In Pennsylvania, whenever you rent a residence – whether it is an apartment, a house, or even a mobile home – you are protected by an implied warranty of habitability. The lease can be in writing or it can be a verbal agreement – the warranty will exist. Furthermore, your landlord cannot get you to waive this right in a residential lease because it automatically exists even if it is not expressed in the lease or a landlord expressly attempts to get rid of it. It protects you, as the tenant, from being forced to live in a place that is not safe, sanitary, and healthy. This is a powerful weapon against so-called slumlords, but, like all weapons, you must understand its purpose and how to use it for it to be useful.
The implied warranty of habitability was established by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the case of Pugh v. Hughes in 1978, and it is through court decisions that its meaning has developed. The basic idea is that a lease is a contract, which provides obligations for landlords and tenants. A tenant is supposed to pay rent, and this action requires the landlord to provide a safe and healthy place in which the tenant lives. If either party to the lease fails to live up to her or his obligation, then the other party cannot be forced to do what would be required here – these are considered to be mutual obligations because the failure of one to live up to the responsibility relieves the other of his or her obligation.
The idea sounds straightforward but becomes more complicated as you look at the details that come along with it. Tenants who do not pay their rent face eviction. Landlords who do not make repairs do not necessarily breach their obligation to provide a habitable residence for their tenants. Habitability goes to the ability to live in a place without some type of danger to the welfare of tenants due to the condition, which was under the landlord’s control. In other words, if you caused the problem that made the condition of your residence (or some part of it) a danger to safety or health, then you cannot blame the landlord for breaching the implied warranty.
Habitability refers to livability. Examples of conditions that can prevent a place from being livable include a lack of running water, the absence of heat in the winter, the presence of rats or cockroaches, and a leak in your ceiling. However, you must keep in mind that habitability is not an all-or-nothing thing. A ceiling leak that leaves the bedroom unusable does not necessarily make the rest of an apartment or house unlivable. As we will see later, this is a factor that can affect your options when you deal with the landlord and, potentially, with the legal system.
If at least part of your residence cannot be used due to the landlord’s lack of upkeep while you have remained current with your rent payments, you are in position to move forward with enforcing the implied warranty. At the same time, you must be sure not to move to soon in implementing one of the options that a breach of the warranty would provide – there are steps to take in order to protect yourself from an action by the landlord, such as eviction, while you act to protect your rights.
When you decide that the place that you rent has some area that is not habitable due to conditions like the examples listed earlier and that the landlord is at fault, you need to do what you can to protect yourself from the landlord blaming you. You want to have evidence that the problem exists, which becomes particularly important if you end up in the legal system by your choice or your landlord’s choice. Evidence can be in the form of photos, for example. Having witnesses who would be willing to describe what they have seen also can be beneficial. You could have an inspector from the county check for housing code violations. Whether or not you take actions like these before the next step really is up to you, but you definitely would work on these and other actions if you are headed toward the legal system. The step that you must take before you pursue any options is notifying the landlord so we will look at this prior to considering your remedies and other matters in the second part of this post.