News from the Tennessee Valley Business

Traci Rogers, property manager of Wheeler Estate Apartments on McEntire Road Southwest in Decatur, looks forward to the new landlord-tenant law.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Traci Rogers, property manager of Wheeler Estate Apartments on McEntire Road Southwest in Decatur, looks forward to the new landlord-tenant law.

A change
in rental rules

State’s new landlord-tenant law to go into effect Jan. 1: What you should know

By Eric Fleischauer · 340-2435

The ideal compromise, goes a lawyers’ adage, is one nobody likes. Landlords and tenants have reasons to dislike the landlord-tenant law that takes effect Jan. 1, suggesting it may be a good balance between the two.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted — it was tough in terms of negotiations with landlord interests — but on the whole we see it as a vast improvement for tenants dealing with landlords who won’t do what they should do,” said John Pickens, executive director of Appleseed Alabama.

The law, passed in April with primary sponsorship from Harvard Law School-educated state Rep. Jeffrey McLaughlin, D-Guntersville, endeavors to replace the state’s chaotic existing law, mainly found in the notorious Sanderson Act. The McLaughlin Act seeks a balance between landlord and tenant rights, spiced with a bit more predictability.

“It is a good balance,” said Traci Rogers, on-site property manager at Decatur’s Wheeler Estates Apartments and Alabama zone manager of Management Resources Development. “It will protect tenants whose landlords are not taking care of the property. For those like us who are taking care of the property, it allows us to evict those tenants who have no intention of paying their rent more quickly. That helps us, and it keeps rent down for responsible tenants.”

Rogers hits on the main balance attempted by the law. Tenant advocates hated the Sanderson Act because it gave no significant protections for tenants against inadequate housing. Landlord advocates were similarly frustrated because the law had a lengthy and cumbersome path to eviction for tenants who refused to pay their rent.

The compromise, sandwiched between many other provisions, is that landlords can evict tenants more quickly and with less expense, and tenants can demand better living conditions.

The new law obligates the landlord to provide a dwelling that meets express standards of livability.

While most states have had such requirements for years, it is a first for Alabama.

Decatur attorney Phil Mitchell said the law is much more specific than the Sanderson Act, which it replaces, in terms of the duties of landlords and tenants.

“These are substantial changes,” said Morgan County District Judge David Breland. “They give tenants rights they have not had before.”

Eviction rules change

The change most landlords applaud is a uniform and expedited method of evicting tenants who fail to pay rent.

Under the Sanderson Act, a landlord’s first step was a 10-day notice to terminate the tenancy. If the tenant did not respond — which most did not — landlords had to serve a second 10-day notice demanding possession. Only after the second 10-day notice period could landlords file an eviction action. Once they filed the eviction action, landlords could count on additional delays.

Sponsor McLaughlin explained that 90 percent of tenants did not respond to court-filed eviction actions, but landlords still were burdened by a time-consuming process under the Sanderson Act. For eviction actions in which the tenant does not respond, McLaughlin said, the typical time between eviction complaint and eviction order is cut from 30 days under the Sanderson Act to seven days under the McLaughlin Act.

Under the McLaughlin Act, a single seven-day period replaces the Sanderson Act’s two 10-day periods.

Under the new law, a landlord can file eviction papers against a tenant for overdue rent seven days after he notifies the tenant of his intent to do so. The tenant must then respond to the court action within 14 days. If a district court rules in favor of the landlord, the tenant must file an appeal within seven days and the court must place that appeal ahead of its other civil cases.

Even under this streamlined process, the tenant must leave the property unless he pays rent into the court.

Differing from the previous law, however, tenants can raise complaints about living conditions in response to an eviction action. Landlords also are precluded from confiscating a tenant’s possessions to collect overdue rent.

Another positive for landlords, said Mitchell, is that the law unambiguously prevents tenants from withholding rent to enforce a landlord’s obligation to provide a livable dwelling. Tenants can, however, cancel their lease and seek damages for a landlord’s failure to meet his obligations under the McLaughlin Act. They cannot, points out McLaughlin, withhold rent for necessary repairs.

The maximum security deposit a landlord can charge is generally one month’s rent, and he must return the deposit within 35 days of the end of the lease.

Except in an emergency, a landlord must give a tenant at least two days’ notice before entering the dwelling, must enter at a reasonable time and must tell the tenant why he is entering.

While courts may get the last word, the law states that it should not serve as the basis of a tort action. This would mean, for example, that a tenant who claims he was hurt because of a landlord’s failure to maintain the premises could not benefit from the landlord’s more stringent obligations under the McLaughlin Act.

Pickens said courts may struggle with this issue, which some courts in other states have disregarded, concluding that the duties in the landlord-tenant law control actions for injuries as well.

The McLaughlin Act provides that a tenant is entitled to an injunction and damages against a landlord who violates the law, however, and may also receive attorney fees if the landlord’s violations were in bad faith.

Of immediate concern to landlords: Language in leases that violates the McLaughlin Act, or which purports to protect landlords from liability or provide them with some extraordinary abilities in collecting rent, are not just invalid but illegal.

“There are surprises in this law for landlords,” said Mitchell, who represents many. “I’m not sure they’ll be thrilled with it when they understand it.”

Eviction complaint form

On Thursday, district courts throughout the state received an eviction complaint form replacing the one that tracked the Sanderson Act. The form requires information on when the lease was entered into so the court can determine which law applies.

Not included is a response form for tenants, but Breland said tenants contesting an eviction claim can go to the clerk’s office and explain they deny the allegations of the complaint, which will be sufficient to set the matter for trial.

“With any major change in the law like this one, there’s going to be a time period when the courts will be interpreting the law without the benefit of appellate court opinions,” Breland said. “It may be crazy for a while, but eventually it will be figured out.”

Landlord obligations

Under the law, a landlord must:

  • Keep the dwelling in a “habitable” condition, a term not defined in the law. Because it is not defined, courts will have broad latitude in evaluating specific problems with a rental unit.
  • Follow all building codes.
  • Keep common areas clean and safe.
  • Maintain electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating, air-conditioning and other systems the landlord supplies in good working order.
  • Provide garbage removal, although the lease can require the tenant to do this.
  • Provide running water, hot water and heat, although the lease can leave this responsibility with the tenant.
  • Tenant obligations

    A tenant must:

  • Keep his dwelling clean and safe.
  • Keep the plumbing free of blockage.
  • Not damage the premises or allow anyone else to do so.
  • Not disturb neighbors.
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