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Tenants Rights 101 - Become An Empowered Tenant

Understanding your tenants rights and how to be an empowered tenant can drastically help your situation if any problems arise. Read more on what you need to know to stand up for yourself.

One of my primary drivers with Tenant Law Action is ourefforts to empower tenants to self-advocate the issues that come up and ensure they create a record of their efforts should the need arise.  My biggest hope is to use my expertise to help tenants, even if they aren’t my clients, to advocate for themselves and stand up for their right to safe and habitable housing.

The Empowered Tenant’s Checklist for tenants rights is a simple outline of the best practices every tenant should be taking to effectively self-advocate when trying to solve any problems with their home.

In the law, the main element of a tenant's claims against their landlord for failing to provide habitable housing are notice to the landlord -  that the landlord knew about the problems. That's where creating documentation is so important, because inlitigation, when you don't have documentation, when everything is, "I told him this, I told him that," it gets difficult to substantiate your claims since the landlord will invariably have a different story or says "I don'tremember them ever telling me anything."

So that's why we want to have the letters, the emails, the text messages, notes, dates, etc. In preparing a claim, we want to be able to create a timeline of events with these written notices to tell the story of our client and how they did all they could to get a resolution on their own.

The letters alone may get the landlord to do what the law requires. But, if the self advocacy fails, then the tenant has created all the important records thatan attorney needs to evaluate and assist in pursuing their claims.

The checklist includes three primary elements:

1)    Document everything

2)    Notify your Landlord inwriting

3)    Utilize community basedallies

If the problems persist after following these basics, you are well prepared to do a consultation with a firm like ours.

Step 1: Document Everything

Creating documentation is so important in any legal matter, but especially in tenants rights. If you're living with problems, you want a record with the basic details:  What’s the problem? When did it start? How long has it been going on?  

Thanks to technology, it’s now easier than ever to document problems through pictures,videos, and emails. If a leak happens, get a video. If mold is growing on the walls, take a picture. If your landlord harasses you, record it while it is happening. The time and date is recorded on all digital documentation creating a timeline of events as they occur.  The idea is simply to ensure that there is a contemporaneous record of all events that can be recreated down the road if needed to pursue a legal claim.

Step 2: Notify Your Landlord inWriting

As a tenant, you are the primary person to identify a problem with your home and have an obligation to notify your landlord to kick in his duty to make a repair.

It demonstrates that your landlord was aware of the problem and should be taking steps to resolve. Notice is the primary legal element to pursuing any tenants rights legal claim against an unresponsive landlord.  

The most common defense to any legal claim by landlords is they were never informed by the tenant. The tenant's response is generally that they told their landlord but then you have an flimsy argument of “he said - she said”.

An empowered tenant knows to make sure they have put their notice in writing.  Every time there is an issue an empowered tenant will send a written communication and include the DOCUMENTATION they have already gathered from Step One.

I still recommend that tenants start with a friendly phone call requesting repairs. But then, the Empowered Tenant takes the important step of sending a confirmation email or text of the call and what was discussed so there is a record.

Just the simple step of sending a confirmation email of what was said on a call lets the landlord know you understand how to self-advocate and that alone often gets them to respond more quickly and professionally.

Step 3: Reach Out to Tenant Allies inYour Community

It is important to recognize that there are allies out there to assist you in your efforts to create a record and advocate for your right to safe, habitable housing. Depending on where you live there can be any number of allies, ranging from government agencies or private home inspectors, to non-profit organizations dedicated to assisting tenants.

Government agencies:

Every county, and most cities, have a Department of Building Inspections and a Department of Public Health. These agencies are charged with enforcing the state and local laws, building codes and health codes. These laws set out the minimum standards of habitability that all landlords must provide as part of their legal obligation to their tenants.

Building inspections focus on structural issues, such as leaks into your home,electrical problems, plumbing, etc. Health departments are for issues that impact public health, such as rodents, bedbugs, vermin, etc. Either will be able to direct you on the correct department and if things are really bad then you may need to contact both.

Private Home Inspectors:

If you have the resources you can also reach out to the multitude of private home inspection companies and generally have a comprehensive report prepared for$1,000 - $1,500. Such a report can help you to understand the severity of the problems and what repairs will be needed to fully resolve the problems and make your home safe.  

Cosmetic repairs are often the favorite response of an unscrupulous landlord looking to maximize their rent collection and allow their property to fall into disrepair at the tenants expense. Examples of cosmetic repairs include things like patching a failing roof in need of replacement or painting over toxic mold(something that only covers it from view, but allows the illness causing mold to continue to grow within the walls).

Non-Profit Organiziations:

Finally,nearly every community includes some local not-for-profit tenants rights organziation organization that can provide resources and direction to assist tenants with any multitude of problems.

Examples of community based tenant non-profit allies include:

-       Tenants Together - a California statewidetenants rights organization that helps find allies in your community.

-       La Raza - a statewide organizationserving the LatinX community

-       San Francisco in particularhas many smaller organizations such as:

-       Legal Assistance for the Elderly and Disabled

-       Housings Right Committee

-       SF Tenants Union

-       Rent Board

Hopefully just following the Empowered Tenants Checklist will get any problem promptly resolved. But if not, then these basic steps will help you find counsel to protect your rights and pursue your claims. If you found this helpful, consider exploring Tenant Law Action’s Resources page for more content designed to empower tenants to self advocate for the safe housing they deserve or use the Free Consultation form if you feel you’re in need of legal help.

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