Renters’ Rights

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(Memphis)  Latasha Smith shows us the mold covering nearly half her home.
It's on floors, walls, even blinds. "It's real bad," she says.
Smith says she noticed the mold about eight months ago and immediately contacted her landlord, and later code enforcement. "Basically to break it down, the only thing I was getting was, we`ll get back in touch with you," explains Smith.
By the time we meet Smith, she`s fed up and moving out. "I don`t want to fight no more... this is it, I`m gone, bye bye," Smith exclaims with the moving truck behind her.

Smith's landlord let her out of the lease, but sometimes rental disputes get ugly. Sapna Raj is the Managing Attorney at the Memphis Fair Housing Center.   

"The landlord is supposed to keep the premise in workable conditions, and also responsible to provide essential services under the Landlord Tenant Act.  That includes water, electricity and gas," explains Raj.

It's when this doesn't happen, or a variation of, that folks end up in a fight. Even so, contrary to popular belief, Raj says tenants cannot stop paying their rent.  "If you don't have essential services you have a right to put that money in an escrow account and hold it."

It's all spelled out in the Landlord Tenant Act, but let's be honest, how many folks have read it?  For example, landlords can't raise rent during the lease period, but they can charge whatever they want once it's up. "It`s market rent," adds Raj.

Speaking of, pay it on time, and partial payments don't count.  Raj explains how the eviction process can start sooner that you think.  "The landlord cannot charge a late fee until the 5th, but your rent is due on the 1st, so if you don`t pay it by the 2nd, the landlord can under the Landlord Tenant Act, take you to court and have you evicted."
By the way, landlords can't just change the locks and throw you out. They have to file what's called a detainer warrant.  Once you go to court, even if a judge rules against you, Raj says there is some time before you'll be forced to leave. "Then the tenant has 10 days after that to move out before their belongings can be put out on the curb."
Judge Deborah Henderson rules on such cases in her General Sessions Courtroom. She says there are also misconceptions about the rules. "Our court is not like the courts that you see on television, the Judge Judy's and the Joe Browns."

While you can represent yourself, Judge Henderson says it's imperative to understand the law.  She keeps flyers and information near her bench about free, legal advice. "My concern is, can we educate people enough so that once they're here, they know how to present the case or they know what proof is necessary for the case," says Judge Henderson.

In order to stay out of court, Raj says check the fine print. "It begins with reading whatever you sign very carefully."

Smith says she doesn't want the next tenant to have the same experience. "I hope they don't move nobody else in here because that's a hazard for so somebody's health."

Another important tip, request repairs in writing and keep a copy for your records.  If you're in a dispute, document everything.  Also, have an inspection when you move out and take photos. That way you're not stuck paying for damage that isn't your fault.

Important Info:

Code Enforcement-901-576-7380

Landlord Tenant Act Brochure