Can I force my landlord to take action before the hillside slips?

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Question:

I have a question regarding the repair and maintenance responsibilities of my landlord. I rent a house with a hillside behind it that is slowly crumbling and sliding -- and eventually will slide into the back of the house. The room that the hillside will fall into is my bedroom. I am very concerned. How do you recommend that I approach my landlord with this safety problem?

Answer:

We assume that your landlord owns the hillside of which you speak. Bring the problem to your landlord's attention in the same way that you would alert him to the presence of a shutter that is hanging by a thread, a crack in a windowpane that threatens to split the glass, or a hole in the lobby rug in which you could catch your heel. Write a letter describing the situation and mentioning your reasonable fear that it is an accident waiting to happen.

If your landlord knows about the danger but fails to take reasonable steps to prevent it, he increases the chances that he will be held liable if you are injured. Even the most penurious landlord is likely to take heed when he realizes that the consequences to him -- never mind the injury to you -- can mean the loss of big bucks.

That said, however, the truth is that you're more likely to get a new shutter, window, or rug than effective erosion control. Preventing a slide may not be covered by the landlord's insurance policy, and it's an expensive repair.

If the landlord fails to fix the problem, and you really fear for your safety, consider calling the local building department, which may be able to order the owner to take action. Also consider breaking the lease and moving. To avoid being successfully sued for the rent remaining on the lease, however, you'll need to be able to prove that a landslide truly appeared imminent. Try asking the building department to give you a written opinion, or consider hiring a soils engineer. If you have solid professional evidence that disaster is near, you should be able to leave without obligation for future rent.

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