Environmental Hazards on Rental Property & Enforcing Tenants' Legal Rights
Hazards such as asbestos, mold, lead, radon, and bedbugs can pose serious risks of harm to tenants. Landlords have legal obligations to protect you from certain environmental hazards on the property. This is an overview of your rights and the landlord’s obligations regarding some common hazards on property, as well as what you can do to enforce your rights or hold your landlord accountable for violating their obligations.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires owners of buildings constructed before 1981 to place warning labels, train staff, and notify employees or outside contractors who are working in areas that might contain asbestos. To establish that there is no asbestos on the property, they must have a licensed inspector test for it. Thus, the landlord should know whether there is asbestos on the property, which means that they have a duty to take reasonable precautions to protect tenants. Asbestos has been linked to a significantly elevated risk of cancer, so it poses a serious hazard if it is in your home.
While there is no clear rule for what landlords must do to protect tenants from asbestos, there are some precautions that you can expect. If the landlord is asking workers to perform work that may disturb asbestos, they generally should warn tenants about the work and block off the area to prevent contact with the debris. If the landlord is undertaking a major renovation or repair in a pre-1981 building, they need to test for asbestos and minimize the exposure of tenants by using careful procedures and keeping them away from hazards. (While asbestos is unlikely to be found in a building that was constructed in 1981 or later, the landlord also has a responsibility to protect your health if asbestos is found in these circumstances.)
If you find obvious airborne particles of asbestos in your unit, this likely makes it uninhabitable. You may have the right to withhold rent or move out before the lease ends without paying future rent. If the asbestos is not airborne, you should ask your landlord to have a professional inspect the material, even though it does not pose an immediate risk.
Sometimes tenants need to move out temporarily if they cannot adequately protect themselves from asbestos during renovations or repairs. The landlord should cover the costs of your temporary housing if you move out. Some tenants try to deduct the cost of their temporary housing from their rent, but this is risky because a landlord may pursue an eviction for nonpayment of rent.
No laws require landlords to identify radon or remove it from the property, despite its association with lung cancer. It has been found in every state and can be a severe hazard when it is trapped in homes that have problems with insulation or ventilation. You may want to test for radon in your unit yourself, especially if you live in an area where there are substantial amounts of uranium in the soil and rock.
Since it is hard to remove radon from a home once it has entered it, the focus is usually on keeping it out. However, these methods are often cumbersome and expensive, such as equalizing the pressure in the basement or foundation of the property or venting radon from the soil into the air through a pipe. You cannot take these steps on your own, so you will need to convince the landlord to take them if needed.
You can hire a professional to test for radon and determine whether it makes your home uninhabitable. If it does, you can demand that the landlord fix the problem, and you may need to move out temporarily. If the landlord fails to act promptly, you can break your lease and move out without needing to pay future rent.
Fuel-driven appliances and fireplaces can produce carbon monoxide if they are not properly vented. Maintenance procedures usually can prevent this problem, barring an unexpected situation, and simple devices can monitor carbon monoxide levels. Some states, such as California, require landlords to install these devices, and landlords in other states may install them anyway as a precaution.
The landlord usually has the responsibility for addressing a problem that caused a buildup of carbon monoxide, such as a clogged vent or malfunctioning appliance. However, malfunctioning appliances that the tenant brought into the unit must be addressed by the tenant. In some cases, landlords of houses will agree to share the burden of maintaining appliances with their tenants.
The health risks arising from mold are less clearly understood than those related to asbestos or other chemicals. Federal law does not provide standards for mold exposure. California and a few other states have passed laws governing exposure levels for sensitive populations. These laws require landlords to disclose the known or suspected presence of mold to current and prospective tenants. Some state agencies, such as the California Department of Health Services, are developing standards to assist landlords in finding mold and removing it. Cities such as New York City and San Francisco have passed local ordinances on mold as well.
A landlord has a responsibility to fix a harmful outbreak of mold in your unit, just as they would with any other hazard. Some landlords have tried to insert a clause in a lease that negates their obligations, but these have been found to be unenforceable. If the mold arises because of the tenant’s actions, however, the landlord does not need to address it.
You should tell the landlord about any mold in the unit before you move into it and ask the landlord to fix the problem before you move in. Once you have moved in, you should promptly tell your landlord about any mold that you find or conditions that are likely to cause mold. While you can bring in a professional to test mold for toxicity, it is often better simply to clean it up to save expense and resolve the problem sooner. Testing will be necessary if you are planning to sue your landlord for health problems caused by mold, however, since you will need this evidence to prove the landlord’s liability.
Mold sometimes can damage a tenant’s belongings. If the landlord was responsible for the condition that caused the mold, the landlord may be required to pay compensation for the property damage. If you were responsible for the condition that caused the mold, you may be able to cover the damage through a renters’ insurance policy if you have it. Not every policy covers mold, though.
An infestation of bedbugs can affect an entire unit. They are often found in second-hand furniture. Infestations must be treated promptly and aggressively. You should capture a creature to confirm that it is not a flea or mosquito, promptly tell the landlord if you suspect a problem, and prepare for an inspection. You can move out during treatments for bedbugs and then thoroughly vacuum the unit and remove infested items.
Landlords have an obligation to pay for removing pests and vermin that tenants did not bring onto the property. Tenants are responsible for handling an infestation that they caused. If you are a long-term tenant, or if you are the only resident, the landlord may argue that your behavior resulted in the infestation. In buildings with multiple tenants and rapid turnover, the landlord will have trouble determining which tenant was responsible. This means that they likely will cover the costs.
If an infestation damages your belongings, you may be able to sue the landlord for replacement costs. You would need to show that you did not cause the infestation and cooperated with the landlord in addressing it.
Landlords generally are not required to disclose past issues with bedbugs to tenants. However, if you specifically ask the landlord about the issue, they must respond truthfully. If they lie, you have the right to break the lease and move out early without paying future rent. You also may be able to sue the landlord for compensation for any damage to your belongings, any costs of moving and increased rent, and the emotional distress of living with the bugs. You can ask health inspectors in your area to help you deal with the landlord if needed.
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