I recently had a friend contact me with questions about Landlord-Tenant law in Pennsylvania. Here is the story:
I have been living in our apartment for a little over four years. Within the past year there has been an infestation of roaches. ( we had the problem in 2011&2012 but is subsided) We brought this to the attention of the office manager at the complex. She had pest control come out the next day and about once a month after that. The situation did not stop. In August I had requested a “bombing” of the apartment as we would be on vacation for a week. While we were on vacation the complex “bombed” our apartment using Raid Foggers. When we returned from vacation our apartment looked like a war zone with hundreds of dead roaches EVERYWHERE. I even had to call out of work the next day in order to thoroughly clean the apartment. We were hoping this would be it. A week went by and we were still seeing a ton of roaches. I advised the office manager that at this point we would were going to start looking to move else where. The roaches were everywhere and crawling on us. At this point the office manager offered to move us into one of the other buildings to a larger renovated apartment at a discounted price. This was the end of September / early October. She stated they were currently renovating two other apartments, and that they would be done in about 2-3 weeks from then. After they were completed they would renovate our new apartment. I checked in periodically with the office manager to check on the status of the new apartment. I kept getting the same answer. Things are coming along. As we hit mid November, I was told that we should be in by the end of November, that never happened. Our infestation at the current apartment was worsening, and I was not sleeping well because of it. Come early December I asked if we would be in before Christmas, and I was told we will. I was thrilled as Christmas if my favorite holiday. The Saturday before Christmas was the date that we were going to move in; however, the office manager’s brother passed away that day, so we were unable to move in. Understandably we waited to contact her until after Christmas. A day or two after Christmas I contacted the office to find out when we could reschedule the move in date. I was told that on Monday 12/30 we could move in. I took off, last minute, from work. On that Monday morning (12/30) I walked into the office, and the manager asked what she could help me with. I stated we agreed today was the day we could move in. At this time she told me they were still working on the apartment and we could move in Tuesday (the next day) I was firm and told her no, that I had taken off from work. She then said come back at 2p.m. I’ll have everything ready. I came back at 2p.m. and she did not have the paperwork ready. While she was working on the paperwork she allowed us to go and view the “renovated” apartment. Three months we waited for this “renovated” apartment. We walked in and the sliding glass door did not lock, the dishwasher was broken, and the kitchen counter tops were not level and damaged. I advise the office manager of these issues and she assured they would be fixed ASAP. When we tried to have the electric turned on the company stated the apartment needed to be inspected by the city. I called the manager to let her know. Meanwhile we are still living in the infested apartment. A week went by and I had not heard from her. I went to the office to pay rent, and asked her about the inspector. She acted like she forgot and would call again. This was on Friday Jan 10th. On Tuesday Jan 14 I received a voice mail from the office manager stating she would have the electric company put the electric on under the complex’s name, and then we would transfer names after that. I called the office back Wednesday and have not heard anything back. I spoke to the manager this week and she stated the electric company told her the same thing and so she finally had an electrician come out. We were then told the power was on, on Thursday, hut it still isn’t. This has been a nightmare! We are still living in an unhealthy environment with a severe infestation of roaches.( also I’m allergic to roaches) While our “new” apartment sits with brand new furniture in it.
I’d love to say that your situation is uncommon, but it is not. I have had dozens of cases, where the apartment/condo was infested, or there were other problems that violated local ordinances, safety violations, even the black letter view of the law.
Let’s start with a basic understanding of Landlord-Tenant law. It is based upon contract law. The contract is that in exchange for monthly rent, the landlord will provide a place for you to live. The rental agreement is the starting point for all areas. Most of the time these contracts are geared heavily in favor of the landlord. The legislature & courts, through there infinite wisdom, have scaled back what these agreements can and cannot due under the law.
