What You Should Know About Tenant Rights in Pennsylvania
Before you get in a dispute with your landlord in Pennsylvania, it's best to know your basic rights as a renter.
Philadelphia tenants who are facing eviction have the right to free legal counsel.(Getty Images)
Enduring a dispute with your landlord is never easy, and it can be particularly anxiety-inducing if you’re not sure what the next best step is to ensure your legal rights as a tenant are being honored.
While it establishes rights and responsibilities for both landlords and tenants, Pennsylvania law is considered to favor landlords, says Lori Molloy, attorney and executive director for North Penn Legal Services, based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. "While there are some state and local protections for tenants (in addition to federal fair housing law), the eviction process is generally not expensive for landlords and the time period for eviction is short," Molloy wrote in an email.
You may find more ordinances that establish greater tenant rights in your city. Kadeem Morris, staff attorney in the housing unit for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, notes that Philadelphia provides the right to a lead inspection for any home where children are living and restricts a landlord’s ability to remove long-term tenants for the sake of gentrifying the neighborhood. “The city council has really taken those steps to kind of bolster the protections in response to the change in demographics of the city, and that’s a really great thing,” Morris says.
Here’s what you need to know about tenant rights in Pennsylvania.
Civil Rights and Fair Housing
Under the Fair Housing Act passed in 1968, housing-related civil rights violations are prohibited nationwide. The Fair Housing Act identifies protected classes, meaning a landlord cannot discriminate against any tenant or potential tenant due to their race, nation of origin, sex, familial status, religion or disability.
Fair housing laws specific to Pennsylvania in the state’s Human Relations Act go a bit further and offer a few more specifics, adding age (over 40), ancestry and pregnancy to the protected classes, as it is noted on the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission website. Additionally, a person who requires the use of a service animal or a person that trains service animals cannot be refused housing for that reason.
While neither the Fair Housing Act nor the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act have been amended to additionally protect against discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation, you may want to check with your city to see if a local ordinance has been passed to establish such housing protections.
A landlord may file an eviction for violation of the lease or nonpayment of rent. In the case of a lease violation, the landlord must give the tenant 15 days’ notice before filing for eviction if the tenant has been there a year or less, and 30 days if the tenant has been there for more than one year.
If the eviction is due to nonpayment of rent, a landlord is required to give 10 days’ notice prior to filing for eviction. In all cases, the number of days established must begin the day after the notice to quit is delivered to the renter, whether the notice is posted on the property or handed directly to the renter.
In November 2019, the Philadelphia City Council passed a bill that establishes the right to free legal counsel for tenants facing eviction. This free service to low-income tenants is aimed at ensuring all renters have access to not just legal advice, but legal representation.
“That has not been implemented yet, but there are programs such as the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project, which is kind of like a first step out of which the right to counsel came through the city, which provides same-day legal representation to tenants in landlord-tenant court who are eligible,” Morris says.
High unemployment and economic uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic means many renters throughout the U.S. are unable to make rent, or at least pay on time. To ease concerns and allow for more time, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf extended the state’s moratorium on evictions until Aug. 31, 2020. In addition to federal aid offered to individuals and small businesses, the state of Pennsylvania is working to administer aid to those in need and ensure more home stability before evictions courts open again.
“It takes one more burden off of people who are struggling and ensures that families can remain in their homes so they can protect their health and wellbeing,” Wolf said in a press release.
Habitability and Withholding Rent
Every tenant has a right to live in a habitable environment and to the quiet enjoyment of the home. An unsafe building, broken toilet, pest infestation or windows and doors that don’t lock can be considered violations of your implied right to habitability.
In Pennsylvania, tenants have the right to withhold rent if their implied right of habitability has been violated, and after the landlord has refused to make necessary repairs after repeated requests. However, this will likely lead to eviction proceedings on the landlord’s part, so to successfully defend against eviction, the tenant must have thorough documentation of the ignored or rejected requests for repair.
There are other options as well, including making the repair yourself and deducting the cost from your rent. In this case, you’ll want to document all attempts at having the landlord make the repair and the total cost to fix the issue.
"The tenant should keep copies of the written notices to the landlord, pictures of the defect, copies of any receipts for money spent to repair the defect, and any information about complaints to the local code enforcement office or official," Molloy says.
In Pennsylvania, your landlord is not allowed to require a security deposit greater than the equivalent of two months’ rent for the first year of renting. Any additional years of renting may add one month’s rent per year to the security deposit.
When you move out, your landlord has 30 days to return your security deposit. If any deductions are made, the landlord must provide an itemized list that shows the reason for the deductions. Normal wear and tear, like faded paint, is not considered a valid cause for deduction, but stains on the carpet and failure to clean are considered worthy of deduction.
Pennsylvania has no laws establishing or prohibiting rent control in the state, and no major cities have incorporated rent control into local laws or ordinances.
Organizations like the Philadelphia Tenants Union are actively leading a campaign to establish rent control to keep neighborhoods affordable for existing residents.
Finding Resources and Fighting Back
To make sure your rights as a tenant aren’t violated intentionally or accidentally by a landlord, knowing those rights is the first step. When it comes to fighting back, an organization or attorney that can help would be a valuable tool.
Tenant rights organizations exist throughout the state, whether they’re specific to your city or county or cover all of Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network can help connect you with affordable legal representation throughout the state, and it can connect you with the organization serving your city, county or state region.
As the pandemic continues and eviction courts throughout the state remain closed, Morris points out that the attorney general’s office can also be a resource for fighting back against landlords skirting the law. “I would suggest you contact your local legal aid agency throughout the state if you are in need of assistance, and if you are able, you can also contact the (attorney general’s) office if your landlord is trying to illegally evict you,” Morris says.