Tenant endures retaliation for 'fix-it ticket'

Rent it Right

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 19, 2012

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Rent it Right

Janet Portman
Inman News®

Q: Last week some inspectors from the city asked to come into my apartment and check for code compliance. I said OK, and they found a few violations (stuff I'd asked my landlord to fix many times).

I understand that they gave my landlord a "fix-it ticket," and he did the work. But he was annoyed with me for letting them in; he said I should've said "no," and told him about the visit. He claims he would have fixed the problems right away, but now he has a "record." He's asked me to move when my lease is up. Is there anything I can do about that? --Sheri L.

A: Your landlord appears to be retaliating against you for consenting to an inspection by city authorities. He is correct in one respect: You probably could have refused to let the inspectors in. But whether he can legally retaliate against you is another matter.

From what you have told us, this inspection appears to be one that was not supported by a search warrant -- an order, signed by a judge, that gives the inspector the power to enter, even over your objections.

Under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, inspectors (and the police, for that matter) can get a warrant to enter and search only after they convince a judge that it's more likely than not that contraband or evidence of a crime is inside the home.

Without a warrant, inspectors can enter only in an emergency or to preserve evidence that's about to be destroyed. When the homeowner or tenant consents to the entry, they've waived these protections.

It doesn't sound like any of the exceptions to the warrant requirement were present when the inspectors knocked on your door. They appear to have been conducting routine inspections, assuming that's the drill in your city's inspection program.

Had you said "no," they would have had to go to court to get a warrant (called an "administrative warrant" in some jurisdictions), but even the warrant can be challenged if the only purpose of the visit is to inspect.

Your landlord's response is understandable, to a point. True, you could have refused entry, called him immediately, and alerted him to the need to finally take care of problems that will result in citations if they're still evident when the inspectors come back.

Belatedly, prompt action on his part might have averted a fix-it ticket and placement on the list of offending landlords. But you were under no obligation to do so, and may not have wanted to cause more work for people who have tenants' best interests at heart, or to place yourself in an antagonistic position.

Retaliatory responses like this are apparently not uncommon. The state of Washington has recently addressed the issue. Under Washington law, landlords may not take retaliatory action against tenants who consent to government code enforcement officials' requests to enter (Revised Code of Washington Annotated Section 59.18.150).

Refusing to renew your lease would come within the number of actions that qualify as retaliatory, at least in Washington. If you want to renew your lease, be sure you give your landlord no independent and legitimate reasons for deciding not to renew.

For example, if, between now and the end of your lease, you are late with the rent or otherwise fail to live up to a tenant's general obligations to keep the property reasonably clean and undamaged, your landlord might have solid grounds for refusing to keep you, in spite of your argument that the real motivation is your cooperation with the inspectors.

Q: We are tenants (two adults) of a single-family home, and have obtained the owner's permission to sublease the house for six months while we are away on a job assignment. The owner wants adult tenants only, but if we turn away applicants with children, won't we be breaking the law? The owner says the law doesn't apply to him. --Jack and Miriam F.

A: In most situations, landlords would indeed be breaking the law to adopt a policy of renting only to adults. Such a policy would amount to discrimination against families, which is specifically prohibited by the federal fair housing law (42 U.S. Code Annotated Section 3603).

But (isn't there always a "but"?) the law provides several exemptions, including the "single-family" exemption. This one exempts owners from the ban on discrimination in renting as long as they rent a single-family house without the use of discriminatory advertising and without the use of a real estate broker or agent.

To qualify, the owner must not own more than three such single-family homes at any one time.

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