‘Self-help’ evictions bring stiff penalties for landlords

Proper procedure eliminates legal troubles

Q: I’ve had money problems lately and my landlord is threatening to change the locks if I’m late again paying the rent. Can he just toss me out?

A: Toss you out? No, it’s not the Wild West anymore. Landlords or property managers are not allowed to take the locks – or the law – into their own hands. Known as “self-help” evictions, actions such as changing the locks is illegal for a landlord or their agents to do unless a formal court eviction has been granted. Other items on the no-can-do list include:

  • Turning off the utilities, such as water, gas or electricity.

  • Taking or removing tenant belongings.

  • Threatening harm to the tenant or his property.

  • Removing any doors, windows, gates or other part of the property that provides safety or is guaranteed as part of the lease.

  • Disturbing tenant peace and enjoyment of the property by making noise or otherwise interfering with the use of the place.

  • Locking them out of the property.

  • Calling the police and complaining, unless a valid problem exists.

  • Harassing them or their guests, including spying, calling or sending inappropriate correspondence.

Most states have outlawed self-help evictions initiated by landlords, and have added penalties for shock value. Every state sets up its level of law and damages. For example, in New York, triple damages may be awarded by the presiding judge. Across the country in California, a daily penalty of $100 plus actual tenant damages may be applied to the landlord in favor of the tenant.

So what can the landlord do? Serve you with formal three-day notice and proceed from there. Non-payment of rent is the most common reason tenants are evicted in most states. A properly executed eviction is serious business, affecting your credit report and even resume for many years to come. The bottom line? Don’t delay working out the situation. Try speaking to the landlord and working out a solution, and no matter which way you move, get a written agreement you can both live with.

Q: Our band sometimes uses my apartment for practice. Now the landlady has handed me a “Notice to Perform Covenant,” which is giving me three days to stop disturbing others. Can she interfere with our music?

A: Unplug your guitar and read the notice carefully. Also known as a “Three-Day Notice” this humble piece of paper is the first legal step landlords may take in order to evict you legally. It does not allow her to actually throw you out in three days, but instead is notice to “cure or quit” whatever you are doing in three days. The notice should detail what you are doing that is violating your rental agreement, and give details on complying or facing the next step, which is usually a formal eviction notice. In this case, playing music that disturbs other residents is probably considered a violation of your lease. Don’t miss a beat on this situation – stop the music and find somewhere more appropriate to showcase your talent.

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Q: We suspect a neighbor is dealing drugs, since cars come by at all hours and cash is being exchanged. What can be done?

A: According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “Of convicted drug and property offenders, about 1 in 4 drug offenders committed their crimes to get money for drugs.” Not only is drug dealing dangerous, the clientele aren’t great for the neighborhood either. What can be done? Fortunately, special eviction laws have been enacted in many states in an effort to curb illegal goings-on, especially drug-related activity.

Known as “expedited evictions,” these cases are supposed to rocket through the legal system at record speed in order to send troublesome neighbors flying. In some states, such as Arizona, court dates for evicting serious offenders is available in three days or less, allowing a landlord to terminate the tenancy almost immediately.

In many states, including California and New York, a landlord is required by law to evict a drug-dealing tenant, or he/she could lose the offending property to the government. Virtually every state and locality has laws detailing what can be done.

Have you witnessed a drug deal? Contact your local law enforcement agency for guidance. Meanwhile, if you have evidence or suspect someone is breaking the law; notify the property owner immediately, both in writing and with a call, that trouble is afoot. Quick action may help preserve everyone’s property – and the neighborhood.

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