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Renters: Know Your Rights

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Tenants should know their rights regarding fair practices and treatment by landlords, whether in a regular apartment or government-subsidized housing.

The Fair Housing Act
(FHA) prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin and disability. The FHA is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968

When Can The Landlord Enter My Apartment?
In Virginia, landlords are required by law to provide 24 hours notice before entering rental property in non-emergency situations.
If the landlord has a good reason, you must allow him or her to enter your apartment. Some good reasons are to:
• Inspect the property
• Make repairs or decorate
• Make alterations or improvements,
• Supply necessary or agreed services
• Show the apartment to prospective or actual purchasers, mortgagees, tenants, workmen or contractors
The landlord must not abuse the right of entrance or use it to harass you. The landlord can only enter at reasonable hours of the day, except in an emergency.
In most cases, a landlord may not enter just to check up on the tenant and the rental property.

Virginia Law Requires That Landlords:
• Meet the requirements of local building and health codes concerning the condition of your apartment.
• Make necessary repairs to keep your home in livable condition.
• Keep all common areas shared by two or more apartments of the property in clean and safe condition.
• Maintain in good and safe working condition all electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating, air-conditioning units as well as other facilities and appliances, including elevators, supplied or required to be supplied by the landlord.
• Make a reasonable effort to prevent the accumulation of moisture and the growth of mold.
• Provide and maintain good quality trash cans and trash pick-up services in common areas of the apartments.
• Supply running water and reasonable amounts of hot water at all times as well as reasonable air conditioning, if provided, and heat when needed.

How Can A Renter File A Discrimination Complaint?
A tenant who thinks that a landlord has broken a federal fair housing law should contact a local office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the agency that enforces the Fair Housing Act, or check the HUD website at www.hud.gov.
(A tenant must file the complaint within one year of the alleged discriminatory act.)
HUD will provide a complaint form (tenants can fill the form out online) and will investigate and decide whether there is reasonable cause to believe that the fair housing law has been broken.
If the answer is yes, HUD will typically appoint a mediator to negotiate with the landlord and reach a settlement (called a "conciliation"). If a settlement is later broken, HUD will recommend that the Attorney General file a lawsuit.
If the discrimination is a violation of a state fair housing law, the tenant may file a complaint with the state agency in charge of enforcing the law.

Renters' Rights to Repairs
Your landlord is responsible for keeping your rental unit in a livable condition, though many renters often feel stuck with less-than-ideal living conditions. Maybe the drip, drip, drip of your leaking bathroom faucet is driving you insane, there's an unsightly stain in your living room carpet, or the paint in your kitchen has gone from crisp white to the dingy yellow of spoiled milk. These aren't huge problems and don't justify a move, but you don't just have to live with them, right?

Landlords Must Fix Major Problems
Your landlord must keep the structure of the building sound, including stairways, floors, and roofs; keep electrical, heating, and plumbing systems operating safely; supply hot and cold water in reasonable amounts; and exterminate infestations of pests such as cockroaches.
Keep in mind, however, that if a problem is the result of your own carelessness -- such as a vermin infestation caused by your poor housekeeping -- the repair bill will properly be forwarded to you. If you don't pay it, the amount may be taken out of your security deposit.

Landlords May Have to Make Minor Repairs
What about the annoying problems most tenants face, like leaky faucets, old paint, torn screens, or worn flooring? While these types of problems can be unpleasant or inconvenient, they don't make the unit uninhabitable. Does the landlord have to repair them?
Whether your landlord must take care of a minor repair depends upon a number of factors, beginning with the nature of the problem. Purely cosmetic repairs are not legally required. Mildewed grout or worn carpet, for example, are less likely to require a landlord's attention than are loose tiles that make the shower unusable or holes in carpeting that could trip someone.

If you're not sure whether your landlord is legally required to make a repair, check to see if your specific complaint is addressed by:
— the terms of your lease
— any oral or written promises your landlord has made
— state and local building codes, or
— state landlord-tenant laws.

