal situations where a landlord maintains the right to rent-however heartless this situation is-even where the property is seriously damaged. Let’s look at the rights of tenants and landlords in these sorts of situations. If you yourself are in a similar situation, or even facing a smaller issue than a hurricane flooding your house, knowing your rights as a tenant is extremely important.
The Rights of a Tenant
First and foremost, your rights are largely governed by you lease agreement. As you might imagine, when you sign a contract you are bound to its terms and a lease is no different. Make sure you read through any agreement before signing. Obviously, a tenant often has little to no negotiating power on the terms of a lease agreement. This means that many lease agreements are extremely unfavorable to tenants in terms of rights. However, you should know the terms of your own lease to know exactly what you may be on the hook for. What’s more, depending on where you live. There are often laws which expand or guarantee rights to a tenant regardless of the terms of a lease agreement.
For instance, in Texas where Ms. Fuentes lives, a landlord or tenant can terminate a lease immediately with a written notice where the property has been made totally unusable. Unfortunately for Ms. Fuentes, this doesn’t help much with rent she is already considered to owe under her lease. The truth is, if somebody is bound under a lease, then they are required to pay rent. Even in a circumstance as terrible as Ms. Fuentes. What’s more, Texas law only reduces rent where a disaster renders a property partially unusable. Determining whether a property is partially or totally unusable is not the simplest of determinations, and one a determined landlord could often bring to court.
There is one other legal doctrine which can be of use to those struck by these recent hurricanes, or even those with smaller issues rendering their property unlivable-the implied warranty of habitability. The implied warrant of habitability is a bit different depending on the state. However, it is essentially what it sounds like. No matter the lease agreement-verbal or written-courts will imply into the agreement a term assuring the tenant that the property they are going to live in is habitable. Where you let your landlord know a property isn’t habitable (often best done by an email with photo evidence), have evidence they know, and they do not fix the property within a reasonable time frame (often 30 days but the time varies depending on the problem), you have a number of options opened to you. First, you can simply move out and terminate the lease without punishment. If you make the repairs yourself, you can deduct the cost of the repairs-although usually not in an amount more than one month’s rent. You can also often, depending on where you live, withhold rent in an amount equal to the reduction in value caused by the issue effecting However, this last option is often quite risky. It is generally safer to pay rent, then sue for either the return of your rent or demanding your landlord make repairs. If you’re suing, it’s worth knowing that courts are much happier refunding rent than ordering repairs that they will have to supervise.
These options hinge on the fact that a court would consider the place you live to actually be inhabitable. If you withheld rent and a court thought differently, you’d be up a creek and likely facing down an eviction. So, what exactly constitutes inhabitable? This varies depending on where you live. Some states simply say that a building must be up to building codes to satisfy the requirement. Some use more nebulous terms such as “fit for human habitation” or “conditions which would be dangerous, hazardous, or detrimental, to life health or safety.” Some states, like California, have a number of specific requirements such as water and weather proofing, working plumbing, gas, heating, electrics, clean and sanitary grounds, a working shower, sink and toilet, etc. Each state has its own approach and the consequences of acting too soon can be great, so it’s always worth consulting a lawyer on issues such as this.
The Rights of the Hurricane Victims
A lot of this information may simply have come too late to be useful to those such as Ms. Fuentes. While state law may be able to help if her home is considered uninhabitable, both this and the warranty of habitability will be of little use for rent already owed. However, depending on the extent of the damages, she may be able to sue for an abatement in rent. From a practical standpoint, if the matter ends up in court the landlord certainly won’t look favorable before either a judge or a jury.
This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the legal issues that will spring out of a disaster like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, even when it comes to landlord tenant law. Just think about all the security deposits on apartments that have been flooded. Will the tenants get those deposits back? What about situations where somebody breaks a lease by letting hurricane victims stay at their place? There’s a lot of rebuilding to be done here, but along with that will come a lot of legal conflict. Hopefully, this advice will be helpful to some facing these sorts of legal challenges. However, for now, the best we can do is keep these victims in our thoughts and reach out with support however we can.