The law is pretty firm about a tenant's responsibility to pay his rent in full and in a timely manner, and there are few exceptions to this rule. However, when unexpected financial difficulties arise, tenants who are behind on rent still maintain certain rights regarding personal privacy, security and possession of the dwelling.
Breach of Habitability Rights
About the only time that a tenant has the right to withhold rent payments is when the landlord is found in breach of habitability. This means that the condition of your rental unit is deemed "unlivable" due to damages in need of repair. In such instances you may be required to attend a court hearing to establish whether the deterioration or damages justify withholding rent, and also a fair amount of rent deduction or credit. If you choose to withhold rent due to property damages, you will have to follow strict procedures to do so, and still may result in a lost case if not ruled in your favor. In such cases you will be required to pay back all past due or withheld rent.
How to Exercise Your Rights
When not paying rent due to unlivable conditions, you have to follow very specific procedures to protect yourself legally. In order to properly execute your breach of habitability rights and withhold rent you must document the damages--leaking roofs, broken pipes, furnaces or toilets, for example--and make a written complaint to your local housing authorities. You must also send a copy to your landlord at least seven days before your rent is due to allow him an opportunity to make the repairs. If the damages are not repaired withing the seven-day period, you may then withhold the rent. However, it is advised to be prepared to pay it in the event that repairs are made and you are required by law to make a full or partial payment to your landlord.
Whether you have withheld rent due to damages or have fallen behind due to financial difficulties, a landlord cannot legally perform a "lockout" under any circumstances short of eviction. Any action that prevents a tenant from occupying the unit is considered a "lockout" and is not limited to just changing the locks. Lockouts also include turning off water, gas, electric, blocking entrances or anything that makes it impossible for you to live in the unit. No matter how much rent you owe, if you have not been served an eviction notice and escorted by county sheriffs you cannot be forced from your home.
It is indisputably illegal for your landlord to lock you out of your home and she can be arrested or fined for the time that you were locked out; in some states up to $500 per day. Even if your landlord has locked you out for nonpayment of rent, you can still regain possession of the unit. In fact, you can sue your landlord for damages due to the lockout and receive monetary compensation equal to as much as two times your monthly rent. Monetary damages may include hotel expenses for overnight accommodations, lost wages for time missed at work and expenses for clothing and other necessary items purchased while restricted from your belongings.
Michelle Renee is a professional trainer and quality assurance consultant in the career, education and customer service industries, with two decades of experience in food/beverage and event coordinating management. Renee has been published by Lumino and Career Flight as well as various food, education and business publications.