Q: We own a house that we rent to an elderly woman and her son. We were called to repair a leak under the kitchen sink. The house was filthy: the rug had large food stains; the kitchen floor needed washing; the kitchen appliances were all food-stained; and two containers of food on the kitchen table had mold in them. Worse, there were cockroaches scurrying everywhere. When I mentioned the condition of the house to the son, he said that he sprayed. I told him the house also needed to be cleaned. He asked me who was I to come into his house and tell him what to do? I would appreciate your advice as to my landlord rights. –Christine L.
A: Most states require tenants to keep the rental reasonably clean, and some go so far as to list the tenant’s specific duties, such as maintaining appliances in a way that does not damage them. Smart landlords will repeat these duties in a lease clause that tells the tenant what his responsibilities are — and that if he fails to live up to them, he may find himself on the receiving end of a "cure-or-quit" termination notice. If your state does not directly address tenant behavior in its codes, there’s nothing stopping you from writing your own lease clause, setting forth reasonable property-care practices and consequences for noncompliance.
No state legislates (nor should you impose) floor-washing schedules and refrigerator purge cycles, and no state makes moldy food on the table an evictable offense. However, when poor housekeeping habits result in unsanitary conditions that threaten the structure or the health or safety of other residents, landlords can step in. For example, if your tenants’ refusal to open the windows or use the fan in the bathroom has resulted in mold, you can insist that they begin using the ventilation options or face the consequences (a bill for the cost to remove the mold and repair the surfaces it’s grown on). Similarly, no one would argue that if you can trace the roach problem to your tenant’s kitchen, you are within your rights to demand that the practice be stopped (and you can bill the tenants for any eradication efforts you may have to undertake, too).
Q: I manage a small apartment complex. I’m an amputee, and until now, I’ve been able to handle all of the work without too much difficulty. But now the owner has fired the maintenance man as a cost-cutting measure, and wants me to take on his responsibilities, which involve physical exertions that I can’t perform. I’ve pointed out that I’m disabled, and asked if we could figure out a way for someone else, perhaps someone who comes in on a weekly basis, to take up those chores. The owner points to my prosthetic leg, says I appear to manage quite well and don’t look disabled to him — and says no. What are my rights? –Lim S.
A: Until recently, your landlord might have had some legal backing for his conclusion that someone who uses corrective measures, like your prosthesis, isn’t disabled if those measures remove the limitation to a major life activity that the physical or mental condition caused. But all of that changed when President Bush signed amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2008. Those amendments, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2009, directly address the question you pose, and settle the matter: With the exception of corrective eye lenses and contacts, corrective measures that return an otherwise disabled person to normal functioning won’t destroy that person’s status as a person with a disability.
Go back to your landlord and, armed with this explanation, ask that he engage in a meaningful discussion with you as to how those maintenance chores might be accomplished. In legal parlance, you’re asking the landlord for an "accommodation," which is a variation in the landlord’s usual method of doing business in order to keep you on the job. But understand that landlords, like any employer, are not required to comply with every request for an accommodation. If the request will place an undue financial burden on the employer, the employer may refuse.
The law requires landlords and employers to engage in a meaningful discussion when you ask for an accommodation. To prepare, you may want to get a little help from a fair housing group before approaching your landlord. They are well versed in the law and in ways to constructively approach the issues.
Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord’s Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant’s Legal Guide." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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