Renters’ Rights and Evictions
A tenant is the person who lives in a rented space. The landlord is the owner or manager of that rental space. If you pay rent to a landlord, you are considered a tenant. It does not matter whether rent is paid weekly, monthly, or at other regular periods. It also does not matter whether your lease is verbal or in writing. A lease is the formal agreement that a renter has with their landlord. The lease determines what each person’s responsibilities are, the amount of money owed in rent, and other important details and protections for both the landlord and the tenant. As a tenant or a landlord in Florida, you have certain rights.
Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, states and the federal government have expanded protections to tenants facing eviction and homeowners facing foreclosure. Tenants who are facing evictions based on non-payment of rent are currently being afforded additional protections than tenants that are facing evictions for reasons unrelated to payment of rent. Some local Circuits and Counties are offering broader protections to all tenants and occupants regardless of the grounds for removal. Follow this link for more details.
WHAT ARE YOUR RIGHTS?
You have the right to peacefully enjoy your rental property. The landlord must provide at least 12-hours’ written notice before entering your rental property for routine inspections or to complete repairs. The landlord may only inspect your rental property or complete repairs between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. However, if an emergency exists, the landlord may enter your rental property without providing prior written notice.
You have the right to live in a rental property that is safe and clean. For example, your rental property must comply with all local building, housing, and health codes. These codes are determined by the city or town where you live. Your rental property must have working windows and doors. And in most instances, the landlord must make sure your rental property has working heat during the winter, running hot water and is free of pests like insects or rodents.
When you are worried about the conditions of the place you are renting, you have the right to complain to:
- Your landlord
- Your city or town’s code enforcement department
- The health department
- The housing authority or HUD
Additionally, you have the right to exercise any other rights you may have under local, state, or federal fair housing laws.
In certain situations, you have the right to withhold your rent payment. For example, if your landlord fails to comply with all local building, housing, and health codes, you may withhold rent. But before withholding rent, you must tell the landlord the problems and about your plan to withhold some or all of your rent payment amount. You MUST document this plan in writing for the landlord in what is called a 7-Day Notice.
If the landlord does not fix the problem within 7 days after receiving your complaint, you may withhold rent.
You can only withhold rent if your rent is current when the landlord receives your letter. So if you are behind in your rent, you do not have the right to withhold payment for the problems.
The landlord must receive your letter at least 7 days before rent is due. You should send the rent notice withhold in writing by certified mail with return receipt at least 7 days before rent is due and you must be current with your rent. Do not spend the rent you are withholding on other things in case a judge later tells you to deposit the amount into a court registry. This could happen if your landlord tries to evict you and after you receive eviction papers. An eviction means that you will have some court interaction to solve the problems.
If you are accused of violating your lease for any reason, including not paying rent or having an unauthorized person living with you, they must give you official, written notification of the violations. Not paying rent or having someone living with you may be called “material violations” of your lease agreement. In most instances, the landlord must give you time to fix the problem before they can file with the court to evict you. The notice must be in writing and it must include details about the specific violation.
A “non-material” violation of your lease agreement are activities like parking in the wrong place or failing to clean your living area. If you receive a 7-day notice for non-material violation, you can correct it simply by changing the activity that created the violation. For example, park your car in the correct place or clean your living space. If you fail to correct the activity that resulted in the violation within 7 days from the notice, your landlord has the right to begin the eviction process.
You do not have to renew your lease. If your written lease expires after 1 year, most landlords require you to send them a 30 or 60 days written notice of your decision to not renew your lease. Read your lease to be sure that you do not miss the notification deadline.
If you have a verbal lease with your landlord, you must give the landlord 7 or 15 days written notice of your decision to not renew your lease. If you pay rent weekly, give 7 days written notice. If you pay rent monthly, give 15 days written notice. Please note that you must deliver these notices to the landlord at least 7 or 15 days before rent is due.
Eviction is when the landlord files a Complaint with the court to have you removed from your rental home when you do not agree to leave.
Evictions Take Time.
If your landlord chooses to evict you, they have to file an eviction lawsuit and receive a final judgment from the court before they are allowed to remove you from the rental property. If the landlord tries to force you to leave the rental property by changing the locks or turning off the electricity or water, you may be able to defend yourself in court and receive damages of up to 3 times your monthly rent amount.
By law, the landlord is not allowed to get revenge against you for complaining to the city or local code enforcement agencies, the health department, the housing authority, or HUD about the conditions of your rental property. They cannot try to evict or punish you for exercising your tenant’s rights you may have under local, state, or federal fair housing laws.
