In addition to the remedies available under the implied warranty of habitability, in certain localities The Pennsylvania Rent Withholding Act provides assistance to tenants living in substandard housing.
Once the leased premises have been inspected and declared unfit by the local housing code enforcement officer, the tenant may deposit his or her rent with a specific, approved escrow agent, rather than paying it to the landlord. These payments continue up to six months. After six months have expired, if the premises are still unfit, the deposited rent is returned to the tenant. Further six month periods of rent withholding may follow. In addition, the tenant’s lease, whether oral or written, is extended until the unfit designation is removed. A tenant may not be evicted for any reason while he or she continues to make timely rental payments to the escrow agent. The tenant is also permitted to withdraw money from the account to make repairs or to pay utilities which the landlord has wrongfully failed to pay.
If the landlord repairs or corrects the defects within the six month withholding period, the rent will be turned over to the landlord.
In order to determine whether the Rent Withholding Act applies in your area, you should contact the local government offices or code enforcement officer. Even where the Act does not apply, tenants may be better assisted by the more flexible remedies under the implied warranty of habitability. An attorney’s opinion should be obtained before resorting to either remedy. The Rent Withholding Act only applies to certain class cities.
Your landlord may evict you if the term of your lease has expired and you have failed to move; if you have failed to pay the rent; or if you have broken one or more of the major lease provisions. Your landlord may not legally force you to move immediately, lock you out, turn off your utilities, or enter your premises unreasonably. Nor may he or she lawfully threaten or harass you. However, in 1995, a new bill passed the state legislature which revised the Landlord/Tenant Act. This new law states that in cases where a lease is for less than one year, or for an indeterminate time period, new conditions regarding eviction proceedings are implemented.
In Pennsylvania, a landlord must follow certain required legal procedures before you can be evicted. First, the landlord is required to provide you with written notice to vacate the premises. This notice is only effective if it is hand delivered or posted on the premises in which you live. Simply mailing the notice is not sufficient.
NOTE: THE ADVANCE NOTICE REQUIRED BY THE LAW MAY BE WAIVED OR DECREASED BY YOUR LEASE. SUCH A WAIVER IS GENERALLY CONSIDERED VALID. If the notice is validly waived by your lease, your landlord will be permitted to take you to court right away, without any advance notice.
As most student leases are for periods of less than one year, in situations where a lease has expired, or is forfeited due to a breach of its conditions, you have only five (5) days to vacate the property. In cases where rental payments have not been made, you will also have only five (5) days to vacate the property. The same time period is in effect if you have committed a breach of the lease through the use of illegal drugs.
Landlords may file a complaint with a Magisterial District Judge. The Magisterial District Judge will issue a summons to you to appear within five (5) to eight (8) days to answer the complaint. This summons will be given to you as the accused tenant by a constable or sheriff, either in person, by first class mail, or by posting notice on the premises.
DO NOT IGNORE THIS COMPLAINT. If you do nothing, the Magisterial District Judge will enter a judgment (or decision) in favor of the landlord for whatever money has been claimed, plus costs. This judgment will also permit the landlord to take eventual possession of the premises. If possible, see an attorney. In most areas of Pennsylvania, legal service organizations provide free representation for low-income persons who are facing an eviction. Your local yellow pages or courthouse administrator can help you locate them. If you are not eligible or do not have access to such a service, contract the Pennsylvania Lawyer Referral Service at their toll free number: 1-800-692-7375. They will assist you in finding an attorney who will advise you at a very low initial cost, which should help you to protect your rights.
At the hearing, if the landlord’s case is proven, the Magisterial District Judge will require you to vacate the property; pay any damages for refusing to vacate the property; pay any back rent which is due the landlord; pay the costs of the legal proceedings and; pay any other expenses including reasonable attorney fees. If the complaint is found to be without reasonable cause, the case will be dismissed and the cost of the proceedings assessed to the landlord.
