Renting by the book

Everybody’s got rights. But do you know yours — as a landlord or a tenant?

Say you woke up to find your landlord standing at the door to your bedroom, staring at you. Or you’re taking a shower and realize your landlord has entered your apartment, without knocking — supposedly to let the exterminator in.

In both cases, the landlord isn’t giving you “reasonable notice” — as required by state law — before entering your apartment or rental home, says Elizabeth Bocklet, rental-outreach coordinator for the Affordable Housing Coalition.

“Knocking is still the final warning notice,” says Bocklet, who helps both landlords and tenants with problems ranging from late rent payments to disputes over repairs. She has heard from three women whose landlords regularly entered their apartments without giving notice: Two of them — who lived in separate units in the same complex — declined to prosecute, because they were unsure about their rights and felt very threatened by the landlord. When one of them did complain to the landlord, he acknowledged the issue — but put an eviction notice on her door the next day.

That, too, violates tenants’ rights, since all evictions must go through the local courts system, Bocklet explains. “They can’t evict you for complaining,” she says.

The third woman simply moved as soon as she could.

“It’s rare that people call me up and say, ‘Hey! I’m doing great — bye!'” says Bocklet, noting that a sizable percentage of the problems she deals with concern who’s responsible for repairs.

“If you have an electric outlet that doesn’t work, do you or your landlord pay for that repair?” a single mother asked Bocklet at a recent renters workshop. The woman reported that her landlord had told her to call the electrician — and pay for it.

“No, that’s usually the landlord’s responsibility,” Bocklet replied. She explained that landlords are generally responsible for keeping their units safe and up to city housing-code standards, and she suggested calling Asheville’s Building Safety Department.

In general, tenants should document any repair requests they make, advises Bocklet. If landlords don’t respond to phone calls or oral requests, tenants should write a letter detailing the problem and previous attempts to contact the landlord about it. Keep copies of all correspondence, she continues. But if there is still no response, North Carolina laws give tenants the right to make minor repairs at their own expense — making sure to keep all receipts — then deduct the cost from their next-month’s rent.

“But I wouldn’t go out and replace a roof at your own expense without talking to your landlord first,” Bocklet remarks. And never withhold rent payments because of a dispute over repairs or other issues, she warns: Landlords can take you to court and have you evicted.

What about repairing damage caused by tenants? “Once, I accidentally broke the doorknob off in an apartment I rented. I took care of that on my own,” confides Bocklet.

Tenants should also document the condition of the apartment or rental home when they first move in — ideally, when the landlord is present. Give the landlord a written copy of your findings. And when you’re ready to move again, simply repeat the process. This helps protect tenants — and landlords — in the event there’s a dispute over whether the full security deposit should be returned.

“This is a business relationship,” stresses Bocklet. Tenants and landlords should treat it as such, making sure that any agreements — such as getting a break on the rent if you mow the lawn regularly — are clearly spelled out, in writing.

“Realize that landlords are people, too,” Bocklet told her most recent workshop group. “I’ve had calls from landlords in crisis, too — like the one who couldn’t pay the mortgage because a tenant hadn’t paid the rent.”

That’s happened to Jamie (last name withheld at her request), a workshop participant who relies on the rent from her home’s garage apartment to pay her mortgage. “It’s important to have renters who pay on time. The worst tenants are ones who don’t pay or are habitually late. You try to give people a chance,” says Jamie, who’s known hard times herself. “But you get burned enough, you start being hard on people.”

She took notes during the workshop, which she said did a good job of explaining her rights as a landlord. Jamie learned that federal law prohibits landlords from discriminating against tenants because of race, gender, handicap, national origin or family status (i.e., whether they have kids or not).

All the same, her best advice to fellow landlords comes from experience: “Don’t rent to friends!” Jamie remarked during a workshop break.

Another workshop participant, Tracy, asked what tenants who have criminal records should do when apartment hunting. Landlords are allowed to check potential tenants’ credit, rental and criminal histories.

“Accept responsibility for your past, and let landlords know about it up-front,” Bocklet replied. She recommended getting letters of reference from counselors, employers, creditors, former landlords — any evidence that demonstrates you’re cleaning up your act.

Following such advice can be crucial in the Asheville area, where the vacancy rate on rentals is just 3 percent. In such a tight market, Bocklet reports, it’s often hard for low- and moderate-income tenants to find affordable housing. Tracy, for example, hasn’t been able to find a suitable rental home, despite being fully employed. She and her two children live with her mother and two brothers; her children sleep in the living room.

“One of the top issues I deal with every week is how hard it is for lower-income clients to find rental homes in this area,” says Bocklet. A woman like Tracy, who doesn’t make much more than the minimum wage, can afford to pay only $255 a month for rent and utilities (according to the federal Housing and Urban Development Department guidelines), Bocklet explains.

“Try finding that in Asheville,” Tracy observes.

“There’s no options for the in-between people like me,” asserts Kay, another low-income, working single parent in Asheville. Like Tracy, she wants to avoid public housing and find a place of her own, but finds rent and day-care costs impossibly expensive. “It’s almost impossible for a single parent to make it these days,” she laments.

“That’s the truth,” affirms Tracy.

Both women attended the renters workshop seeking tips on what they can do. They took notes and pored over the Affordable Housing Coalition’s Rental Guide, which highlights legal points and safety issues, apartment-hunting tips and how to budget for a place of your own. It also includes a list of apartment complexes in Asheville. There’s even a sample lease and rental application, so that tenants know what to look for and how to have all their information ready for prospective landlords to review.

Says Bocklet, “I tell renters they’re working in a really tight market: Some apartments in town have waiting lists now. [Renters] need to have all their eggs in a basket.”

Want to know more?

To learn more about tenants’ and landlords’ rights, call Elizabeth Bocklet at the Affordable Housing Coalition, 259-9216.

Or attend the next workshop on the topic, scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 17, from 6-8 p.m., at Manna Food Bank’s headquarters on Swannanoa River Road.

You can also e-mail Bocklet at HN4388@handsNet.org, or fax her at 259-9469.

If you think you’ve been discriminated against for housing, call the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council at 252-4713.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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