Articles of Interest

  • Resolving beef with Section 8 tenants

    Janet Portman

    Q: I have a problem with the apartment building next door. All eight apartments are full of Section 8 tenants who are breeding and raising pit bulls. This activity is causing major problems for me, with dog waste in my yard. When I complained, the housing authorities told me they can do nothing to hold the landlord accountable. This just doesn't make sense to me. --Chris D.

    A: The answer you got doesn't make sense to me, either. Maybe it's time to try a different approach.

    The housing agency you refer to (a public housing agency, or PHA) is probably the government office in charge of issuing Section 8 vouchers. Its main concern is to make sure that applicants qualify for the rent subsidies, and then to inspect the rental property that voucher holders choose to make sure it meets habitability (and other) standards.

    If the landlord agrees to participate in the program (in most states, it's voluntary), the tenant pays up to one-third his income in rent; the housing agency uses its funds to make up the rest.

    As you can see, the agency is primarily concerned with getting the tenancy started, not with ongoing issues during its lifespan. If a Section 8 tenant has trouble with a landlord who doesn't abide by state notice rules for entering rental property, for instance, that tenant would do better to deal directly with the landlord (and utilize state remedies as appropriate) than to complain to the PHA.

    On the other hand, if a rental suddenly became unfit and uninhabitable, one would expect that the PHA would want to know that, because being habitable was a condition of the agency's agreement to subsidize the tenancy.

    The problem you're having is a bit removed from this last situation. For one thing, you're a neighbor to these tenants, so you don't have a relationship with the PHA at all. In this situation, the tenants are creating the situation, not suffering from it.

    Instead of trying to get the PHA to take notice, consider going to either the local animal control department in your city or the police. If the situation is as bad as you describe, the tenants may be violating animal cruelty laws or other ordinances aimed at making sure that animals are not kept in unsafe conditions.

    In addition, if the situation amounts to a legal nuisance -- a condition dangerous or offensive to an ordinary person's sensitivities -- then the police have a duty to take action.

    Every state and many cities have public nuisance statutes or ordinances on the books, which make property owners responsible for what goes on at their properties. If the owner fails to take care of it, the government can step in, evicting the tenants if necessary, and bill the owner for its efforts.

    That all of the tenants are Section 8 recipients will not matter at all: They, like any tenant, can be evicted for cause if their activities on the property break the law.

    Q: One of my tenants asked me to allow him to pay the rent on a weekly basis. He says he needs to do this because his disability makes it hard for him to manage money.

    When I said "no" (he didn't show me any proof that he's disabled), he stopped paying rent. When I told him I'd start eviction proceedings, he replied that my refusal to agree to his request entitled him to stop paying rent. Is this a valid defense? --Matthew B.

    A: When your tenant asked for a weekly rent payment schedule, he was asking you to accommodate him on account of a legal disability. At that point, you were within your rights to ask for substantiation that his condition fits the legal definition of a disability.

    Traditionally, this meant a letter from a treating medical doctor, but in recent years, the requirement has broadened to include credible third-party professionals. Tenants who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) automatically qualify as having a disability.

    You mention that he showed you "no proof," but you don't mention how or even if you asked for substantiation. To be on the safe side, once a landlord hears a request based on a tenant's claimed disability, the landlord should ask for confirmation (unless the disability is obvious), along with a statement from the same source that the requested accommodation would meet the tenant's needs.

    Because landlords are required to enter into a meaningful conversation once the issue of a disability is brought up, it's not enough to remain silent and refuse the request because the tenant hasn't brought you substantiating evidence.

    Let's assume for now that the tenant would qualify as a person with a disability, and that you refused the tenant's request without asking for verification of his status (or proof that his request would address the issue posed by the disability).

    Now we get to the nub of your question: Can the tenant withhold rent in response to what was probably a violation of federal law on your part? In most states, the answer is no.

    The tenant's proper recourse would be to file a complaint with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (or a state equivalent) or file a lawsuit charging you with a violation of federal law. In the meantime, he'd have to continue to pay rent.

    But at least one state, Maine, allows a tenant to defend against an eviction lawsuit by claiming that the landlord violated federal fair housing law. In 2010, Maine added "failure to accommodate" to the list of affirmative defenses a tenant may raise in an eviction lawsuit (see Maine Rev. Stat. tit. 14, Section 6002).

    Even if you don't live in Maine, you might want to reconsider your eviction plans. After all, there's no reason to court trouble, and the tenant's requested accommodation, though it may result in more office work, won't cost you a thing (as compared to, say, having to lower a sink, add ramps, or widen doorways).

    Ask the tenant for substantiation of his status as a person with a disability or suggest that the two of you find a fair housing mediator. With guidance, you can safely and legally determine the extent of your responsibilities.

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