I get a lot of emails from tenants who are living in unimaginable circumstances. No heat or hot water in the winter, basements and walls covered in black mold, flooded basements, even a collapsed ceiling or two. Their circumstances vary, but the question at the end of the email is generally the same: “What can I do now?”
Let’s rewind a little, and go back to when the problems first started. We’ll assume that you alerted your landlord to the problem immediately. We’ll even give the landlord the benefit of the doubt and assume he or she assured you that the problem would be fixed ASAP, since most landlords see the value in correcting serious defects in their properties. After all, they need to protect their investment. Even so, there are things you should be doing right now, in the beginning.
Every conversation, whether via email, phone, or in person should be documented with the date, time, and any pertinent information:
- “Spoke to Mr. Jones on May 8, 2015 at 3:22 PM, told him about the collapsed ceiling, he said he would be right over.”
- “Mr. Jones showed up at 4:15, looked at the ceiling, and promised to have a contractor here by May 11.”
Also, you should take clear photographs of the conditions, if possible. Nobody’s expecting you to be Ansel Adams, just take clear photos that show what happened. If the problem is something you can’t see, like the lack of heat, take a photo of the thermostat showing that it’s 43 degrees in your home instead of 70. You should also call 311 and report the problem so an inspector can come to your home and write a detailed report about his or her findings.
The point is to have solid documentation that shows you’re serious about taking care of the issue, and that you made every attempt to contact your landlord to get the problems fixed.
If, for whatever reason, your landlord is non-responsive and never makes any effort to make the necessary repairs, then it may be time to escalate matters and take your landlord to court. But before doing so, ask yourself two things:
- Is this issue a matter of health and safety? (In other words, don’t sue someone because you don’t like the paint color, the carpet, or the next-door neighbors.) If it’s not a matter of health and safety, think about whether it’s something you could fix yourself, easily and/or inexpensively.
- Is this issue worth my time and energy? (If you only have a couple of months left on your lease, can you deal with it and move instead of going to court? I’ll come back to this point later.)
If you decide the issue is worth pursuing, you can file for what’s called “Rent Escrow” in District Court. (Click the link for more detailed information, and the form you need to fill out and file with the court.)
The premise of Rent Escrow is simple: You go before a judge, detail all of the issues (including all of the documentation we discussed earlier), and explain why you should not be paying rent to your landlord to live in the home until the problems are fixed. You will note that I said “paying rent to your landlord” — if the judge finds there is just cause to proceed, you still have to pay rent. However, the judge can order you to pay your rent (or an adjusted amount) to the court (hence the “escrow” part) where it will be held until such time as the landlord makes repairs, or the judge decides the landlord has had plenty of time to do so and has failed to meet his or her obligation. The money, all or in part, can either be returned to you (if the landlord doesn’t do what has been required by the court) or to the landlord (if he or she makes the necessary repairs in a timely fashion.)
Here’s where the “Is this worth your time and energy?” question comes into play. Going to court is unpleasant, even under the best of circumstances. There’s a reason why “Spending an entire day at the District Court on Fayette Street” is never on anyone’s bucket list, trust me. So give it careful consideration before filing — is this worth your time and energy? Many times the answer is “yes”. You have a long lease period left, or you don’t have the time or money to find a new home and move. Discuss the issue with your friends and family, and seek advice from an attorney. Many attorneys offer a free consultation, and Maryland Legal Aid, the Pro Bono Resource Center, MVLS, and the Public Justice Center can offer advice and/or help, especially if you’re low income.
My goal with this post is not to offer legal advice, but to outline an option that many aren’t aware of. Many issues can indeed be resolved without walking into a courtroom, in fact, many should be resolved without walking into a courtroom. However, if you do find that court is necessary, the more information you have and the more information you can confidently give a judge, the better your chances of making things happen. Best of luck, and don’t hesitate to send an email if you have any questions or just want to vent.