Bill allows renters to make certain repairs if landlord doesn’t respond

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RICHMOND, Va. (CNS) — A bill that gives tenants the power to make repairs on their property and deduct the costs from their rent, with conditions, recently passed the Virginia Senate and is expected to advance in the House.

Senators voted unanimously in committee and on the floor to pass Senate Bill 905, introduced by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, which gives a tenant the right to seek repairs that constitute a fire hazard or serious threat to the life, health or safety of occupants. Such conditions include the infestation of rodents and lack of heat, hot or cold running water, light, electricity, or adequate sewage disposal facilities.

Tenants would have the right to secure a contractor to fix the issues and deduct the cost from their rent.

First, the tenant would submit a written complaint to their landlord and allow them 14 days to fix the issue before the tenant secures a licensed contractor to complete the repairs. The tenant must provide documentation and itemized receipts of the repair to the landlord. The tenant would be allowed to deduct the costs of the repairs, not exceeding one month’s rent, from subsequent rent payments.

Sen. John Bell, R-Loudoun, proposed an amendment that was rejected during the Senate committee hearing, requiring the tenant to obtain two repair estimates.

Currently, state law allows the landlord more time to fix issues that compromise the health and safety of the tenant. The tenant can file a detailed, written complaint and give notice that the rental agreement will terminate on or after 30 days, if the landlord hasn’t fixed the issue within 21 days. If the problem is fixed, the tenant can’t break the lease.

A tenant, though legally empowered under current law to terminate the rental agreement would still, in most cases, need to have a deposit plus first month’s rent to secure a new place, which can present a roadblock for renters.

The Virginia Poverty Law Center noted its support of the bill and stated that in addition to speeding up the repair process, the proposed bill would reduce the number of cases in Virginia’s courts, because tenants are given the opportunity to handle issues themselves instead of having to take landlords to court. Christine Marra, the group’s director of housing advocacy, said that the bill benefits tenants by allowing them to deduct the cost of donated repairs.

“There are a number of nonprofits across the commonwealth that do home repair for homeowners, but will not do them for renters because they don’t want to unjustly or unduly enrich the landlord,” Marra said. “I hope this will encourage them to start doing repairs for tenants.”

According to Elizabeth Godwin-Jones, a Richmond attorney who represents landlords, the original bill was too vague about what would constitute an emergency condition and how the tenant was allowed to go about getting the work done.

Now that the tenant is required to hire a licensed contractor and provide the necessary documentation, she said there’s little a negligent landlord could do to challenge their tenant in court and force them to pay their rent in full.

“To me, the landlord already has a bit of a black eye, if it was something really serious and they didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” Godwin-Jones said.

Stanley patroned another renter’s rights bill, one which didn’t advance. The bill would have given tenants the right to use their landlord’s failure to maintain the property as a defense if they were taken to court for failure to pay rent.

Virginia’s eviction rates are among the highest in the country. Princeton University’s 2016 Eviction Lab study showed that five of the 10 cities with the highest eviction rates in the U.S. are in Virginia, and Godwin-Jones believes the problem is rooted in poverty more than it is in landlord-tenant legislation.

“To me, the biggest thing to help the eviction problem would be to raise the minimum wage and have more affordable housing options, but that’s terribly underfunded, and the funding hasn’t kept up with the increase in the rent,” Godwin-Jones said.

After making it to the House of Delegates, the bill was assigned to a General Laws subcommittee, which recommended advancing it. A committee on Thursday postponed hearing the bill because Stanley was still in the Senate and could not speak to the bill.