As a low-wage worker, paying rent is a constant struggle. Bad housing conditions and threats of eviction add to the stress you already face each day. If you are having a problem with your landlord, you can call us for a free consultation. In the meantime, we hope you find the information below helpful.
My basic rights as a Missouri tenant
- Living conditions. Your landlord must provide safe, sanitary and livable housing conditions. (No mice or insect infestation, working plumbing, heat, ventilation, etc.)
- No retaliation. Your landlord may not retaliate against you for reporting housing code violations.
- No self help eviction. Your landlord may not force you or your things out of your home without a court order.
- Utility shut-off. Your landlord may not disconnect your utilities under any circumstance.
- Deposit. Your landlord may not charge you more than the equivalent of two months rent for your security deposit. The landlord must return your security deposit within 30 days from the date you move out along with an explanation for any deductions for repairs. (See “Getting your deposit back” below for details).
- Privacy and respect. Your landlord may not enter your residence without your permission or reasonable advance notice.
- Discrimination. A landlord may not deny you housing or treat you differently from other tenants because of your race, color, national origin, sex, disability, religion or family status. Sexual harassment is also prohibited.
- Late Fees. Your landlord may only charge you for fees (including late fees) that are provided for in your lease.
- Deceptive behavior. Your landlord may not misrepresent the condition of the home to get you to move in or make other false statements to you.
- Landlord sells the property. If your landlord sells the building to another, the new owner must provide you with notice, contact information and a copy of the deed before collecting rent.
- A word of warning. If a landlord violates your rights, do not respond by withholding rent. A landlord may be able to evict you for withholding rent and, under Missouri law, it is unclear whether a landlord’s abuses may be used as a defense for non-payment. Instead, call a lawyer for assistance. Low-wage workers can call us for a free consult.
My landlord filed a suit against me
- Service. Your landlord must “serve” you with the lawsuit. Service occurs when someone hands the lawsuit to you or someone in your home over the age of 15 or when the lawsuit is “posted” in a visible place on your home. If you want to defend the suit, call an attorney right away, as these cases move pretty fast. Low-wage workers can call our office for a free consultation.
- No judgment for past-due rent if lawsuit posted outside home. If the landlord posted the suit outside your home, then the landlord will not be able to get a judgment for past due rent if you do not appear in court (but the landlord can get a judgment to evict you). If you want to be sure there won’t be a judgment for past-due rent, call an attorney. They can look at the “return of service” in the court records. Low-wage workers can call our office for assistance.
- Failure to appear in court. If you or your attorney do not appear in court, the landlord will automatically win the case. This is called a “default judgment.” You should know that a judgment against you will be in the public record. This will make it more difficult for you to rent in the future. Even if you have no defense, you may be able to negotiate an agreement that would prevent a judgment.
- Read the lawsuit. Reading the lawsuit will tell you what the landlord is accusing you of, what type of suit it is, and how much money the landlord is demanding. If you disagree with what the lawsuit says, call an attorney right away. This is especially important if the landlord is seeking an “expedited eviction” and is accusing you or others of engaging in drug activity, serious property damage, or being a threat to others.
- Rent and Possession. The most common type of suits landlords file are called “rent and possession.” Through this type of suit, a landlord can seek a judgment from the court evicting you and requiring you to pay past-due rent and late fees (but not property damages).
- Responding to Rent and Possession Suit.
- Catch up on the rent. If you pay all of the rent due on or before your court date, the case will be dismissed and you will not be evicted (to be safe, appear in court and pay the past due rent to the court with a money order).
- Present evidence of inaccuracy. If the landlord has charged you for fees that are not provided for in the lease or if the amount sought is wrong, you can present evidence of that to the judge. We suggest you call an attorney for a consultation beforehand. Low wage workers may call us for a free consultation.
- Counterclaim for landlord abuses. If, during the time you rented the home, you believe the landlord violated your rights, such as failing to maintain safe, sanitary and livable housing or cutting off your utilities, you may have grounds for a counterclaim. Call an attorney right away for guidance. Low-wage workers can call us for a free consultation.
- Unlawful detainer. Sometimes landlords will file “unlawful detainer” suits. A landlord can file this type of suit when the tenant has stayed in the home past the time permitted. The landlord can seek your eviction, rent, and damages. To succeed, the landlord must send you a letter demanding you leave. The letter must have been delivered 30 days before the date your rent is due. If the landlord did not follow this procedure, the landlord loses. If a landlord wins, a court can order you to pay double rent for the time you stayed over plus damages.
- Responding to unlawful detainer suit.
- No counterclaims. You cannot file counterclaims in unlawful detainer cases. But if you believe you have claims against your landlord, you may want to call an attorney and consider filing them independently.
- Inaccuracies. You can challenge the amount of money being sought if you believe it is inaccurate. You can also try to prove that the landlord failed to provide 30 days’ written notice.
- No breach. If the landlord is attempting to evict you for breaching the lease, you can try to prove you complied with the lease.
