What rights do I have as a tenant?
Not as many as you might like. Here are a few scenarios, along with advice from experts on how to navigate them.
Georgia has some of the weakest tenant protections in the country. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported on the severity of the situation:
Landlords are not required to guarantee livable conditions
Tenants cannot legally withhold rent over living conditions
There is no cap on the amount landlords can charge as a security deposit
Local governments cannot impose rent control regulations
Landlords can immediately begin eviction proceedings for late rent
Most states have stronger protections: Some require 30 days of notice before a tenant can be evicted for late rent; others have security deposit caps and rent control. Some states even require landlords to renew the lease of a good tenant.
This past legislative session, lawmakers moved to strengthen tenant protections in Georgia through legislation such as House Bill 404, which aimed to require landlords to provide housing that is “fit for human habitation.” But housing advocates said the bill had no teeth, according to the AJC, which also estimates that a quarter of Georgia’s legislators are landlords. (Some are even full-time investors, like Rep. Bruce Williamson, R-Monroe, who owns over 200 homes—and whose rental company has filed more than 400 eviction notices in the past five years.) Eventually, HB 404 was tabled, as were other bills aiming to do things like make landlords more responsive to repair requests.
Still, Georgia tenants do have rights. Here are a few scenarios, along with advice from experts on how to navigate them:
My landlord wants to raise my rent by 300 percent. Is that legal?
In most cases, yes. If you live in pure market housing—which means there are no subsidies attached to your residence—landlords can raise your rent to whatever they want. The exception is when they can raise it: They can’t change your rent midway through a lease. Even if ownership of the property changes, your rent stays the same and your lease remains in effect until it’s time to renew.
There are protections for tenants living in subsidized housing, according to Lindsey Siegel, a lawyer with Atlanta Legal Aid. For example, if your landlord has a property in a tax credit program—through which they receive tax benefits and credits for reserving some of their housing for low-income tenants—they have specific restrictions on how much and how often they can raise rent.
I’m renting a house and my air conditioner is broken. Can I withhold rent until it is fixed?
“There’s not a single scenario under Georgia law I can think of where I would advise someone to withhold their rent,” said Siegel. “The second you withhold your rent, you give your landlord an excuse to file an eviction against you.”
Just as tenants are legally obligated to pay their rent, landlords are obligated to make repairs. A landlord can’t waive that responsibility, and they can’t kick it to a tenant. They also can’t force a tenant to pay for repairs. But say you keep paying your rent and you give your landlord an opportunity to repair the AC in a reasonable time frame—and they still aren’t cooperating. (Georgia law doesn’t state what a reasonable time frame is, Siegel adds.) Legally, you are allowed to take matters into your own hands. Submit a repair request to your landlord in writing. If they still don’t take action, inform your landlord in writing that if they don’t fix the problem by a certain date, you are going to pay for the repairs and deduct it from your rent. Once the job is done, get an official receipt from the contractor, deduct that amount from your rent, and include that invoice when you send in your next rent payment. (“This isn’t the time to get your cousin that does maintenance to do the work,” said Siegel. “You need a real business that can provide you with paperwork.”)
Even though you are covered by Georgia law in this scenario, your landlord could try to retaliate. Be sure to keep all written correspondence on the matter just in case.
Can my landlord keep my security deposit?
“It’s common for people not to get their security deposits back,” said Siegel. “Most big corporate landlords give move-out statements with a list of charges. These statements often contain charges that are not applicable under Georgia law.” For example, landlords can’t charge tenants for “normal wear and tear.” That includes things like minor dents in appliances, faded paint, and scuffs on floors. Landlords also can’t charge for getting the residence ready for the next tenant; that includes applying a fresh coat of paint to the unit, getting it deep cleaned, or having appliances inspected. “What is normal wear and tear will be very fact specific, and will depend on how long the tenant has lived there,” said Siegel.
Be sure to review your charges—and be sure you receive a statement in the first place: Landlords are required to provide them. If a landlord tries to keep a tenant’s security deposit but doesn’t explain why, that tenant may be entitled to three times their security deposit.
Can my neighbors and I form a tenants’ union?
Yes, and the process is much more straightforward than forming a labor union. Unlike unionizing your workplace, the rules for unionizing an apartment complex are loose; in fact, according to Foluke Nunn, a community organizer with the American Friends Service Committee, there basically aren’t any. (No regulatory body, like the National Labor Relations Board, needs to give you certification or recognition.) Forming a tenants’ union is simply a matter of talking to your neighbors, getting on the same page, and taking your concerns to your landlord as a group. “You can not only organize, but you should organize,” said Nunn. “That’s one of your best resources for getting legal help.”
In Georgia, landlords have a legal responsibility to keep units in good condition, but there’s a lot of latitude in when and how they do that. “Good condition” is a nebulous term in Georgia law, and, when it comes to defining it, landlords have more power than tenants. Tenants can file individual lawsuits against landlords, but, according to Nunn, collective action is usually a better means of applying pressure. And if a landlord retaliates against you for organizing—for instance, by filing an eviction against you—you may have a legal claim.