At any time before the hearing, you may contact the Magisterial District Judge to file your own claim against the landlord. This is called a counterclaim or cross-complaint. You should file a counterclaim if the premises had serious defects such as faulty plumbing or heating, a leaky roof, lack of hot water, insect or rodent infestation, or some other threat to your health and safety. If you had asked the landlord to repair or correct these defects, and he failed to do so, or was slow to do so, you may be able to reduce the rent you owe or reclaim some of the rent you have already paid. You should also consider filing a counterclaim if the landlord has locked you out, disconnected your utilities, or injured your health or property in his or her attempt to force you to move.
Even if you have no reason to file counterclaim, you will need to appear and defend yourself if the landlord is claiming more than you owe or if you have not breached the lease. Inform the Magisterial District Judge that you will appear at the hearing. By appearing at the hearing, you may be able to settle your differences with the landlord or work out a repayment arrangement for back rent or legal costs.
The new law allows for a landlord to request a writ of possession five (5) days after the Magisterial District Judge’s judgment. A constable or sheriff shall either personally deliver to you, the writ of possession, or post the writ on the dwelling premises. If the writ of possession is solely for nonpayment of rent, then you may stop the eviction at any point before the sheriff puts you out by paying the full rent and costs to the landlord.
Within ten (10) days following the hearing, the constable or sheriff is required to return the writ to the Magisterial District Judge and indicate when and how the writ was served; if you have satisfied the conditions of the writ by vacating the property or paying the landlord rent and costs; if you were forcibly evicted; and if any expenses and/or fees were incurred, and how you reimburse the municipality ordering the eviction.
Either party may appeal the Magisterial District Judge’s action to the County Court of Common Pleas within ten (10) days of the judgment. In order for you to file an appeal, you must pay all of the rent which is due and any associated costs, in event the original judgment is upheld. The appeal shall not supersede the original writ of possession, except upon the special allowance of the court.
It is advisable to vacate the premises before you are forced out. If you remain on the premises and are unable to pay back rent, damages, and legal costs, the Constable or Sheriff will remove you, lock you out and seize all of your possessions other than clothing and selected personal property. Your landlord can then request that enough of your possessions be sold to pay him or her the money owed.
Late Move Out
Moving out after the intended date may cause several different problems. First, if you have a verbal month-to-month lease and move out in the middle of any month, you are responsible for the full month’s rent. Many student’s mistakenly believe that if they leave a rental unit by the middle of the month, they only owe one-half month’s rent. One the contrary, if you hold over into a new rental-period, you must pay rent for the full-period.
Secondly, if you have a written lease for a definite period of time (such as one year) and you hold over past the termination date, you may be unintentionally renewing your lease for another full term.The third possible difficulty arising from moving out too late is an eviction action to force you out of the premises and to collect any damages the landlord sustained as a result of your refusal to move out. Eviction is not a threat if your lease contains a clause authorizing you to renew it by “holding over” past the termination date.
Recovering Your Security Deposit
The most essential step for you to take when you move out is to give your landlord written notice of your new address. You should do this just before you move out. If you don’t know what your new address will be, give the landlord the name of a friend or relative who can accept mail for you. You should send this notification by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you will be able to prove that your landlord received it. You should also be sure, as always, to keep a copy.
If you take this simple step, your landlord must provide you with a written list of damages and return your security deposit, minus the amount claimed for damages, within 30 days. Should he or she fail to provide a written list of damages within 30 days, the landlord forfeits the right to keep any of your deposit as well as the right to sue you for any damages to the premises. In addition, if your landlord does not return the differences between your deposit and the actual damages to the premises within 30 days, you have the right to sue him or her for double the difference between your deposit and any damages you actually caused. These protections are only available to tenants who can prove that they have given their new address in writing. Even if you failed to give such written notice when terminating your last lease, the landlord is still legally obligated to return your security deposit, less the value of damages to the premises.
If you have difficulty recovering your security deposit, it is possible to bring legal action yourself in the Magisterial District Judge’s Court for a fairly small fee.