3 Kinds of Unlawful Evictions

Evictions: they’re a worst-case scenario for both landlords and tenants.

Unfortunately, millions of evictions proceed each year. One control on this alarming statistic are laws prohibiting certain kinds of illegal evictions in each state.

As a landlord, you cannot evict a tenant for any reason you want. In fact, doing to without valid justification (e.g., the tenant stopped paying rent, acted violently towards neighbors, etc.) is explicitly against the law.

The pandemic introduced many additional protections for tenants against evictions, including an eviction ban instated by the CDC. While this law is no longer in effect, it represents a broader range of protections tenants may be granted in unideal or uncontrollable circumstances.

It’s your responsibility to know whether an eviction (or other means of removing a tenant) is legal. In general, an eviction is illegal when a landlord does not follow legal guidelines and attempts to force a tenant to vacate another way.

Below are three kinds of unlawful evictions and how to avoid them.

  1. Self-Help Evictions

A self-help eviction occurs when a landlord, rather than filing for an eviction formally, takes matters into their own hands by making the property inhabitable.

“Inhabitable” could mean any number of things, but generally the landlord is attempting to get their tenant to move on their own, without an official eviction.

Any of the following actions could be interpreted as a self-help eviction:

  • Changing the locks on a unit, effectively locking the tenant out
  • Taking tenant belongings
  • Frequently entering the unit without prior notice
  • Withholding utilities, such as heat or water
  • Claiming that a tenant broke a term that wasn’t in the original rental agreement

All the above actions are illegal. In fact, if the tenant has not broken any terms of the contract, you cannot pursue eviction at all. You must have “just cause,” or a valid reason to evict a renter. Typically, “just cause” means breaking the lease agreement.

The consequences for an illegal eviction are severe. Depending on the state, renters can sue you large amounts which include personal property damages, legal fees, and attorney rates. The court may also require you to return the security deposit or other charges.

  1. Retaliation Eviction

A retaliation eviction occurs when a landlord pursues an eviction as retaliation against a tenant’s actions. A common retaliation situation is when a tenant reports a landlord to a health or housing authority for failing to properly maintain the unit.

Because retaliation evictions have no “just cause,” they are also illegal. Even if a tenant frequently complains or asks for improvements beyond the scope of routine maintenance, you still cannot evict them.

Instead, try to think objectively and resolve the situation with the tenant. Never threaten eviction as a punishment for proactive behavior but accept their criticism professionally while declining unreasonable requests.

If a tenant does file a complaint against you, tread carefully. If you think you’ll have just cause to evict the tenant in the future, keep detailed records of any lease violations. This way, you’ll be able to prove your eviction is valid and not retaliatory.

  1. Repair and Deduct Situation

Finally, it’s illegal to evict a tenant in a repair and deduct (or repair and remedy) situation.

In some states, tenants have the right to withhold rent and make repairs themselves if their landlord refuses to remedy a severe health or safety hazard.

These situations occur infrequently but are worth recognizing. If a tenant decides to withhold rent, they have technically broken their agreement to pay the designated monthly rent amount. However, if it’s legal to repair and deduct in the state, you cannot peruse eviction. What appears to be “just cause” is in fact negligence on your part.

Rather than risk a repair and deduct situation or further legal predicaments, focus on maintaining your units beyond the minimum standards of habitability. Aim to resolve health and safety issues as quickly as possible.

Conclusion

Evictions are a necessary reality for most landlords at some point in their rental property management career. However, knowing the laws surrounding evictions should be your goal even through long-term tenancies. By understanding these three illegal evictions, you’ll be better able to justify the evictions you do pursue.

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