How to Get Your Landlord to Make Minor Repairs
It's often harder to enforce your rights to minor repairs than major ones. Tenants in an uninhabitable dwelling are often allowed by law to withhold rent or use "repair and deduct" procedures, but taking those actions for merely minor problems could get you evicted. There are, however, a number of proven strategies for getting landlords to take care of minor problems.

1. Write a repair request. Even if you've already asked your landlord to take care of a problem, a written request is almost always helpful. It gives you a chance to articulate the problem clearly and point out why it's in the landlord's best interest to have it fixed. A letter also allows a reluctant landlord to think it over without having to give you an immediate answer (which often results in a knee-jerk "no").
Try to develop a number of themes in your letter. One effective tactic is to explain that the problem might become worse — and more costly to the landlord — if it's not taken care of right away. A landlord might find it easy to ignore your drippy faucet until you point out the possibility of an overflowing sink and water damage to the floors.
Another theme that will grab your landlord's attention is the potential for injury. A hole in the stairway carpeting could cause someone to trip and fall, making the landlord liable for the injury. Landlords are also sensitive to security issues, so be sure to point out any security risks created by your problem, such as a broken lock or faulty hallway light. Finally, if the problem affects other tenants, be sure to emphasize that.

2. Propose mediation. If your oral and written requests are ignored, contact a mediation service, which will invite the landlord to meet with you and a trained mediator. The mediator will help the two of you reach a mutually-acceptable solution, but will not (unlike a judge) impose a solution. Many communities offer free or low-cost mediation services as an alternative to going to court.

3. Report your landlord to your local building or housing agency. Some minor problems may violate local building or housing codes. Call the agency that enforces these codes in your area to find out. (Look under the city or county government listings of your phone book.) Officials at the agency should be able to explain whether your problem violates local or state codes, and may be able to take action against your landlord.
Warning Keep in mind that reporting your landlord won't likely improve your relationship, which may be important to you if you want to stay in your unit for some time. Even state "antiretaliation" laws, which prohibit rent hikes, terminations, or other adverse actions following a tenant's complaint to a government agency or exercise of a legal right, cannot forestall a sour relationship.

4. Sue your landlord in small claims court.
If you can prove in court that the unaddressed problems decrease the value of your unit, a judge can award you the difference between what you've been paying in rent and the amount the unit is actually worth. Obviously, suing your landlord is not your best option if you want to salvage your landlord-tenant relationship. But if you've tried everything else and moving elsewhere is not feasible, taking your landlord to court might be the right remedy.

Where To Get Information or Advice

• Virginia Fair Housing Office
Handles cases of discrimination in the rental of a home or manufactured-home lot.
Perimeter Center, 9960 Maryland Drive
Richmond, VA 23233
(804) 367-8530 or (888) 551-3247
TTY: (804) 367-9753
Website: www.fairhousing.vipnet.org/
Email: fairhousing@dpor.virginia.gov

• Department of Housing and Community Development
For a copy of the Department of Housing and Community Development handbook containing  the current Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act:
Call: (804) 371-7000
Website: www.dhcd.virginia.gov

• Housing Opportunities Made Equal
Provides tenant counseling, discrimination testing, down payment assistance and other services.
700 East Franklin, Suite 3A
Richmond, VA 23219
(804) 354-0641
TTY: (804) 354-0680
Fax: (804) 354-0690
Website: www.phonehome.org

• Tips for Tenants:
Website: www.phonehome.org/pdf/tipsfortenants.pdf

• Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs
Answer general questions concerning the Virginia Landlord and Tenant Act.
Outside Richmond: (800) 552-9963
In Richmond: (804) 786-2042
Website: www.vdacs.virginia.gov/consumers/faqs.shtml

• The Virginia Legal Aid Society
Gives legal counsel.
(866) 534-5243
Website: www.VALegalAid.org

For building code violations, contact the building inspector listed in the blue section of your local telephone book (white pages).