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Can My Landlord Lock Me Out Legally?

Can My Landlord Lock Me Out Legally?

You’ve probably heard plenty of roommate horror stories, but the truth is that roommates aren’t always the ones you should be weary of. For some unlucky renters, it’s bad landlords that can make your life a living nightmare. (The City of New York even put together a list of the 100 worst landlords in NYC that’s no less than frightening to say the least.)

Of course, not all landlords are bad guys. But to be a smart renter, you have to to do your research. Whether it’s asking for a rent receipt, making sure you have hot water, or fighting back a “shortcut” eviction, knowing your renters rights can ultimately protect you from a scheming landlord. So what are your rights in the event that your landlord decides to give you the boot by changing your locks? You might think your landlord can lock you out, but here’s what you should know about illegal evictions.

Expedited Evictions Are Illegal (Almost All the Time)

Generally landlords know that bypassing legal eviction procedures could result in far more trouble (and fines) than is worth the risk, so most won’t take drastic measures to kick you out. But on the off chance that your landlord decides to change the locks while you’re at work, you can fight back. First you should know that your landlord cannot legally force you to leave by:

  1. Changing the locks
  2. Turning off the utilities
  3. Removing a tenant’s belongings
  4. Verbally threatening legal action but never producing legal documents
  5. Verbally threatening physical harm

These rules apply in virtually every state because a landlord/tenant relationship is a legal one, not a personal one. Just like signing a lease, evicting someone is a legal process, and is thus carried out through legal documents. Bottom line: If there’s no paperwork, it’s not official.

Here’s an example of how important legal intervention is in the eviction process. “Squatting” or adverse possession, is a process by which a tenant (whether or not he/she is a leaseholder) may receive the title to someone else’s property without the owner’s consent through prolonged, undisputed and obvious occupation. In New York, the occupant must live on the premises for an uninterrupted 10 years for this to happen.

If a squatter can prove they’ve maintained residence on a property for 30 days, they’re legally allowed to stay there until the true property owner goes through the extensive process of legally evicting them. So you find a strange man in your house after a month? You can’t just kick him out. (Sounds crazy, but it’s actually happened.) If 10 years pass without legal action, the squatter becomes the sole proprietor of the property. The same rules apply in San Francisco, except the requirement for the length of occupancy is less stringent than in New York, requiring only a period of five years before the squatter becomes the owner of the property.

These laws just go to show that eviction is not that easy, even in the most bizarre scenarios. Check your city’s housing authority site to know exactly what the eviction process entails.

When Expedited Evictions are Legal

They aren’t. A truly legal eviction takes time. Your landlord can evict you for a breach of contract or for going against the agreements set out in your lease, but it’s a lengthy, highly litigated process. In New York, for instance, a landlord will have to go to court to get a “Warrant of Eviction” even if you owe rent or your lease has ended — and it’s still not that easy to get one. First your landlord has to prove that you, the tenant:

  1. Have not paid rent
  2. Have very obviously broken your lease terms
  3. Don’t have an active lease and were given a 30-day warning

In any of these cases, the landlord still has to give you 30 days to move out. They cannot “convince” you to leave by locking you out or turning off your utilities.

San Francisco recently passed the Eviction Protections 2.0 bill in an effort to put a stop to sham evictions that have seen a rise in recent years as rent prices have skyrocketed. Where once a landlord could claim an unattended bike in the hallway was grounds for eviction (even in this case the landlord would be required to give the tenant a reasonable amount of time to move), E.P. 2.0 ensures a tenant is given ample time to fix a problem before an immediate eviction notice.

The bill addresses other previous “grounds” for eviction, such as adding new protections for roommates, and tenants who cannot respond to legal documents because they’re written in a language they can’t read. There is also less incentive to attempt a sham eviction, as the new law sets rent limitations on potentially suspicious evictions, like Ellis Act owner move-ins. In the event of a no-fault eviction, the landlord can’t raise the rent for five years, hopefully discouraging them from issuing evictions simply to raise the rent for future tenants.

Sticks and Stones

So why do shortcut evictions still happen? Unfortunately, not all landlords and property owners are shaking in their boots at the thought of legal action because they rely on tenants’ inaction. In order to fight back, a tenant has to go to court to dispute the situation. Some tenants choose not to act because they fear legal fees. More often than not, the tenant simply feels intimidated or lacks knowledge of their local renters rights — they assume the landlord has the right to change the locks, remove belongings, or shut off utilities. Especially if you’re at fault, or have been in the past, for something like missing a payment or breaking the lease for some other reason, you might assume the landlord is within his or her rights.

Journalist Becky Blanton, who spoke on this matter during a TED Talk in 2009, encourages tenants to realize that words aren’t as powerful as paper in the rental business.

“Short term evictions do work if the tenant doesn’t know their rights, can’t afford an attorney, or won’t fight back,” she says. “Landlords count on this when they do it.

“But if you’re faced with a threat of a lawsuit, find an attorney or at the least do some research to learn what your rights are.”

Blanton points out that landlords will also threaten legal action to get a tenant to flee the scene, but again, without paperwork, it’s not legal.

Fighting Back

Dr. Jonathan Farley was living in Massachusetts when he ran into a situation with a landlady who had some very strict rules about who she would rent to. According to Dr. Farley, who was working as a professor at MIT at the time, she would only rent to academics, would not allow couples, and didn’t want children in the apartment even to visit. But while landlords can refuse to rent to a tenant for not meeting certain qualifications, they cannot set their own rules for eviction.

“She said that a tenant who had lived in the building for five years wouldn’t be allowed to stay because he just got married.”

Dr. Farley also found her in his apartment without due notice or permission several times. A colleague warned him that the landlady might disappear around important deadlines to avoid updating legal documents or allowing for changes, “and the landlady was indeed unavailable until after the deadline,” he says, which forced him to pay rent for months summer where he worked overseas at Oxford University.

“Alas, my brother (a lawyer) advised that I pay the rent anyway and try to get the money back later. I sued and won, but the judge only gave me $1,000 and I had paid more than that.”