A Renter’s Nightmare in Pennsylvania: Tenant Speaks Out About Landlord Abuse and Inadequate Protections

FILE - A sign indicating the availability of a home to rent stands outside a building in Philadelphia, Wednesday, June 22, 2022. House flipping, “house hacking” and vacation rentals have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, becoming a distinctly millennial way of generating passive income in an uncertain economy. The potential profit is tempting, but is it worth the time and money? Ongoing repairs and responsibility to tenants can make renting a major undertaking, so know your financial and personal limits before signing the dotted line. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

By Ashley Adams

May 1, 2023

In Pennsylvania, renters are afforded limited protections under the law, yet many are unaware what those protections are. Democratic state lawmakers are hoping to change that by passing legislation that would provide uniform tenant rights and put a limit on rent increases.

From the bedroom ceiling caving in to a rodent living in the walls, James Shea’s first experience as a renter was filled with hardships, to say the least. But the response from his landlord, or lack thereof, was the biggest issue of all.

“It was kind of like pulling teeth to get the landlord to fix something or discuss something,” Shea said. “It was always hard. We knew that if we ever needed anything it was always going to be a battle.”

Shea, along with two roommates, rented a three-bedroom rowhome in north Philadelphia for $1,450 a month from August 2021 to July 2022 while attending Temple University.

While Shea is grateful he had people he could go to for advice on the issues with his renting situation — such as his father, who works in real estate — he said more needs to be done to ensure tenants are aware of what their rights are in Pennsylvania.

“There are a lot of people who don’t know what to do or what their rights are,” Shea said. “I think people need to be made more aware of what their rights are as a renter. There should be a handbook of renter’s rights. I was fortunate to be in the situation where I had a place to go if things went south and people to talk to for advice. Not everyone has that. I couldn’t imagine what someone would do without the resources that I had.”

In the commonwealth, more than 30% of households are renters. Tenants rights are protected through the federal Fair Housing Act and the Pennsylvania Landlord Tenant Law. Yet, many state lawmakers say the laws don’t do enough to protect tenants from predatory and absentee landlords. Bills addressing renter’s rights have been introduced in the state legislature, but none have made it to the governor’s desk.

One such bill was introduced by state Rep. Emily Kinkead (D-Allegheny). House Bill 765, also called the Uniform Tenants’ Bill of Rights, was referred to the Housing and Community Development Committee.

“In our commonwealth, nearly 32% of households are renters, but our outdated and difficult-to-navigate landlord-tenant laws simply do not do enough to protect tenants from predatory and capricious landlords,” Kinkead said. “Pennsylvania is long overdue for common sense legislation that would both simplify and streamline our landlord-tenant procedures while also providing a consistent and clear standard for the rights of both parties in what can sometimes become a testy, adversarial, and litigious relationship.”

A Need to Protect Renters From Price Gouging

One of the most concerning issues for Shea during his first renting experience was an attempt by his landlord to raise the rent without telling him.

“Our landlord wanted us to sign a new lease,” Shea said, “and I guess he was hoping we wouldn’t notice the change in rent in the new contract. He was urging us to sign it, saying it was pretty much the same as our current lease and we should just sign it. He was persistent about it.”

Thankfully, Shea and his roommates did not listen to the landlord and read the new lease prior to signing it. A few pages in, where the cost of rent was listed, they noticed it was $200 more than what they were already paying.

“We contacted our landlord and asked him why it was more,” Shea said. “Our landlord said it was an oversight. But it seemed to me like he got caught. He made changes to our lease in an attempt to get more money out of us.”

A landlord can raise rent in Pennsylvania upon the termination of a lease period. State law does not specify a specific notice period that a landlord must provide to a tenant informing them of a rent increase. Philadelphia requires a landlord to provide 60-days’ notice to tenants, in writing, for leases of a year or more. For tenants of less than a year, 30 days’ notice is mandatory in the city.

When signing the lease for a year, the tenant and landlord agree on the rent. The lease document indicates that the rent will remain the same until the end of the lease term. In this scenario, the landlord has to wait for the lease term to end and cannot increase the rent.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania does not have rent control laws. Rent control, or rent regulation, usually refers to laws and ordinances limiting how much a landlord can increase rent in a given period, and sets conditions for when and how much they can raise rents. Such regulations are established to make housing affordable by imposing price controls. ‍

In short, a landlord in Pennsylvania can raise the rent as much as they want.

State Rep. Nancy Guenst (D-Montgomery) has introduced House Bill 506 proposing statewide limitations on residential rent increases. It was referred to the Housing and Community Development committee.

“Renters should never fear being forced from their homes by the insatiability of inscrutable landlords,” Guenst said. “Exploiting the housing crisis and inflated real estate market, landlords across the commonwealth are gouging renters. This is unfair and unethical. Measures need to be taken to ensure Pennsylvania families remain secure in their homes, free from the risk of displacement due to greed.”  

Ensuring Habitable Living Conditions

“If I’m paying money to live there, I want the place to be habitable,” Shea said. 

But that wasn’t always the case. As Shea and his roommates dealt with issue after issue, Shea said they weren’t sure what was their responsibility to take care of, and what was their landlord’s duty to tend to.

