Navigating Winter Storms as a Tenant
Heating and plumbing issues during a severe winter can be challenging as a tenant. Fortunately, Oregon Revised Statutes (ORS) 90.320, 90.360, 90.125 and chapter 86 of Oregon Laws 2022 outline rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords. In this blog post, we'll explore key sections of these statutes.
Understanding Tenant Rights & Timing
Tenants still keep their rights to habitable living like heating and plumbing during a harsh winter. The landlord is responsible to maintain their tenant's habitable living conditions. Landlords must quickly address and resolve issues that make these conditions worse. If permanent fixes are delayed, landlords should provide temporary measures. Throughout and after the resolution process, tenants should be aware of their options.
Can I back out of my rental agreement?
In cases of habitability issues, there is an option for tenants to end their rental agreement: a precisely written and delivered notice. This notice states the rental agreement will end if the issues aren't fixed. The notice would also provide appropriate deadlines to address and resolve the issues. The notice must follow critical standards. If it does not meet those standards, the rental agreement would not end, and rent would still be due.
These notices are best written by a lawyer practiced in landlord-tenant law. This process provides tenants with a legal way to address serious problems and end the rental agreement. But, the landlord can still fix those issues before the deadline. If they do, the rental agreement won't end due to those problems.
What does 'habitable' mean with a winter snap?
With winter in mind, if a unit substantially lacks in several areas, that unit is considered uninhabitable. Effective exterior waterproofing and weather protection are two main areas. Adequate and maintained plumbing and heating are another two main areas. Let's look at two examples to understand what “substantial” can mean.
During a cold snap, a unit's heater might struggle to keep up with the cold. The unit may be at 60°F, instead of the normal 68°F. That temperature might be uncomfortable for some. But, it may not be seen as substantially lacking.
What about when a bathtub faucet bursts from freezing? If that unit only had one bathroom, that could be seen as substantially lacking.
What can I do for now?
If a tenant is facing a habitability problem, it can be helpful to email the urgent issue to the landlord. Keep a record of emails, maintenance requests, texts from the landlord, pictures, and videos of the inadequate living conditions. If the issues are not addressed in a “winter snap” amount of reasonable time, legal attention may be needed. This documentation could provide a solid foundation.
Tenants should also be aware of their responsibility to reduce damages. If legal action is pursued, a judge, jury, and the landlord’s attorney may look at the tenant's actions. Consider taking reasonable steps to reduce damaging impacts of heating or plumbing issues. For example, an apartment roof is damaged and rain drips into a tenant’s unit. The tenant should move their belongings away and place a bucket underneath to catch the water. Those steps demonstrate a tenant’s responsibility in this situation, contributing to a smoother resolution process.
What if my belongings get damaged or I get hurt?
Severe winter conditions can result in damage to tenants or what they own in a rented unit. It is important to look at the situation thoroughly to understand who, if anyone, may be at fault. Was the tree known to be old and rotten by the landlord well before winds pushed it over on a tenant’s car in the apartment parking lot? Were aquarium heaters used by the tenant when a repair crew could not quickly arrive to fix the unit’s furnace? What efforts were made to de-ice the apartment’s sidewalks when a tenant slipped? Common sense may not be enough to know how successful a claim could be. Experienced attorneys know how courts, judges, and juries tend to weigh the circumstances of the case.
To sum it up...
Tenants should use clear communication, adhere to legal frameworks, and reasonably mitigate damages. Tenants can help smooth the resolution process even in the face of severe winter weather, while also documenting any issues in case they aren’t resolved in a timely manner.
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