Help! My landlord is awful!
The fungus we don’t want among us!
Fungi: they’re pretty when they’re out in the woods, delicious if you know what you’re doing with them in the kitchen, and deadly if you don’t. And, most importantly, you DO NOT want them growing in your house! Mold and mildew are close relatives of mushrooms, and they are one of the things we get the most calls about from unhappy tenants. But what are a tenant’s options when their landlord won’t fix the mold–or the rat infestation, the broken steps, the heater, or the air conditioner? It turns out that North Carolina is pretty good about protecting tenants’ rights in these cases.
North Carolina General Statutes on Residential Rental Agreements
N.C. Gen. Stat. § 42-42(a)(4) says that landlords must:
Maintain in good and safe working order and promptly repair all electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating, air conditioning, and other facilities and appliances supplied or required to be supplied by the landlord provided that notification of needed repairs is made to the landlord in writing by the tenant, except in emergency situations.
That makes two things pretty clear. One, that the landlord is broadly responsible for most of the appliances and systems that came with the apartment. Two, that tenants need to notify landlords in writing of the needed repairs. Not only is that second part law, it’s good common sense for tenants because it provides a paper trail and, if the matter goes to trial, evidence that the landlord knew about the problems and did nothing. On that note, tenants should keep a copy of every letter, note, or email they give the landlord.
More serious issues
There are also problems that a landlord must fix even without written notification from the tenant. These are problems that are more serious and immediate than the ones listed above. Even though it is not legally required, tenants should still give written notice to landlords of these defects for the reasons listed above. Here is the relevant section, N.C. Gen. Stat. §42-42(a)(8):
Within a reasonable period of time based upon the severity of the condition, repair or remedy any imminently dangerous condition on the premises after acquiring actual knowledge or receiving notice of the condition. Notwithstanding the landlord’s repair or remedy of any imminently dangerous condition, the landlord may recover from the tenant the actual and reasonable costs of repairs that are the fault of the tenant. For purposes of this subdivision, the term “imminently dangerous condition” means any of the following:
a. Unsafe wiring.
b. Unsafe flooring or steps.
c. Unsafe ceilings or roofs.
d. Unsafe chimneys or flues.
e. Lack of potable water.
f. Lack of operable locks on all doors leading to the outside.
g. Broken windows or lack of operable locks on all windows on the ground level.
h. Lack of operable heating facilities capable of heating living areas to 65 degrees Fahrenheit when it is 20 degrees Fahrenheit outside from November 1 through March 31.
i. Lack of an operable toilet.
j. Lack of an operable bathtub or shower.
k. Rat infestation as a result of defects in the structure that make the premises not impervious to rodents.
l. Excessive standing water, sewage, or flooding problems caused by plumbing leaks or inadequate drainage that contribute to mosquito infestation or mold.
Landlords can’t legally dodge these obligations
N.C. Gen. Stat. § 42-42(b) makes it clear that landlords can’t get out of these responsibilities by putting a waiver in a lease. Leases are important and can determine a lot of things left uncertain by these statutes, but not basic responsibilities like fixing leaking pipes, a broken heater in winter, or a rat infestation.
What can a tenant do?
As we all know, just because a law is on the books doesn’t mean that it plays out in reality. Tenants need to be vocal about their rights, and attempt to negotiate with their landlords, and even take matters to court if the negotiations go south. This can be difficult for non-confrontational tenants, but just remember: these are duties that a landlord owes you by law! If tenants keep communicating (in writing!) with their landlord about problems with the apartment and nothing is happening, it may be time to consider some other options.
Offering to fix things-for a price!
If tenants offer to fix issues themselves (or hire someone to fix them), the landlord may be amenable to giving the tenants a discount on rent or reimbursing them for expenses. Tenants should speak with the landlord before making repairs! If the matter turns into a lawsuit, it’s very easy for the landlord to say “the tenant tried to fix the problem, but they just made it worse!” For this reason, as always, get an agreement in writing.
Tenants could also simply ask for a reduction in rent until the problem is fixed. If the issues are so bad that the tenants just want to get out of the lease, they could also ask the landlord to release them from the lease, or move them to a new apartment free of charge.
Small claims court
The incentive for landlords to actually follow through on any of this is the threat of being sued. If the amount in controversy is less than $10,000.00, tenants can bring this lawsuit in small claims court. In court, they can present the evidence (written notices to the landlord, pictures of the problems in the apartment, and testimony about the landlord’s failure to fix things) and hope that the judge rules in their favor. The judge may order that the landlord pay rent abatement (to make up for the value of the living space lost because of the defects) to the tenants, and of course, to fix the problems. Small claims court is generally quite friendly and approachable to unrepresented people. The Mecklenburg County Courthouse even has a self-help center for pro se litigants.
When in doubt, dial 311.
In Mecklenburg County and many other counties in North Carolina, there are local rules governing what a landlord needs to do to keep dwellings safe and habitable. Calling code enforcement at 311 might be the perfect solution. If the problem is making the property unfit for habitation, code enforcement can inspect the property and, as their name suggests, enforce the code! Usually this will involve an administrative hearing (not at the courthouse or in front of a judge) where the landlord is told to comply. There are some issues that code enforcement can’t help with, such as mold and mildew. However, if there is significant leakage or flooding that has lead to mold or mosquitos, they will assess that and may find the landlord liable.
But what if I’m still having problems with the landlord?
If negotiations and calling code enforcement haven’t worked, and you don’t want to pursue the small claims case by yourself, calling an experienced local attorney may help. The Crews Law Firm frequently handles landlord/tenant matters in the greater Charlotte area, and we are happy to assist tenants in these types of matters.