Landlord Rights
Entry for 2017-07-23

The news is filled with rights: civil rights, consumer rights, women's rights, nonsmokers' rights, student rights, gray rights, gay rights, and now human rights, dolphin rights, and the Tenants' Bill of Rights. With a little cheating and stealing, you can also qualify for the right to remain silent, the right to due process, and the right to be advised of your rights. An elderly black nonsmoking woman tenant consumer accused of a crime has more rights than anyone.

But to know the real story on what rights you do and do not have, it is necessary to go back to the original documents: a) the Magna Carta, b) the Constitution, and c) your lease. (If you don't have a lease, you might try reading your mortgage.)

In the normal workings of society, we have oppressed minorities (blacks, the elderly, the accused), even oppressed majorities (women, nonsmokers, taxpayers), all of whom must work out their grievances under terms of the Constitution. We assume that we don't have the classic forms of severe oppression—of riffraff, by royalty—but actually we do, and the terms of that arrangement are set forth in the lease. (Excerpts quoted here are taken from a typical lease—the last one I signed before escaping from a maximum security apartment building downtown.)

By comparison, the mortgage is benign. Bankers are perfectly content to own you and your house, and they don't mind a bit if you play the mandolin, rumple your bedclothes, forget to defrost, or neglect to clean up your room. Landlords, on the other hand, insist:

7. (k) Lessee shall not bring upon the premises any musical instrument of any kind, excepting a radio or television set (as a former lessee, I can now confess without fear of eviction that I carried onto the leased premises an illicit stereo, harmonica, and kazoo), the playing of which shall be restricted to the hours between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m.

Those who wish to use a radio alarm to awaken before 9 a.m.—or who would like to watch the 11 o'clock news or the Tonight Show—will simply have to wait until they can afford their own homes.

7. (h) Lessee shall keep the premises in a good state of preservation and cleanliness. Fair enough, until the tenant begins to read other clauses which make clear what is meant by "cleanliness" and how the tenant is required to achieve it:

7. (j) Lessee shall dispose of garbage and other refuse and/or waste matter in such place and in such manner as the Lessor or its agent may direct. (Elsewhere it is stipulated that the landlord's discretion in such matters is absolute and unlimited, and that he is free to change the rules at any time. Theoretically, he can require you to place all garbage in your shoe and mail it to your mother.) No garbage or refuse shall be allowed to remain in the apartment overnight.

The tenant who, deprived of the Tonight Show, seeks solace in a bedtime cup of tea, must face the subsequent task of removing the tea bag from the premises before the stroke of midnight. To accomplish this, the tenant, must be fully and preferably formally attired, inasmuch as, 7. (aa) Street dress only may be worn in and around the lobby, passenger elevators, outside entrance area, walks, driveways and gardens.

Of course, landlords will tell you they're simply trying to maintain an orderly residence:

7. (p) Lessee shall not use the leased premises for disorderly and/or immoral purposes. A praiseworthy rule, common to every decent apartment house and motel. The apartment landlord, however, extends the same scruples from the loftiest statutes to the lowliest ordinances:

7. (f) Lessee shall not do any act that conflicts with the rules and ordinances of this municipality nor commit any illegal or unlawful act in, upon, or about said building or premises.

The last time I was a tenant, it was in a building where the elevators occasionally stuck between floors, shutting in one or more occupants until the repairman, an avid fisherman, could be retrieved from Tionesta. While trapped in the elevator shaft, the tenant would sometimes receive a parking ticket because the meter had expired during his imprisonment. For this offense, according to the lease, he could be evicted.

Such powers are not often exercised. They are like paintings or music, there to be enjoyed by the owner rather than put to practical use. Then too, rights and powers are tempered by the duties they carry with them. Imagine what awesome responsibilities a landlord must be willing to accept in exchange for his monarchical authority. Does he not take on the solemn duty to provide for the comfort and well-being of his tenants? Well, it's like this:

3. It is agreed that the Lessor shall not be liable for failure to furnish heat, hot and cold water, or elevator service, nor shall such failure suspend the rent.

Does the landlord not provide his tenant with a home, a place of personal dominion and privacy?

6. Lessee agrees to permit the Lessor or his servants, agents and/or employees and/or any other person authorized by the Lessor to have free access to the premises hereby leased... either in the day or night, for the purpose of examination of the same (the same what? The same Lessee?) ... with or without Lessee's consent and whether or not the premises are occupied by the Lessee.

If not privacy, surely the landlord provides protection for the tenant's property.

7. (i) Lessor shall not be held responsible for the loss or damage of any such property, notwithstanding such loss or damage may occur through the carelessness or negligence of the employees of the building.


Having given his employees unlimited access to your apartment, day or night, the landlord is understandably wary of taking responsibility for just any old random wreckage they might inflict. You know how hard it is to get good help.

And even if he doesn't take responsibility for providing comfort, privacy, or protection, isn't the landlord's main duty simply that of providing an apartment? Yes, well...

14. Lessor shall not be liable for failure to deliver possession of the leased premises at the time stipulated herein ...

Tell that to King Kong and the four defensive linemen waiting outside to unload your moving van.
(from Pittsburgher Magazine, 1977)