Landlords in most states have some degree of legal responsibility to provide secure housing and to protect their tenants from assaults, break ins, and other crimes on the rental property. These responsibilities are covered under local and state building codes and laws, and, with increasing frequency, court decisions. Tenant lawsuits for injuries and property losses from criminal acts have become more and more common, with some court settlements and jury awards in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Here are your various tenant options, including suing your landlord in court, for dealing with security problems.
Some cities ordinances require peepholes, dead bolt locks, and specific types of lighting. And a few states, such as Texas (Tex. Prop. Code §§ 92.151–170), set detailed rules for security equipment landlords must provide and tenant options, such as “repair-and-deduct,” if the landlord fails to supply the required equipment.
In addition to complying with local and state laws that require specific security measures, landlords have a general common law duty to act reasonably under the circumstances, or, expressed in legal jargon, to “act with due care.” When it comes to security, courts in most states have ruled that landlords must take reasonable precautions to protect tenants from foreseeable criminal assaults and property crimes on the rental property. Many courts have ruled that prior criminal activity in the rental building increases a landlord’s duty to tenants if the prior crimes were similar to a current one.
Contact your city manager’s or mayor’s office to get a copy of your local housing code. You may also be able to get information from a state or local housing agency or local tenants’ association. To find building codes for all 50 states and major cities, see the Building Code Reference Library, published by Reed Construction Data. Also, Nolo’s Every Tenant’s Legal Guide (or California Tenants’ Rights if you live in California), provides detailed advice on the landlord’s duty to keep tenants safe.
The best way to get results is to put your security requests in writing, and have the letter signed by as many tenants as possible. Use the Sample Letter Alerting the Landlord to Dangerous Conditions as a model in preparing your own. Also, see the Nolo article How to Get Your Landlord to Make Major Repairs for advice on the subject.
You’re most likely to get the landlord to beef up security if your state sets specific statutory requirements for security devices such as deadbolts; if the landlord promised (such as in rental listing) measures, such as secure underground parking, that are now missing or malfunctioning; and if prior criminal activity in the neighborhood bolsters your security requests. Landlords are especially likely to be held liable when a crime occurs on property where a similar assault, break in, or other crime occurred in the past.
If there is a local ordinance requiring dead bolts on all exterior doors or some other security measure, and your landlord has not provided this, contact a building inspector for help in getting the landlord to comply with the law.
To take advantage of these options, you must first check state laws on rent withholding,and make sure that your security problem is serious and that you’ve given the landlord notice of the problem and time to respond. See Tenant Options if Your Landlord Won’t Make Major Repairs for more advice on the subject.
If you have been unsuccessful motivating your landlord to add dead bolt locks, install motion detector lights outside of the building, or take care of other necessary security measures, your most effective response might be suing your landlord in small claims court. This involves arranging for the work yourself, such as hiring a locksmith, and then suing the landlord for the cost. See Nolo’s state–specific advice on filing a security deposit lawsuit for useful guidance on preparing for and presenting your case against the landlord.
Suing your landlord, however, can put you at risk, especially if your lease or rental agreement says “no improvements or alterations without the landlord’s consent.” Your risk of eviction for violating a lease clause will probably be less if the job you do is required by local law, such as a code-required dead bolt, rather than a modification like trimming the bushes that you have concluded is required for your safety. If it’s something clearly required of the landlord, your landlord will have a hard time laying blame on you for doing the landlord’s job, and your lease clause violation will appear almost necessary. Keep in mind that your landlord has the right to enter your rental unit in an emergency, and you cannot make this impossible.
If you have had property stolen in a break in of your apartment, your renters’ insurance (hopefully you have a policy!) should cover some or all of your losses.
If you have been a victim of a crime in your home or on the rental premises, you may consider filing a personal injury lawsuit against the landlords—especially if your injuries are severe (or you have been unsuccessful dealing with the landlord’s insurance adjuster or lawyer yourself). Personal injury lawsuits can be complicated, so you’ll want to hire an attorney to maximize the chances of a just settlement or lawsuit verdict. Nolo publishes a wide variety of articles on the subject (see Do You Have a Personal Injury Case?) Also, Nolo’s Lawyer Directory includes an extensive list of personal injury lawyers by state.