In Oklahoma and six other states, landlords can evict renters for reporting health and safety violations

Collaborator: Streetlight
Published: 09/17/2021, 9:25 PM

Written By: Mollie Bryant

(NATIONAL) Most states have housing laws that bar landlords from retaliating against renters for things like filing formal complaints about housing conditions.

Read this story on Big If True here.

Seven states don’t have that protection for renters, which housing advocates say enables slumlords to continue leasing unsafe, unlivable properties by evicting renters who issue complaints.

In Oklahoma, Louisiana, Wyoming and a handful of other states, landlords can evict tenants for filing health and safety complaints about dangerous, unhealthy living conditions. Elsewhere, such evictions are considered retaliation and are illegal.

“If you don’t have a statute, it’s just a very dicey position to be in as a tenant,” said Eric Dunn, director of litigation for the National Housing Law Project. “I think a lot of people would more likely be deterred from making those types of complaints, which really is against public policy because the reason we have building codes and health codes (is) every rental property should be safe, habitable and appropriate for people to live in.”

Aside from eviction, retaliation can include not renewing a lease, making abrupt, hefty rent increases or requiring tenants to pay a second security deposit or other additional fees.

Housing advocates say landlord retaliation is most often prompted by renters reporting poor housing conditions to a local health department or another agency that enforces housing codes. States that block landlord retaliation tend to consider evictions retaliatory if they take place within a certain amount of time after a renter files a complaint.

Landlords also retaliate against tenants who ask for repairs or stand up for rights outlined in their lease that their landlord isn’t complying with, housing attorneys said.

Some renters who are retaliated against have a history of making late rent payments. Even if making late payments wasn’t a problem in the past, landlords can use that history to argue they’re filing an eviction because of past-due rent.

States that do have laws banning retaliation against renters may lack robust systems to enforce them. And retaliation can be challenging to fight in court, especially without a lawyer.

“Even in places where there are statutes, a lot of times retaliation can be a difficult defense for tenants, because either the jurisdiction makes it harder to prove … or just there’d be other procedural difficulties,” Dunn said. “A lot of states make it so that you can never raise retaliation (as a defense) if you’re behind on rent.”

Renters evicted for calling 911, asking to keep a service dog

Eric Hallett, the statewide coordinator of housing advocacy for Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, said his team sees renters every week who are being evicted in retaliation for something – usually because they filed a complaint with a local health department, asked for repairs or wanted an inspection.

Casper, Wyoming has few state or local laws on the books about leasing properties. Charlie Jackson, a HUD-certified housing counselor for the Wyoming Housing Network, said landlord retaliation happens a lot in Casper.

One of Jackson’s clients had a landlord who wouldn’t renew her lease after she reported mold issues that had gone unaddressed. Another client received an eviction notice after a 911 call over a ringing carbon dioxide monitor led the fire department to issue her landlord a citation for a gas leak.

Sometimes renters with experiences like these want to stay in their homes just long enough to find another place to live.

“I think once a landlord starts doing things like retaliation that a lot of tenants are like, ‘I just need to get out of here, get away from them as soon as possible,’” Jackson said.

Landlords sometimes evict renters who ask for accommodations for their disabilities, like keeping a service dog, Hallett said. When that happens, an eviction is considered discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.

“For people who don’t realize that they have federal protections there, they get evicted all the time in retaliation for making a request for an accommodation,” Hallett said.

Rental unit shortage poses greater risk for tenants who file complaints

If Jackson believes a client is dealing with retaliation, she refers them to legal aid. She also calls landlords to try to find workarounds that would allow their tenants to stay housed amid a nationwide housing crunch.

“Our rental market is very sparse right now,” Jackson said. “There’s just not a lot of opportunities for people right now.”

Communities across the country have few available rental units and even fewer that are affordable for low-income renters. So for renters in states that allow landlord retaliation, filing complaints about poor housing conditions carries extra risks.

If evicted, they could have trouble finding an open unit and face additional barriers obtaining a lease with an eviction on their record.

“If you complain, you are asking to become homeless, and right now there is no place to move, so that’s what happens,” Hallett said.

After landlords evict someone who complains about their property, it’s often possible for them to rent the unit to another tenant without making any repairs. In some cases, this can result in a cycle of renters moving in and out of units that are uninhabitable.

Housing advocates want updated landlord-tenant laws

Last year, the Casper City Council passed a measure that allows the city’s building department to inspect properties in response to health and safety complaints from renters. But a last-minute change gave an exemption to private homeowners, who can require the city to obtain a warrant before conducting an inspection, the Casper Star-Tribune reported.

Organizations in Casper are pushing for policies that would give renters more rights. For instance, Wyoming laws also don’t address abrupt rent increases that are regulated in most states.

“There just need to be more protections for people,” Jackson said.

Next week, members from the Oklahoma House of Representatives will hold a meeting to examine the state’s landlord-tenant laws, especially surrounding evictions.

“My hope is that this one issue will finally go somewhere in Oklahoma, because it would benefit a lot of tenants, and I think it would help with improving housing conditions,” said Hallett.

In July, more than 100 renters were forced to leave their homes at the Vista Shadow Mountain Apartments in Tulsa after the property was condemned for fire and building code violations.

“But we have other places in Tulsa that are much worse and use eviction against people who complain, and so we need these retaliation laws,” Hallett said.

Quick fact: Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Wyoming allow landlords to retaliate against renters.

Looking for help?

Contact editor Mollie Bryant at 405-990-0988 or Follow her on Twitter.

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