Flatland sat down with Gina Chiala, executive director and attorney for the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, to see what advice she offers to rental tenants in Kansas City as part of Public Works? A Level Foundation, our in-depth series on eviction, gentrification, and affordable housing in the metro. This is the transcript for the above video.
My name is Gina Chiala, I’m an attorney with the Heartland Center For Jobs and Freedom, and today we’re going to talk about five things you can do to protect your rights as a tenant.
Tip No. 1: Get it in writing. If you go look at a place to rent and the landlord tells you, “Don’t worry, this place is going to be all fixed up by the time you move in,” just make sure you get that in writing. Just grab a piece of paper, write down all of the things that the landlord should fix, have the landlord sign it, you sign it. Also include the date that the repairs should be done by, and keep a copy for yourself. If the landlord is reluctant to sign that piece of paper, proceed with caution. If it were me, I wouldn’t sign the lease, and I wouldn’t move in.
Tip No. 2: Once you move in to your home, make sure that you make requests for repairs in writing, and keep a copy. You have a right to safe and livable housing, so in the winter there should be heat, and in the summer there should be ventilation. The plumbing should work, the electricals should work, and there shouldn’t be infestations of rodents or bugs. So if your home doesn’t pass the test, make a request for repairs in writing. You can send it by email and keep a copy of your sent email, or send a letter by certified letter, return receipt requested. And if the landlord fails to make those repairs in a reasonable amount of time, get legal help before the situation escalates.
Tip No. 3: Know what a landlord can do and can’t do under the law. A landlord can’t force you out of your house without a judgment from the court, so that means before a landlord can force you out the landlord has to go to court, serve you with a lawsuit, win the case, and get a judgment from the court. And even then, only the sheriff can physically remove you, and your belongings, from the home. And that doesn’t happen until 10 days or more after your landlord wins the case. So that means a landlord can’t change the locks without a court order, the landlord can’t disconnect your utilities without a court order, and your landlord can’t take your belongings and throw them out without permission from the court. If this is happening to you, seek legal assistance.
Tip No. 4: Don’t ignore eviction lawsuits. If you come home and you find an eviction lawsuit on your door, or someone comes and hands a lawsuit to someone in your household, don’t ignore it. You may be able to prevent a judgment from happening by negotiating with your landlord, catching up with the rent, or asserting a legal defense. But if you ignore the lawsuit, then you will lose the suit, and a judgment for eviction will be issued against you. And having that on your record is not good; it may make it impossible for you to rent again in the future. So if you get sued, get legal assistance right away.
Tip No. 5: Get your deposit back. In Missouri, a landlord has 30 days to return your deposit to your last known address, so you want to make sure that the landlord knows where to send that deposit, or you can have your mail forwarded to a new address. A landlord in Missouri has to follow two procedures before he or she can withhold your deposit. First of all, a landlord has to give you notice of walkthrough. Second of all, a landlord has to give you an accurate accounting — explaining — why all or part of your deposit with withheld. If a landlord fails to do either of these things, you may be entitled to double the amount that was wrongfully withheld back. So get legal assistance if you’re having trouble getting your deposit back.
The Heartland Center For Jobs and Freedom provides free legal help to low wage workers in the areas of landlord tenant law, consumer law, and employment law. If you need help call (816) 278-1344, and if you have a housing issue, and you’re permanently unemployed, or disabled, contact Legal Aid at (816) 474-6750.
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