Tenants need to know their rights Get agreements in writing
by JOYANNA LOVE Banner Senior Staff Writer
Jun 24, 2014 | 1220 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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CAPT. JAMES THOMPSON is handed a new flag for Bradley County Fire and Rescue Station 13 from Woodmen of the World Chapter 16 President W.W. Johnson. Inset are Engineer Jack Freeman, Bradley County Fire Chief Troy Maney, Dillon Guffey, Sarah Tarver, Berkeley Frey, Donovan Dilda and Captain Stoney Mathews. Banner photos, HOWARD PIERCE

Getting agreements in writing can save renters trouble when disputes arise upon what was agreed.

While the state of Tennessee does honor verbal lease agreements, Emily O’Donnell, a staff attorney for Legal Aid of East Tennessee, encourages tenants to have the lease and any exceptions in writing in order for them to hold up in court.

“The laws in Tennessee are extremely landlord-friendly,” O’Donnell said. “There is a pretty rich and powerful apartment association in Nashville that has a full-time lobbyist urging legislators to make things easier for landlords. … The good news is, if you know the law or you are fairly familiar with the law and you assert your rights, you can avoid a lot of common issues.”

O’Donnell gave a presentation about tenant rights and answered questions about the Landlord and Tenant Act Thursday at the Family Support Center on Blythe Avenue.

“In Tennessee, when you sign your lease you are agreeing to the property in an ‘as-is condition,’ unless your lease specifies repairs that are going to be made or the problems are codes violations,” O’Donnell said.

She encouraged potential renters not to sign a lease until damage is fixed or the issue is addressed in the lease with a promise the landlord will make necessary repairs. If repairs are not listed in the lease, the landlord cannot be legally held to make cosmetic repairs.

“Under the Landlord and Tenant Act, the landlord is required to do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premises in fit and habitable condition and make whatever repairs necessary. That means if the landlord provides a stove and the stove breaks, he or she has to fix it,” O’Donnell said. “What they do not have to fix is damage caused by the tenant.”

Any agreements about arraignments, such as lowering the rent because the renter is taking care of the yard work, need to also be in writing.

Laws in Tennessee allow landlords to have a clause in the lease stipulating if rent is not paid on time, they can start the eviction process without notice to the tenant, O’Donnell said.

This means they can begin the legal process and paperwork. If a lease is in place, has not expired and the renter is paying on time, a landlord cannot legally throw a tenant out of an apartment without notice.

Evictions are decided in court.

Recent changes to state law require only 14 days’ notice of eviction rather than the original 30 days.

“Nothing relieves a tenant from their obligation to pay,” O’Donnell said.

Whether a landlord makes required repairs in a timely manner or not, renters are still required to pay.

“As soon as the renter stops paying rent, the landlord has the right to begin the eviction process,” O’Donnell said.

Getting a history of the utilities from the utility company is also recommended. O’Donnell said the landlord is not responsible for utility bills. She encourages renters to look at utility bills. The company is required to give a year of averages. Sometimes it might require finding the right person at the utility for that particular information.

Reading and understanding everything in a lease is crucial to avoiding problems later.

“If there are words or legal mumbo jumbo that you don’t understand, you should have someone explain it to you. If you bring this to Legal Aid [of East Tennessee], there will always be someone who can answer your questions,” O’Donnell said.

Although the office is in Chattanooga, Legal Aid of East Tennessee does serve Bradley County. A representative is also available at the Family Support Center on Blythe Avenue on the first and third Monday of the month. The service is offered from 9 a.m. to noon.

“If you have an emergency situation that can’t wait until the next Monday, we can accommodate that,” O’Donnell said.

She said if someone has a housing issue, that may need legal help. They need to contact Legal Aid as soon as the problem arises. O’Donnell said her office gets calls from people needing help the day before their court date, but at that point it is often to late for her to help.

O’Donnell said renters do have rights in an “unlawful eviction.”

“An unlawful eviction would be one where you get home and the locks are changed [without the landlord going through the court system],” O’Donnell said.

The law allows for the renter in this case to file a lawsuit to regain the value of their possessions that have been taken, plus any “punitive damages.”

Extended stay motels can be held to the Landlord and Tenant Act if the person staying there pays on a monthly basis, and is seen as living at the location rather than being a transient guest, O’Donnell said.

Once a tenant has moved in, repairs need to be requested in writing in case issues arise. Unfortunately, if the landlord refuses to make a required repair the only legal recourse is court. However, O’Donnell said sometimes talking to the landlord or writing a letter stating the tenant is considering legal action can help. If a landlord does not make a required repair, the tenant can legally break their lease. Many of the clients Legal Aid sees do not have the money for another deposit.

Code violations complicate things for a renter. Many times if a tenant calls codes enforcement for a violation, the landlord evicts them for reporting the violation. O’Donnell said this is “retaliation, and you’re not supposed to do that, but it happens all the time.”

However, O’Donnell said most landlords come up with a more legitimate-sounding reason.

“We have some really bad landlords in Cleveland, and they are not always honest. So, typically the judges say, ‘Well, this isn’t working out and it’s probably better that the tenant just go.’ That’s not how its supposed to work. It’s supposed to be that the tenant has a contractual right to stay on the property until that lease is legally ended,” O’Donnell said.

She said if a landlord uses a falsified reason for eviction, a tenant has a good legal defense if they can prove the assertion false.

However, if a person does not renew a lease after the agreement expires (usually one year) then it becomes a month-to-month agreement and the landlord can legally say the tenant has to leave with 30 days’ notice. Renters need to renew their lease to keep the legal rights of that agreement.

Fair Housing laws require that landlords cannot discriminate when deciding who to rent to or evict someone based on religion, race, ethnicity, gender or familial status. The fine for violating these laws the first time is $10,000.

The Chattanooga office of Legal Aid of East Tennessee can be reached at 423-756-4013.