What is Material Noncompliance?
Anyone who has rented an apartment understands that, by signing a lease, they agree to pay rent in a timely manner and to comply with all other terms stated in the contract. But landlords also have certain obligations, particularly with respect to habitability standards, as well as local and state housing codes (see State Property & Real Estate Laws for a directory). When a landlord fails to meet these standards despite reasonable requests by the tenant, he or she may be sued for "material noncompliance."
This article covers the basics of material noncompliance, which is essentially a breach of contract in the context of landlord tenant law. For related information, see FindLaw's Landlord Tenant Law subsection, which includes Landlord Tenant Disputes FAQs and A Tenant's Rights to Landlord Repairs.
Habitability & Housing Codes
A property is considered "habitable" if it has adequate heating, water, electricity, general cleanliness, and is structurally sound. Legally speaking, habitability is enforced as an implied warranty, meaning the landlord has a duty to maintain the standards of habitability (which vary by state and locality).
While most state laws requiring certain habitability standards are very similar, some states provide extra protections for tenants. New York statute, for example, requires lobby attendant service; elevator mirrors; smoke detectors; protection from lead paint; intercoms and self-locking doors; and window guards.
Additionally, landlords must comply with applicable housing codes. These typically address things such as ventilation, electrical wiring, light, lead paint, and smoke detectors. Some states require tenant safety mechanisms, such as deadbolts on the doors, latches on all exterior windows, and mandates to change locks between tenants.
Dealing with Material Noncompliance
If your landlord has not made necessary repairs or maintenance in a timely manner after being notified, you have a few options for resolving the problem. Sometimes just informing the landlord that you understand your rights and his or her responsibilities will encourage action. If not, consider the following (and consult with your state and local laws to determine which options are available in your area):
- Pay less rent, or withhold it entirely, until the repair is made.
- Hire an outside party to do the work and subtract the cost from your next rent payment.
- If the problem is in violation of a state or local housing code, contact the local authorities.
- Move out of the property and consider filing a lawsuit for constructive eviction and/or material noncompliance.
See Landlords' Duties Regarding Repairs and Maintenance, and to Provide Notice to Tenants for Entry for more details about material noncompliance and a landlord's responsibilities. Consider meeting with a landlord-tenant lawyer if you need legal assistance.