I don't have heat, my home is unsafe or unlivable
- Duties. A landlord has a duty to maintain a safe, sanitary and livable rental. The landlord also has a duty to make repairs in accordance with the lease agreement.
- Types of problems. A problem relating to sanitation, safety and livability is usually severe and makes life in the home extremely difficult or unsafe. Some examples are a lack of heat, an non-working toilet (to no fault of the tenant), an infestation of mice or bedbugs, standing sewer water, or shorts and defects in the wiring.
- Responding to unsanitary, unsafe, or unlivable conditions:
- Notice. Call your landlord as soon as possible and inform him or her of the problem. Follow up by writing a letter or email to the landlord describing the problem. If your landlord agreed by phone to fix it, describe the agreement in your follow-up letter. Save a copy of the letter or the sent email. The best practice is to send the letter certified mail, return receipt requested.
- Reasonable time. You must give your landlord a reasonable time to fix the problem.
- If landlord isn't or won't fix the issue. If your landlord fails to respond in a reasonable time, there are several options but the procedures for using them can be complicated. They include bringing a lawsuit, breaking the lease and leaving, calling the city to report a code violation, and/or paying your rent into an escrow account while notifying your landlord that you are withholding rent until the problem is fixed. You may also be able to make the repair yourself and deduct the cost from your rent, but the law only allows for that under a very strict set of facts. We strongly suggest you call an attorney before proceeding with any of the avenues above. If you simply stop paying your rent in response to the problem, you may not be protected if your landlord sues you later. Low-wage workers can call us for a free consultation.
How can I protect myself from wrongdoing by a landlord?
- Read your lease. Before you sign the lease, read it. Pay special attention to provisions having to do with repairs. If the landlord places the burden of repairs on you or if there are other requirements that seem unfair, you have a right to negotiate and ask for changes. Make sure the changes are reflected (even if crossed out, re-written and initialed) in the lease you sign. Low-wage workers can call us about lease questions.
- Promised repairs. If your landlord promises to make certain repairs if you agree to move in, get it in writing and have the landlord sign it.
- Keep records. Create a file for the lease, for all of your rental receipts and any communications you have with your landlord.
- Document pre-existing damages. When you first move in, inspect the home and document preexisting damages, such as tears in the carpet or holes in the wall. Make a list and photograph them. Send copies to your landlord by email or by mail and save copies. You don’t want to be charged for these damages when you move out.
- Photograph home before you move out. Document the condition of home before you move out. Show that you left the home in the same condition as when you moved in.
- Give proper notice before you move if you are month-to-month. If you decide to move, you must give your landlord notice at least one month BEFORE the day your rent is normally due. So if your rent is due on the first of each month and you plan to be out by the end of July, then you must give notice by June 30th (not July 1st). Give notice in writing and keep a copy.
I want my deposit back
- Not more than 2 months rent: A landlord may not collect more than double your rent as a deposit.
- Must return deposit in 30 days. Your landlord must return your security deposit within 30 days from the date you move out along with an explanation for any deductions that were made for repairs. Your landlord may only use the deposit for past-due rent if your lease provides as much.
- Ordinary wear and tear. Your landlord may deduct from your deposit the reasonable costs of repairing damages you caused, such as carpet burns or holes in the wall. The landlord may not charge you for the cost of ordinary wear and tear, such as fresh paint, routine carpet cleaning, or replacing an already worn carpet. If you think the landlord made improper deductions from your deposit, you can call us for a consult.
- Walk through.When you move out, your landlord is required to tell you when he or she will conduct a walk-through to assess the home for damages. If your landlord gives you such notice, attend the walk-through, take photos, and dispute any damages that you did not cause or items you believe to be ordinary wear and tear. If the landlord does not give you notice of a walk-through but withholds all or part of your deposit, you may have grounds to get your money back (along with the penalty below).
- Penalty is double your deposit. If your landlord wrongfully withholds all or part of your deposit, the court can order that he or she pay you up to double the amount that was wrongfully withheld.
Below are forms that you can use at different stages of a Landlord-Tenant problem. It is important that you keep a copy of everything you send and receive from your landlord. The form will download to your computer immediately after clicking on the link.
- Form Letter to Notify Your Landlord of Needed Repairs
- Form Letter to Give Your Landlord Notice that You will be Vacating
- Form Letter to Send Your Landlord Requesting Your Deposit and Providing Forwarding Address
- Small Claims Complaint You May File if Landlord Failed to Return Your Deposit or to Send an Accurate Accounting.
- Answer and Counterclaim to File with Court if You Have a Warranty of Habitability Issue and/or Deposit Issue.
These forms are not nor are they intended to be legal advice. You should consult an attorney for individual advice regarding your own situation.
You may call the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom for a free legal consultation. We are a nonprofit organization that helps low-wage workers access the legal and organizational support they need to protect their rights and connects low-wage workers to tenant lawyers when needed. (816) 278-1092.