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What is a constructive eviction?

What can a tenant do when a landlord fails to maintain a property in a way that he or she is legally obligated to do?

In effect, tenants can allege that they have been the victim of a “constructive eviction.” As a result, they may be entitled to end the lease and vacate the premises without owing the landlord anything further.

Exactly what constitutes a constructive eviction can be a subject of hot debate. Landlords and tenants don’t often see eye-to-eye on the issue. What a tenant finds intolerable, a landlord may consider merely inconvenient. The issue is complicated by the fact that there aren’t a lot of clear rules about the situation because so many different things can become an issue.

For example, landlords are generally required to keep a property in a safe condition. That means that once a landlord is notified of a problem with the building, they must make repairs within a reasonable timeframe. The more serious the concern, the faster the landlord is expected to act. Sparks from an overhead light fixture might need an immediate response, while something like a small leak around a window would be a less immediate concern. Again, however, tenants and landlords may disagree sharply about what constitutes a “reasonable” timeframe to act.

What should you do if your living conditions are unlivable and your landlord won’t do anything to fix it?

You need to show that you are a victim of material noncompliance by a landlord who refuses to meet his or her obligations. Take the following steps:

  • Take photos of the problem condition, if possible.
  • Notify the landlord in writing of the problem.
  • Give the landlord a reasonable time to fix the issue or otherwise respond to you.
  • If the landlord doesn’t act and doesn’t respond, you can vacate the property and file a lawsuit over the constructive eviction.

Your alternatives include withholding rent until the issue is fixed, paying to have the issue fixed and withholding the cost from the rent and calling local housing authorities over the issue. Because each situation is unique, it’s wise to seek advice about your legal rights before you decide on a specific course of action.