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.
Pulling one over on your property manager won't work.
Your ability to communicate with your landlord or property manager as a renter is key to living happily and in peace. When you fail to notify your landlord of problems you encounter – or try to hide guests or other things that may not be permitted in your lease – the relationship is often compromised. Especially in instances when you’ve brought in an unauthorized pet or let a maintenance issue get worse due to not reporting it, you may find yourself having to pay your landlord extra, losing your security deposit or even getting evicted.Stay in touch.
Stay in touch.
Any good landlord will encourage tenants to be in communication often, which makes it easy to request maintenance or ask a question about what the lease allows. Property management companies often offer multiple forms of communication, from face-to-face conversation with a receptionist or leasing agent to contact via email or an online resident portal, says Lynn Edmondson, regional manager of Wendover Housing Partners, a property management company based in Altamonte Springs, Florida. Once you send a request, the property manager or landlord will then “communicate in writing about what’s going on and what needs to be done,” Edmondson says. Read on for seven things you shouldn’t – and likely won’t be able to – hide from your landlord.A new roommate
A new roommate
Living with a roommate is a great way to save on housing expenses, but your landlord has to know about said roommate – and approve. It may be a matter of simply revising the lease once you notify your landlord of the desired addition, but your landlord also has the right to run the potential roommate through the same vetting process as with every other tenant, which can include a credit check, employment confirmation and previous residence referrals. If you sneak a roommate in, your illegal co-tenant could be evicted. One exception is when you have a dependent, which can be a child, elderly parent or an adult relative you legally care for. Laws in certain states clarify that “you’re not allowed to ask an applicant if they have any dependents living in the unit with them,” says Nat Kunes, vice president of product at AppFolio, a full-suite property management software company. Check your state's landlord-tenant laws, which should be available online, for more information.A sublet
Just like a roommate, sneaking a sublet tenant into your rental will likely be found out by a landlord, and it can have devastating consequences. Always review your lease first for a subleasing policy. The landlord may not allow sublets at all or could require the subtenant to go through the same vetting process all residents go through when applying to live there. Also check your state laws on subleasing, which may give you more or less leeway depending on how detailed the law is. In South Carolina, for example, the law states a sublease agreement isn’t valid unless the landlord has signed off on it. An illegal sublet could result in your eviction for violating the lease, as well as the subtenant’s eviction for residing there illegally.A pet
A dog or cat won’t help you pay the rent, but millions of Americans love adding to the rental family by bringing a pet home. Again, however, your landlord has the right to establish a no-pets policy or place restrictions on the pets allowed, such as the type of animal, size and breed. “If the pet [is] qualified to live there, it’s just a minor thing of changing the lease to add that and collect the appropriate fee,” Edmondson says. If you get caught keeping a pet in your place when the landlord hasn’t approved it, you’ll likely have to fork over the fees anyway. But if the place doesn’t allow pets, you’ll likely either be asked to move out or rehome your pet.Pet damage
Outside of properly notifying your landlord or property manager of a new pet, Edmondson says damage to a rental caused by a pet is one of the more common issues she sees residents try to cover up. Whether you struggled to housetrain a puppy or your cat loves scaling the blinds, the best course of action is to own up to the damage before moving out. “I’ve had that happen several times, when [cleaners] go in to clean the carpet and they come back and say, ‘We can’t clean it, there’s too much pet damage,’” Edmondson says. You’ll have to pay for the repairs regardless, but it keeps a more positive interaction between you and the property manager if you’re honest. Trying to get away with damage could also lead to a negative report from the property manager if any future landlord calls to check on your residential history.Maintenance problems
Whether it’s a backed-up toilet, a leaky roof or fire damage in the kitchen, any problem should be reported to your landlord or property manager as soon as you become aware of it. “A lot of those types of maintenance issues that over time get much, much worse,” Kunes says, noting a leak can lead to extensive water damage and mold. Edmondson says there are tenants who simply don’t report such issues for fear of having to cover damage they caused: “They think after they move out they will not be responsible for those damages.” Of course, any damages outside normal wear and tear will come out of your security deposit, and you can additionally be billed for damages exceeding that amount.Broken appliances
If the fridge, dryer, garbage disposal or any other appliance stops working properly, you have the right to report it and expect it to be fixed. There’s a good chance the landlord will replace an older appliance at no charge to you. If the appliance is relatively new or was damaged from particularly hard use, the landlord may look to you to cover it. If you move out before notifying the landlord, it will be discovered, and you’ll be expected to pay it, Edmondson says.A pest problem
A pest problem
Pests can get into a rental property in a variety of ways: Rodents could be stirred up by construction next door, or maybe other tenants have a habit of leaving food uncovered on the counter or table. Either way, it’s imperative you notify your landlord immediately about a pest problem so it can be taken care of. Most large apartment complexes have standing relationships with pest control companies, which consistently work to keep pests from accessing any rental homes and limit the spread of those that do get inside. If you don’t start communicating with your property manager early on, the problem could become worse – and the blame may fall on you as a result. “That could be a tenant-caused issue that the tenant could be responsible for to pay,” Kunes says.Read More
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.