Landlords have an obligation to their tenants to keep their property reasonably safe. This covers not only criminal acts by other tenants but also crimes by third parties in the area. If a landlord cannot address a dangerous situation, they should warn the tenant about it. Tenants who are injured in these types of crimes often can bring a personal injury lawsuit against the landlord.
State and local building and housing codes may contain requirements for certain types of security measures, such as locks and lighting. However, whether a law’s reference to safety means structural integrity or crime prevention can depend on the interpretation of courts and agencies. Beyond any express duty provided by law, landlords also have a broad duty to act reasonably to protect tenants from foreseeable crimes.
General Obligations of a Landlord
Terms like “reasonable” and “foreseeable” are vague and allow for subjective interpretations, but there are certain factors that help shape this standard. A court will consider the place where the crime occurred, the likelihood that a crime would occur there, the cost of reducing the risk of crime, the severity of the harm that was likely to result, and any history of similar criminal activity on the premises or in the area. You will need to show that the landlord’s shortcomings in security caused or contributed to the crime. In many cases, a jury will find that a landlord bears only partial responsibility, since a landlord generally is not responsible for someone else’s decision to commit a crime.
A landlord in a high-crime area will need to do more than a landlord in a neighborhood that is typically safe. Moreover, a landlord who makes specific promises of security features in a lease or advertisement must keep those promises. You may even be able to hold a landlord accountable for breaking an oral promise.
Crimes by Other Tenants
A landlord’s duty to provide reasonable protections against crimes extends to situations in which other tenants or even roommates are the potential perpetrators. To establish the landlord’s liability, you will need to show that the tenant who committed the crime had engaged or threatened to engage in similar criminal conduct before, and the landlord knew about it.
What the landlord must do in these situations depends on the severity of the behavior and its impact. If the behavior is mostly threats without physical harm, the landlord might try to mediate the dispute. If the behavior suggests that serious physical harm is imminent or likely, the landlord probably will need to call the police, warn other tenants, and evict the troublemaker. Eviction laws in many states further this goal by providing for an expedited process when violence is involved.
Landlords usually have plenty of incentives to address criminal behavior promptly and vigorously. Otherwise, they may face a government lawsuit under a nuisance abatement law, they may lose their property to a government seizure (known as forfeiture), or neighbors may file small claims lawsuits.
Persuading a Landlord to Increase Security
If the security issue is more than an individual dispute with a certain tenant or roommate, you may want to get other tenants to support you in bringing your concerns to the landlord. You can also collect information on crimes in the area from the police and other people in the neighborhood. Some landlords are unaware of their safety obligations, especially the specific laws in their state, so you may trigger action by explaining them to your landlord. You can try to show the landlord, preferably in writing, how the cost of reducing the risk is much less than the cost of compensating a victim of a preventable crime. If the landlord does not respond, you can ask law enforcement officers or building or health inspectors to help urge them to act.
In extreme situations, a home may become uninhabitable because of the danger. This means that you may be able to withhold rent, as long as the problem is urgent and the landlord has received sufficient notice and time to address it. You should be prepared to fight an eviction proceeding, however, if you take this approach. Alternatively, you can move out based on the unit being too dangerous to be habitable, or if you rented the unit based on promises of security by the landlord.
Another option is to install a security feature or fix a deficient feature yourself and then sue your landlord in small claims court for the cost. This can be tricky because the security feature may be considered an improvement or alteration, which may be prohibited under your lease. If the security feature is required by local law or promised in the lease, however, the landlord probably cannot enforce the clause in this situation.