Landlords in nearly all states have the legal responsibility to provide safe and habitable premises. These obligations typically come either from state or local housing laws or the landlord's general duty to act with due care—the amount of care another reasonable landlord in a similar situation would use.
For example, landlords are normally expected to take steps to make sure tenants are not at risk of harm from crime, environmental hazards, or problems due to lack of maintenance. When a health or safety problem arises in a rental, tenants have the right to enforce the landlord's duty to provide habitable premises.
Although the bulk of responsibility for maintaining a safe and habitable rental falls on landlords, tenants also have their own duties. For example, tenants have the obligation—whether written specifically in the lease or implied—to make sure that the landlord is aware that there is a problem in the first place. Often, landlords—especially absentee ones—are unaware of problems or might not realize the seriousness of the situation until the tenant brings the issue to the landlord's attention.
Putting your repair requests in writing can be an effective way to get results. Not only is a written request more likely to get your landlord's attention than an oral one, but it also will be useful evidence should you end up having to sue your landlord to make the repairs.
Your letter should:
Your letter does not necessarily need to threaten repercussions if your landlord is not cooperative. Better to have the letter carry the clear implication that you take the request seriously and will act in some as-yet-unspecified way if the landlord's favorable response is not forthcoming.
Use this Sample Tenant Letter Alerting the Landlord to Dangerous Conditions as a model in preparing your own letter. If you aware of events that already took place and are related to the particular security problem, be sure to mention that in your letter (along with anything else that will motivate the landlord to take action).
To strengthen your case, have your letter signed by as many tenants as possible.
789 Westmoreland Avenue, #5
Central City, WA 00000
January 3, 20xx
Mr. Wesley Smith, Landlord
123 East Street
Central City, WA 00000
Dear Mr. Smith:
As tenants of the Westmoreland Avenue building, we are concerned that there is a dangerous condition on the property that deserves your prompt attention.
As you know, the large sliding windows on the bottom floor (in the lobby) are secured by turn locks that can be easily forced open. On occasion we have seen a dowel placed in the track to prevent the windows from being opened, but lately the dowels have often been missing. Several times, the windows have even been left open all night.
We are worried that an intruder will have an easy time of getting into the building. There have been several burglaries in the neighborhood within the past two months. The situation would be greatly helped if you could send a glass repair person to replace the locks with much stronger ones. Needless to say, a burglary or assault is a worrisome prospect.
Please respond to this letter by next Tuesday, and thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.
[Signed by as many tenants as possible]
Mail or deliver the letter to the address where you pay rent, as well as any other address your lease or rental agreement lists for notice purposes. Keep a copy of the signed letter for your records, along with proof of mailing or delivery.
Having a written record of your complaints about safety issues—especially when the landlord has not kept promises—will provide your landlord an increased incentive to take action. Also, if you plan to withhold rent, you'll need evidence that you have given the landlord written notice of the problem. (See How Rent Withholding Works for details.)
Hopefully, your landlord will respond in a timely manner by arranging for the issue to be fixed. If you do not receive a response, you could respond with a second, similar letter that makes it clear that you will be suing the landlord or complaining to local health and safety officials if you do not get a response by a certain date. Be prepared to follow through with whatever course of action you mention—health and safety problems in a rental should not go unaddressed.
For advice on working with other tenants, including organizing a tenants' group, see the Nolo books Every Tenant's Legal Guide (or California Tenants' Rights, if you're in California). Also, contact a local tenant rights group for advice on the subject. To find a local group, check out the Tenant Rights section of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) website, which includes links to tenant unions. When you are working with other tenants to try to get a landlord to make repairs, it can also be helpful to pool resources to consult with a landlord-tenant lawyer.