Notwithstanding the contract/agreement, the courts allow for different ways for you to make the landlord perform under the agreement, or where you don’t have to pay all or part of your rent until problems are fixed, or where the court will vacate the contract and allow you out of the agreement. The two most important are:
1. Rent Withholding Act: 35 P.S. §1700-1: Notwithstanding any other provision of law, or of any agreement, whether oral or in writing, whenever the Department of Licenses and Inspections of any city of the first class, or the Department of Public Safety of any city of the second class, second class A, or third class as the case may be, or any Public Health Department of any such city, or of the county in which such city is located, certifies a dwelling as unfit for human habitation, the duty of any tenant of such dwelling to pay, and the right of the landlord to collect rent shall be suspended without affecting any other terms or conditions of the landlord-tenant relationship, until the dwelling is certified as fit for human habitation or until the tenancy is terminated for any reason other than nonpayment of rent. During any period when the duty to pay rent is suspended, and the tenant continues to occupy the dwelling, the rent withheld shall be deposited by the tenant in an escrow account in a bank or trust company approved by the city or county as the case may be and shall be paid to the landlord when the dwelling is certified as fit for human habitation at any time within six months from the date on which the dwelling was certified as unfit for human habitation. If, at the end of six months after the certification of a dwelling as unfit for human habitation, such dwelling has not been certified as fit for human habitation, any moneys deposited in escrow on account of continued occupancy shall be payable to the depositor, except that any funds deposited in escrow may be used, for the purpose of making such dwelling fit for human habitation and for the payment of utility services for which the landlord is obligated but which he refuses or is unable to pay. No tenant shall be evicted for any reason whatsoever while rent is deposited in escrow.
2. The implied warranty of habitability: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in the case of Pugh vs. Holmes (486 Pa. 272 405 A.2d 897, July 06, 1979) went through a thorough analysis on this matter where a Landlord brought suit against tenant for possession and unpaid rent. The tenant filed answers asserting that the landlord had breached an implied warranty of habitability and also claimed a setoff for amounts spent to repair a broken lock.. In order for there to be a breach of the implied warranty of habitability with respect to a residential lease, the defect must be of a nature and kind which will prevent the use of the dwelling for its intended purpose of habitation. At a minimum, the implied warranty of habitability in a residential lease means that the premises must be safe and sanitary; however, there is no obligation on the part of the landlord to supply a perfect or aesthetically pleasing dwelling. To establish a breach of the implied warranty of habitability, a tenant must prove that he or she gave notice to the landlord of the defect or condition, that the landlord had a reasonable opportunity to make the necessary repairs and that the landlord failed to do so. If established, conditions including a leaky roof, lack of hot water, leaking toilet and pipes, cockroach infestation and hazardous floors and steps could justify a finding by the trier of fact that the warranty of habitability implied in a residential lease had been breached. A tenant may vacate the premises when the landlord materially breaches the implied warranty of habitability and such surrender of possession by the tenant terminates his obligation to pay rent under the lease. If a landlord has totally breached the implied warranty of habitability, the tenant’s obligation to pay rent is abated in full and any action by the landlord for possession for unpaid rent must fail. When a landlord brings suit for possession for unpaid rent and the tenant asserts a breach of the implied warrant of habitability as a defense, the tenant may retain his rent, subject to the court’s discretionary power to order him, after a hearing, to deposit all or some of the rent with the court or with a receiver appointed by the court. When a tenant establishes a breach of the implied warranty of habitability by the landlord as a defense or counterclaim in a landlord’s action for unpaid rent, the percentage reduction in use method is to be used to determine the amount by which the tenant’s obligation to pay rent is abated; therefore, until the dwelling is returned to a habitable state, the past and future monthly rent may be reduced by a percentage equal to the percentage by which the use of the premises has been decreased by the breach of warranty.
I hope this helps explain some of the ways the law can aid you. In my friend’s case, I advised that they have a case. The most important thing to do is to document everything; every conversation, date, time, etc. Take lots and lots of pictures. Get all documents together that show/detail the problem (emails, texts, letters, etc.) to the apt. manager. The rule of thumb is if you think it’s important, than it is, and if you don’t think it’s important, then you’re wrong and it’s still important. No amount of evidence is too small. I would also put in a call to the Dept. of Health, or other department that can come out and do an evaluation of the property to see if local ordinances are being violated. Those reports are worth their weight in gold.