Rent increases are an inevitable part of any tenant’s life. In most areas without rent control, there is no limit on the amount your landlord can increase the rent. But landlords cannot raise the rent at whim. The timing of a rent increase, and the way your landlord communicates it, are governed by statute in most states.
Also, in most states landlords cannot increase rent in retaliation after you exercise specified legal rights guaranteed to tenants, and cannot illegally discriminate in their system for raising rent.
Except in cities with rent control, your landlord’s legal right to raise the rent depends primarily on whether you have a lease or a month-to-month rental agreement.
If you have a lease, your landlord can’t raise the rent until the end of the lease period, unless the lease itself provides for an increase or you agree to it.
If you rent under a month-to-month rental agreement, the landlord can raise the rent (or change any other term of the rental arrangement) by giving you the proper amount of notice, which in most states is 30 days. Also, the rent increase notice must be in writing; in some states, certified mail is required. Oral notices are ineffective in most states and, unless you specifically agree to the rent increase, you are not obligated to pay it.
Rent increases often trigger security deposit increases. Here’s how it happens: Many states limit the amount a landlord can charge for a security deposit. Typically, deposits are capped as a multiple of the monthly rent—for example, the maximum deposit may be twice the monthly rent. But this means that if the rent has gone up legally, the security deposit may also be legally increased. For example, if the deposit is twice the monthly rent, and your $1,000 rent has gone up to $1,100, the deposit limit rises from $2,000 to $2,200.
What should you do if your landlord doesn’t give you proper written notice for a rent increase?
If you’re a month-to-month tenant and it’s not that big a deal, you’re better off going along rather than insisting on your rights and facing a chill in your relationship. (Besides, since the landlord can “do it right” with typically 30 days’ notice, your objections will only buy you one month’s time.) It’s usually a good idea to put the increase in writing, so that the amount of the increase can’t mysteriously grow. Ask the landlord to prepare a new lease or rental agreement confirming the new arrangement or write a letter of understanding confirming the new terms.
It’s a somewhat different situation, however, if you have a lease. Having thought that you were protected from rent increases (one of the main advantages of a lease), you won’t take kindly to an increase midlease. But think carefully: It may be a mistake to point out to your landlord that the rent payment clause cannot be changed during the life of the lease. Especially if you have been habitually late paying rent or have broken some other significant provision for which you could be evicted (for example, your boyfriend has moved in, violating your lease’s restrictions on occupants), you may end up winning the battle but losing the war. In short, if the landlord has a legal ground for eviction, it is probably far better to go along with the rent payment change than to stand on your rights and invite the end of your tenancy.
Landlords may not raise the rent in a discriminatory manner—for example, only for members of a certain race or religion or for families with children. Also, in most states your landlord can’t use a rent increase (or evict you or decrease services, either) in retaliation against you for exercising a specified legal right. For example, if you make a legitimate complaint to a public agency about defective conditions in your rental unit, your landlord may not raise your rent to punish you.
Legally, there is nothing you can do about a legal rent hike that doesn’t violate a rent control ordinance and is not discriminatory or retaliatory. The landlord can charge as much as the market will bear. But, practically, you can appeal to your landlord’s business sense.
Landlording is a business with the goal of making money, but smart landlords realize that high rents are not the only route to high profits. Solvent, long-term tenants are the best tenants because they are low-maintenance—they don’t have to be evicted, sued, coddled, cleaned up after, scolded for breaking the rules, or interviewed and investigated as part of the time- and money-consuming new-tenant application process. If you are a good, long-term tenant and can convince your landlord that the rent hike will make you move, your landlord might think twice, or at least moderate the increase. Your leverage with the landlord will increase if you can show that many other stable, long-term tenants are also upset and considering moving. If the rent hike affects others in your building, work together to present your collective plea. Remember, even in a tight rental market, lots of long-term tenants are hard to find.
For more information on responding to a rent increase, see Nolo's book, Every Tenants' Legal Guide.