A landlord cannot remove you from a rental property without a final judgment of possession signed by the judge. The final judgement is a legal document, issued by the court, that can be enforced by the police. During an eviction process in court, you have the right to be heard by the judge, as long as you:
- File your Answer/Response to the Eviction Summons within 5 days after you receive it, and
- Deposit the amount of rent you agree that you owe into the Court Registry.
If you do not agree with the amount of rent that is due, you have the right to ask a court to decide about the amount of rent owed, but you must defend yourself by filing an Answer/Response in court within 5 days from the date you receive the Eviction Summons .
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO DO?
You can avoid many issues with your landlord by reading and understanding your lease. Then simply follow the rules. If you do not understand or agree with some portion of your lease, ask a lawyer to review it with you.
If you have been served with an eviction summons and complaint, you should write a Answer/Response by admitting or denying every single paragraph of the complaint and defend yourself when you can.
You must deposit past due rent into the court registry. If you disagree with the amount of rent the landlord claims you owe, ask the court to determine the correct amount by attaching proof of payment to your response.
Your written response must be filed with the court, and past due rent must be deposited into the court registry within 5 business days of being served with the eviction summons and complaint.
If you fail to do these two things, your landlord my automatically win the eviction case.
In court lawsuits, the person who files it with the court first is called the Plaintiff. The person who must respond is called the Defendant, because in this situation, you are defending yourself from eviction. The defendant must file an “Answer” to the plaintiff’s complaint. Raising defenses in the Answer that you file in court may keep you from being evicted. It is helpful to use the legal terminology in an Answer. That makes it more clear to the Court as to how your specific situation fits within the available legal defenses.
Consider using these common arguments:
Is your landlord NOT the property owner?
If the person who filed the eviction case in court does not own the property, they do not have the authority to file in the first place. Your defense could be that the “Plaintiff lacks standing”.
Have you already moved out or fixed the problem?
If so, then the eviction may no longer be relevant. Your defense could be that “The eviction is moot”.
Did you speak up against the landlord and now you believe they are trying to get revenge by evicting you?
If so, the landlord may be committing “Retaliatory Eviction”. This means that the landlord is evicting you because you exercised your rights or attempted to exercise your rights as a tenant, such as filing a complaint against the landlord. Because you spoke up and asked for help or complained about something, the landlord is now retaliating, or getting back at you, by trying to evict you.
Did you withhold some rent payments after sending the landlord a 7 Day Notice about problems with the rental space?
If you withheld rent payments to the landlord because of problems with the rental space that the landlord has not fixed, AND if you provided a 7 day notice, the eviction lawsuit may not be valid and you should express this in the Answer that you file.
Did the landlord NOT deliver the 3-Day, 5-Day, 7-Day, or 14-Day Notices that are required by law?
The landlord does not have a right to file an eviction complaint with the court if they have not sent the required notices to you. The eviction may be dismissed if you can prove that you have not received the required notices.
Is the landlord trying to collect late fees even though you sent a 7-Day Notice about problems that needed to be fixed?
If the landlord sent you a 3-Day Notice that is asking for money that is not rent even though you already served them notice of your plan to withhold rent until a problem is fixed, the landlord may not be able to make you pay late fees. If the 3-Day Notice letter that the landlord sent to you is confusing or contains conflicting demands or instructions, do not pay the fees until the court determines that you have to do so.
Did your landlord send you a 7-Day Notice that says something is wrong but does not provide enough detail for you to understand what you did that was wrong?
Be sure to point this out in your Answer if this has happened. If the landlord has not been specific enough with the description of the problem, the court may force them to try again or dismiss the case.
If your landlord wins the eviction, the Sheriff will serve you with a 24-hour notice to leave the rental property. If you do not leave the rental property within 24 hours, your landlord has the right to change the locks and remove or dispose of your property.
WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFORE TAKING ACTION.
The written notices that you and your landlord must send to each other to legally document problems are requirements if you want to defend yourself or win an eviction case. Review the dates on all notices carefully and do not put off handling the situation.
Keep you rental records current and gather copies of money orders, checks, receipts, and notices to show that you are current with your rent. When you do not have access to a printer or scanner, use a smartphone to photograph each page of your lease, check receipts, or other proof of your payments. If you pay rent in cash, get a written receipt from the landlord for every payment. Make sure the date and amount of payment is visible and accurate.
Follow the correct procedures to review or end your lease. If your lease is about to expire, reach out to your landlord to inform them of your decision to move out or renew the lease. Read your lease to see when you need to give the required notice.
If your rental unit needs repairs, give notice to your landlord to give them an opportunity to make repairs. If repairs are needed, take pictures of the damaged or unsafe areas of your living space.
If you have received a notice of non-compliance or violation of lease because you have unauthorized guess/occupants, or you are not maintaining the rental unit, you need to correct the situation promptly.