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Your Rights as a Tenant

If your application to rent an apartment is rejected, you have a right to know why. It is illegal for a landlord to refuse your rental application for discriminatory reasons. This article focuses on the general rights of tenants, as governed by state and federal law. See Tips for Protecting Your Tenant Rights and Landlord Tenant Disputes FAQ for more information. 

Federal Anti-Discrimination Law 

Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Familial status (including not allowing children, discrimination against pregnant women)
  • Physical disability
  • Mental disability (including alcoholism and past drug addiction)

State and Local Laws 

States and many cities have similar housing laws, and yours may prohibit other kinds of discrimination, including:

  • Marital status
  • Sexual orientation

Additional Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws 

Federal housing law prohibits a variety of discriminatory conduct:

  1. Advertising cannot contain any statement indicating a preference or limitation based on any of the protected classes listed above.

  2. The landlord may not make any similar implication or statement.

  3. A landlord cannot say that an apartment is not available when in fact it is available.

  4. A landlord cannot use a different set of rules for assessing applicants belonging to a protected class.

  5. A landlord cannot refuse to rent to persons in a protected class.

  6. A landlord cannot provide different services or facilities to tenants in a protected class or require a larger deposit, or treat late rental payments differently.

  7. A landlord cannot end a tenancy for a discriminatory reason.

  8. A landlord cannot harass you.

Note: The federal housing statutes do not apply to all rental property. The main exceptions are owner-occupied buildings with four or fewer rental units (e.g., a duplex), housing offered by religious groups or private organizations for their members, housing designated for senior citizens, and single-family housing being rented without discriminatory advertising or a real estate broker.

Service Animals 

A landlord cannot refuse to rent to you because of a "no pets" policy if you have a trained helper animal, such as a seeing-eye dog, or a dog that helps you negotiate with a physical or mental disability. If the landlord does refuse, he or she has violated federal law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Example: A jury in Minneapolis, Minnesota, recently awarded large damages to a man who was grief-stricken after his son's murder and had begun taking care of his son's dog at the suggestion of his therapist. Before he started taking care of the dog he was severely depressed and not functioning normally. The jury concluded that enforcing the landlord's no-pets policy under those circumstances was a form of disability discrimination.

Disclosure Requirements 

If you were rejected because the landlord received negative information about you, including information from previous landlords, your employer, your bank or other third parties, you have a right to know why.

Under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act a landlord has to tell you if the rejection was based on negative credit information that came from a source other than your credit report.

  • The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act also requires a landlord to tell you that, during the sixty days after he or she informs you that there was negative credit information, you may submit a written request for disclosure of the negative information.
  • After receiving your request for disclosure of the negative information, the landlord must tell you "the nature of the information," within a "reasonable time." The law does not indicate how much detail the landlord must give you.

Right to a Habitable Home 

You have a right to "habitable" premises. This is a fancy way of saying the apartment or house you are renting is fit to be lived in. Don't compromise on this right. You have a right not to live in a hovel. Most states do not let a landlord put language in the lease stating that you "waive" the right (that is, give it up). The following conditions could make premises "uninhabitable."

  • Unsafe conditions, such as holes in the floor, plaster coming down from the ceiling, bad wiring, and the like.
  • Gross infestation of vermin such as cockroaches or mice.

Lead Content  

Under federal law, rental housing must be free of lead-based paint. It is more typical in older buildings, and up to 75 percent of the housing stock is still affected by it. No matter how old or new the premises are, watch for chipping paint, peeling paint, flaking paint, and paint dust.

Warning: Lead-based paint is extremely dangerous to small children and pets, causing damage to the central nervous system. Crawling and toddling children interact with their environments by putting things in their mouths, and paint dust is easily inhaled. The consequences for your children could include diminished IQs, learning disabilities, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD), mental retardation, and brain damage.

Tenant Privacy  

You have a right to privacy. Your landlord cannot come into your apartment or house without prior permission unless there is a true emergency like a fire or a flood in the bathroom.

The landlord must give you advance notice before coming into your apartment for other reasons, like making repairs or showing the unit to a potential tenant. Some states have laws that regulate these entries and set forth rules on how much advance notice the landlord must give, and whether the landlord must tell you what time he or she will enter and why.

Security Deposits 

Your landlord cannot require a deposit that exceeds a limit set by your state's law. Not all states have an upper limit, however. Also, the statute may allow different limits depending on your age (a lower limit for senior citizens, for example), whether you have a pet or waterbed, the length of your lease, or other factors.

A landlord must treat tenants equally on deposit requirements. If you are required to provide a larger deposit than one of your neighbors, you have the right to know why.

In many states the landlord must return the deposit to you at the end of the lease term with interest set by a statute.

Many states also have a statute stating how much time a landlord may take to return your deposit after you move out (usually thirty days).

If the entire deposit is not returned, your landlord must send you an itemized list of how the money was spent. Common conditions that lead to reduced deposit refunds include:

  • Repairs to damages on the premises beyond mere wear and tear
  • Cleaning to restore the premises to the condition they were in at the beginning of your lease (beyond normal wear and tear)
  • Unpaid rent

How to Protect Your Rights as a Tenant

Tip: Take pictures of the apartment when you first move in, especially areas that may be damaged already, and take the same picture when you move out. Save the receipts for developing the film so you know which is which and can establish the date on which you took the pictures. Or make videotape.

You have several legal rights if your landlord takes action against you for nonpayment of rent or a breach of the lease. Generally, your rights relate to having proper notice of the proceedings against you, a chance to make good on the unpaid rent or to repair your breach of the lease, and rights to appeal. If you are worried that you may be evicted, you may want to discuss the situation with a lawyer or a local tenants' association.

You also have a right to take legal action against your landlord for breach of contract if he or she breaches the lease, fails to return your deposit, takes unwarranted deductions from your deposit, or fails to make repairs. Before proceeding, you will want to discuss your options with a lawyer.

Next Steps
Contact a qualified real estate attorney to help you
navigate any landlord-tenant issues.
(e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)

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