Landlord-Tenant Law Evolution

Landlord-Tenant Law Evolution

Nolo Landlord & Tenant titlesLandlord-tenant law has evolved mightily over the past 40 years. Here are some of the more dramatic developments.

Your right to a decent place to live — and what to do if you don’t get it

Do you think 1,500 serious housing code violations in an apartment building should excuse your obligation to pay rent? If you lived in Washington, DC more than 40 years ago, the answer would be, “No!” Fortunately for tenants, in 1970 the federal appellate court, in Javins v. First Nat. Realty Corp. (428 F.2d 1071 (C.A.D.C. 1790) declared that housing code requirements formed the basis of an implied warranty of habitability, and their serious breach would excuse the duty to pay rent. Although Javins wasn’t the first case, it was the most influential; over the next decade, most states followed suit (today, only Arkansas has not joined the modern world).


Tenants’ rights to fit and habitable housing — and their powerful remedy when it is not honored — was perhaps the biggest event in landlord-tenant history in the past 40 years. Close on its heels are surely fair housing rights, announced in the Fair Housing Act (1968) and strengthened and expanded in the Fair Housing Amendments Act (1988). The original law prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in housing sales, rentals or financing. The amendments extended this protection to persons with a disability and families with children. No longer can persons with a disability be summarily turned away, and “No Children Allowed” is as illegal as are bans based on race and religion.

Be a landlord, be a cop?

Not only have landlords become responsible for providing housing that is structurally safe and sound, they now must take reasonable efforts to ensure their tenants’ safety from criminal intrusions. Starting in the 1990s, juries began finding landlords partially responsible for home invasions and assaults when the criminal gained access due to the landlord’s failure to provide sturdy door and window locks. Increasingly, anticrime measures like these were added to the list of a rental’s required features, as important as a functioning hot water heater.

Be a landlord, clean it up

As housing codes addressed the need for decent living conditions, landlords were charged with removing mess and vermin — the old-fashioned nasties that no one wants to live with. Then came lead-based paint, asbestos, carbon monoxide, radon, mold, and bedbugs. To varying degrees, landlords are now charged with finding and removing these man-made and environmental hazards.

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