One such example he cited was a mouse infestation.

Shea and his roommates started noticing mice running around their kitchen. Shea reached out to his landlord to let him know, but nothing was done. Instead, they took care of the situation themselves by buying and putting out traps. As the weather warmed up, Shea said the problem cleared up. He didn’t push the issue with his landlord because he was unsure who was responsible for dealing with it.

In Pennsylvania, tenants have the right to a decent place to live which is guaranteed by the Implied Warranty of Habitability. The Warranty means that in every residential lease there is a promise that a landlord will provide a home that is safe, sanitary, and healthful. 

A rental home must be fit to live in and the landlord must keep it that way throughout the rental period by making necessary repairs. The landlord is required to remedy serious defects affecting the safety or ability to live in the rental unit, including:

  • Lack of hot/cold running water
  • Lack of adequate heat in winter
  • Insect or rodent infestation
  • Leaking roof
  • Inadequate electrical wiring or lack of electricity
  • Unsafe structural component that makes it dangerous to occupy the premises

A rental unit infested with mice is not a safe and sanitary condition. Nor is a rodent living in the ceiling, which was another issue Shea and his roommates had to deal with.

“One time we had a raccoon in our ceiling for a couple of months,” Shea said. “We were calling our landlord and asking him to do something about it. It took at least a couple of weeks until someone finally came out. All they did was confirm there was something scurrying about. They didn’t do anything about it.”

Shea said the raccoon eventually went away but only after part of his bedroom ceiling collapsed.

“I started noticing water seeping in through the walls in my bedroom,” Shea said. “Water bubbles would form on the walls when it rained.”

Shea said he contacted his landlord and told him about it, asking him to take care of it. He got no response. Twelve days later, a corner of the ceiling in his bedroom collapsed in.

According to Shea, there was a hole in the roof which caused a well of water to build up in the ceiling which eventually caused the collapse. While none of his property was damaged, Shea’s bedroom was inhabitable and he was forced to sleep in the basement for over a month. It took numerous attempts and finally a threat to withhold rent before the landlord sent someone to fix the problem.

“It was not convenient but I made do in the basement,” Shea said. “We’re still paying the full rent yet I couldn’t live in the room I was paying for. I knew it would take some time to fix but not that long.”

According to law, if a problem is serious enough to constitute a breach of the Implied Warranty of Habitability and a landlord was given enough time to remedy the situation but didn’t, a tenant is entitled to seek a few different remedies, including:

  • Terminating lease and moving out;
  • Withholding all or part of the rent;
  • Repairing it and deducting from the rent;
  • Filing a legal action to seek compensation.
Part of James Shea’s ceiling collapsed in a home he was renting in Philadelphia. (Photo: James Shea)

A Renter’s Right to Privacy

Pennsylvania law states that in every lease there is a promise that the landlord will not unreasonably interfere with a tenant’s right to occupy the rental property. Called the Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment, it’s designed to ensure a tenant’s right to privacy. By paying rent, a tenant is not only entitled to a roof over their head, but also the right to enjoy the rental without unreasonable and excessive intrusions by the landlord, such as entering for no reason, entering without notice, or disturbing tenants at night.

This was another area where Shea’s landlord violated a law yet he was unaware of.

When Shea and his roommates decided not to renew the lease and gave notice of their intent to move out, their landlord put the house up for sale. That started a parade of people coming in and out of the property at all times.

“He kept trying to show people our apartment,” Shea said. “He’d give us notice sometimes, but other times we’d just have people show up. He just kept pushing it and would become persistent when we would ask for a break in showings. We needed some privacy but he wouldn’t give it to us.”

Hard Lessons Learned as a First-Time Renter

Shea and his roommates moved out July 31, 2022. They eventually got part of their security deposit back. They were never told why some of it was withheld and they never questioned it.

“At that point we were just done,” Shea said. “We just wanted to wash our hands of it. It was a rough year for all of us. We just wanted to get out of there.”

In Pennsylvania, a landlord has 30 days after the end of the lease to provide either:

  • A written list of damages that are the tenant’s responsibility with payment of the difference between the security deposit and money used to remedy the issues, or,
  • A check for the entire amount of the security deposit.

If the landlord fails to do either, they give up the right to withhold any of the security deposit. This is another right Shea was unaware he had as a renter.

Shea currently lives in an apartment and is having a better rental experience with his new landlord. He said they are more responsive and it doesn’t feel like a battle to get issues resolved.

While his first time renting was not the best experience, he did learn a lot from it.

“Always read your lease from cover to cover before signing it,” Shea said. “It also made me more vigilant. I do research now, on the property, on the landlord, and everything.”

Shea said he is also better versed on the limited rights Pennsylvania affords renters. 

“While there aren’t enough rights for renters, at least I know what few I do have and what I can do to make sure I don’t go through what I did again,” Shea said.

Author

  • Ashley Adams

    In her 16 years in the communications industry, Ashley Adams has worn many hats, including news reporter, public relations writer, marketing specialist, copy editor and technical writer. Ashley grew up in Berks County and has since returned to her roots to raise her three children.

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