Many disputes can arise between tenants and landlords, based on issues such as rent, the condition of the apartment, or compliance with the lease. If the situation has high stakes, such as a possible eviction, you can look for a lawyer to help you. Otherwise, you may want to use a less confrontational approach to see if you can preserve a positive relationship with the landlord while having your needs met. Options to consider include negotiating with the landlord, pursuing mediation, taking action in small claims court, or persuading other tenants to work together with you in bringing concerns to the landlord’s attention.
Negotiating with the Landlord
As long as you have an amicable relationship with the landlord, you should consider approaching them directly to try to resolve the problem. If you act politely and acknowledge the landlord’s point of view, your request is more likely to succeed. You should emphasize the concrete, practical aspects of what you want to accomplish. Even if you feel that you have not entirely won or gotten everything that you wanted initially, getting most of what you want may be preferable to fighting your landlord in court over the rest. You should put any agreement with your landlord in writing so that you have proof of what each side agreed to do.
If you do not have a good relationship with your landlord, or negotiating directly does not succeed, you can work with a neutral third party called a mediator. They cannot impose a decision on the parties, in contrast to arbitrators, but their input often helps the two sides reach an agreeable resolution. The city where you live may provide a community mediation program or even a mediation program dedicated to landlord-tenant disputes at minimal or no cost.
The mediator probably will ask the landlord and you to sit down together and lay out all of the issues in the dispute. If needed, the mediator can go back and forth between the parties in separate rooms, transmitting offers and counteroffers. They also can suggest solutions to the problem (which are not binding) or help you probe any underlying problems beyond the immediate dispute. This can help shape an agreement that addresses all of the concerns on each side. In some situations, the mediator may recommend monthly meetings in the future to resolve any conflicts before they become too intense.
Small Claims Court
If you need to take an adversarial position to your landlord, you may find yourself in small claims court. These proceedings generally do not require the assistance of an attorney. Only a limited amount of money is at stake in small claims court, but it can be useful for certain types of landlord-tenant disputes. You may be able to use small claims court to get a landlord to conduct repairs, to protect your right to privacy, or to get your security deposit back, among other things. As long as you have evidence to support your version of events that is more convincing than your landlord’s evidence, you have a strong chance of winning in small claims court. You can obtain up to $5,000 or $10,000 through small claims court, depending on the state. If your losses are slightly more than the limit, you can bring a case in regular court, but you may want to think about whether it would be easier and less costly to sue for the small claims maximum and forgo the remainder.
The procedures and rules are much simpler than in regular court. You need to make sure that you file your lawsuit with the court clerk, have the papers served on your landlord, tell the judge what happened, and present any witnesses and documentary evidence that you need.
Collective Action by Tenants
If tenants work together as a group, a landlord may feel more motivated to address a problem. Tenants can join forces to resolve a specific issue on a one-time basis, or they can organize a group that meets regularly and handles a wide range of issues. They can use the same strategies discussed above, and they also may be better equipped to bring a case in regular court if needed. Tenant organizations can sometimes resolve disputes between tenants as well, preventing them from becoming disputes that involve the landlord. An organization should be structured in a way that represents the full range of tenants and the problems that they face. These problems should affect most tenants rather than just one or a few.