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Landlord-Tenant Law

From the Legal Information Institute of law.cornell.edu



Overview

Landlord-tenant law governs the rental of commercial and residential property. It is composed primarily of state statutes and common law. A number of states have based their statutory law on either the Uniform Residential Landlord And Tenant Act (URLTA) or the Model Residential Landlord-Tenant Code. Further, federal statutory law may be relevant during times of national/regional emergencies and in preventing forms of discrimination.


The Four Basic Types of Landlord-Tenant Relationships

The basis of the legal relationship between a landlord and tenant is grounded in both contract and property law. The tenant has a property interest in the land (historically, a non-freehold estate) for a given period of time before the property interest transfers back to the landlord. See State Property Statues. While these four relationship types are generally true, they are subject to state statutes, as well as the actual lease agreed upon by the landlord and the tenant.


The length of the tenancy is typically classified in 1 of 4 categories:

  1. Term of Years Tenancy

  2. The relationship lasts for a fixed period which is agreed upon in advance by both the landlord and tenant. When the period ends, so do the tenant's possessory rights/

  3. In this relationship, the tenant has the right to possess the land, to restrict others (including the landlord from entering the land, and to sublease or assign the property).

  4. Periodic Tenancy

  5. The relationship is automatically renewed unless the landlord gives advance notice of termination

  6. In this relationship, the tenant has the right to possess the land, to restrict others (including the landlord from entering the land, and to sublease or assign the property).

  7. Tenancy at Will

  8. There is no fixed ending period. The relationship continues for as long as the tenant and landlord desire.

  9. Tenancy at Sufferance

  10. The tenant continues to inhabit the property after the lease expires.

Quiet Enjoyment

The landlord-tenant relationship is founded on duties proscribed by either statutory law , the common law, or the individual lease. Basic to all leases is the implied covenant of quiet enjoyment. This covenant ensure the tenant that his possession will not be disturbed by someone with a superior legal title to the land including the landlord.



Transferring the Tenant's Interest


Assignment & Sublease

Subject to limitations expressly stated in a lease, a tenant is typically able to transfer her property interest to a third party. This transfer takes the form of two different actions:

  1. Assignment - The tenant conveys her entire interest in the property to the third party. The third party effectively becomes the new tenant.

  2. Sublease - The tenant conveys her interest to the third party, but the tenant maintains a revisionary interest. The tenant becomes the sublessor, and the third party becomes the sublessee.

  3. What the "revisionary interest" means is that, under certain agreed-upon conditions, the interest in the property will revert back to the sublessor. When this happens, the sublessee will no longer have an interest in the property.


Privity

Whenever parties intend a transfer of interest, they should always consider privity of estate and privity of contract:

  1. Privity of estate - This refers to the parties actually responsible for the estate.

  2. In a sublease, the landlord, tenant, and sublessee are all under privity of estate.

  3. In an assignment, only the landlord and sublessee are under privity of estate.

  4. Privity of contract - This refers to the parties under contract for the estate.

  5. In either a sublease or an assignment, this includes the landlord, the tenant, and the sublessee.


Limitations on Transferring

As expressed, the ability to transfer interest is subject to certain limitations established by the lease between the landlord and the tenant. There are typically 3 such clauses which may be used in a lease:

  1. Sole discretion clause - The landlord may refuse a sub-lease for any reason or no reason, just not for a bad reason.

  2. Reasonableness clause - The landlord may refuse a sub-lease on a commercially reasonable basis (elaborated on below).

  3. No standard in lease - The lease may requires the landlord's consent, but the lease may not express a standard to guide the consent.

Commercial Reasonability

Regarding the "commercially reasonable" standard, courts will use a balancing test in which the court will balance commercial reasonable and unreasonable factors to determine whether the landlord has refused a sub-lease based on commercially reasonable or commercially unreasonable factors. If the refusal was commercially unreasonable, the court will order the landlord to allow the sub-lease.

  1. Reasonable factors (non-exhaustive list):

  2. financial responsibility of the proposed assignee/sublessee; suitability of the assignee's/sublessee's proposed use for the particular property; legality of assignee's/sublessee's proposed use; the need for alteration of the premises due to assignee's/sublessee's proposed use; nature of the occupancy (i.e., office, factory, clinic, etc.)

  3. Unreasonable factors (non-exhaustive list):

  4. denying solely on the basis of personal taste, convenience or sensibility; denying in order to charge a higher rent than originally contracted for; denying based on religious objection



Eviction

Eviction refers to a landlord barring a tenant from using the property, usually due to the tenant materially violating the lease and/or not paying the agreed-upon rent.


A landlord, however, may not evict a tenant in retaliation for the tenant reporting housing violations or other problems with the condition of the property. This is typically referred to as the doctrine of retaliatory eviction.

Typically, a landlord has 1 of 2 methods he can use to evict a tenant:

  1. Self-help eviction

  2. The landlord physically enters the premises and causes the tenant to leave. The landlord, however, must use only a reasonable amount of force. In the limited number of jurisdictions that still allow self-help evictions, a court would determine what a "reasonable" amount of force would be.

  3. Sue the tenant.

  4. The landlord can sue to evict the tenant. If the court rules to evict, then the landlord must allow a law enforcement officer to enforce the judgment.


​However, the majority of jurisdictions do not allow for self-help evictions. Therefore, in order for a landlord to evict a tenant, the landlord typically must sue the tenant in court and allow the court to enforce an eviction order.


Constructive Eviction

Constructive eviction is when a tenant leaves the leased property due to the landlord’s conduct that materially interferes with the tenant’s agreed-upon purpose and prevents the property from being in tenantable condition.