When Can You Legally Withhold Rent?

There are times when tenants can legally withhold their rent. You have the right to safe, sanitary, and habitable housing. Plumbing that doesn’t work properly, mold, and mildew are some examples of unsafe and unsanitary conditions. 

If the landlord consistently fails to provide changes to these challenging circumstances after repeated requests, then under certain circumstances, you can legally withhold rent. Here’s what you should know.

What is withholding rent?

Withholding rent is an individual or collective direct action also known as a rent strike. It is a type of monetary protest against an unsafe dwelling or one where needed repairs are neglected or against unreasonably high rents. 

When you withhold rent, you have greater power to force your landlord to make much-needed repairs and upgrade your property. That said, withholding rent should be a last resort that comes after taking all other possible steps to resolve the issue. And even then, there are rules you must follow very carefully and precise steps you must take for the process to be legal. 

How does withholding rent work?

Tenants’ rights vary from state to state, so before starting a rent strike, take the time to learn about the specific laws in your state and municipality. If at all possible, obtain legal counsel, preferably in advance. Free or reduced-fee legal help may be available for low-income tenants. You can also look to tenants’ rights groups in your area for further advice.

Public or social housing tenants have some protections not available to private tenants. These tenants may not need to withhold their rent payments to see action be taken. That’s thanks to Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937, which authorizes the payment of rental housing assistance to low-income households. 

Section 8 housing, as it is known, is slightly different from public housing. With Section 8 housing, the government pays a portion of tenants’ rent to landlords. As such, the government has more of a say in the condition of the rental property. 

How to withhold rent

One of the most common forms of rent strike involves the tenants paying their rent as usual except that the money is held by a third party, usually a lawyer. The rent monies are deposited into a bank account that the lawyer administers. Among other things, this practice shows that the tenants are not attempting to evade paying their rent. They are instead attempting to pressure the landlord into making necessary repairs. 

As with any type of strike, the more people who participate, the better. For example, if you live in a building where other tenants have the same complaints about your landlord, if you all withhold your rent, you may see better results.

You should always make and keep copies of all interactions between your landlord, yourself, and other tenants in your building. This includes text messages and voicemails as well as emails and paper documents. 

All paper communications should be sent by registered or certified mail. Doing so can show that you’ve acted in good faith in your attempts to get a response from the landlord. It also prevents the landlord from denying they’ve received the documents. Sadly, some landlords will still lie and try to evict you and move new tenants into the property instead of making improvements. But you’ve still done all you can.

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