Landlord Harassment: How to Recognize and Respond to It

Landlord harassment includes any behavior by your landlord that is intended to disrupt your quality of life, intimidate you, pressure you, or coerce you to move out of your rental unit.

Sometimes landlord harassment is overt and easy to identify and other times it is more nuanced. This is why it’s so important that you read your lease agreement thoroughly and understand all of the terms of your lease. You should also be aware of the landlord/tenant laws in your state and municipality so you can spot landlord harassment if it ever happens to you.

Some examples of harassment might include:

  • Intentionally limiting your access to your rental or building facilities by changing the locks to your unit, common areas, or amenities (such as a pool or laundry room)
  • Entering your rental unit without permission
  • Neglecting to perform necessary maintenance or repairs to your rental, common areas, and shared facilities
  • Removing your personal property from the rental unit
  • Intentionally shutting off utilities to your rental 
  • Threatening you physically or verbally for any reason
  • Refusing to follow proper protocols for issuing notices around things like rent increases, request for entry, and more
  • Issuing a false eviction notice
  • Any form of sexual harassment
  • Offering you money to move out by a certain date 
  • Neglecting to respect the terms of the tenant agreement in any way

Actions that do not count as landlord harassment

On occasion, your landlord may do things that you don’t agree with but they aren’t necessarily a form of harassment (such as raising the rent). As long as your landlord follows the protocols outlined in the tenant agreement, he is operating within his rights.

The following are some examples of instances that should not be considered landlord harassment:

  • Raising the rent when proper notice has been given. Each state has its own set of laws regarding how much notice must be given before a landlord can increase the rent. There are also limits to the percentage which your landlord can raise the rent. As long as your landlord follows these rules, he is within his rights.
  • Issuing a notice to pay or quit. If you’re behind on your rent or you’ve violated the terms of your lease agreement in some way (say, by adopting an unauthorized pet), your landlord may issue a document called a Notice to Pay or a Notice to Quit. This document typically precedes an eviction notice. If you fail to get caught up on your rent, or you continue to violate the terms of your lease, you could face eviction. 
  • Filing an eviction notice after a notice to quit has been issued. If your landlord has already filed a Notice to Quit, and you haven’t adjusted your behavior, the next step is an eviction notice. As long as your landlord follows the protocol outlined in the tenant agreement and abides by the local landlord/tenant laws, he is within his rights to do this.
  • A tenant buyout request. Your landlord can submit a formal buyout request in which he offers you a sum of money in exchange for you agreeing to move out of the rental. This is legal, if done according to local laws, but there are stipulations regarding how much time must pass before the offer is made again. (Repeated offers could be considered harassment.) 
  • Entering your rental unit when notice has been provided. Your landlord is legally permitted to enter your rental to perform maintenance and repairs if he has provided you with sufficient notice. 

Motivations behind landlord harassment

Landlord harassment can occur for all kinds of reasons. Often, harassment is linked to a landlord’s desire to have a tenant move out of their rental. If you live in a rent controlled apartment, the landlord could be eager to bring in a new tenant who will pay current market rates, which may be significantly higher than what you are paying. This is especially common in competitive rental markets, such as New York City and San Francisco.

In other instances, landlords may simply be negligent and fail to perform sufficient maintenance to their property. Or they might be trying to exploit vulnerable individuals.

Once again, it’s crucial that you know your rights as a tenant so that you can recognize when your landlord is behaving inappropriately. 

What to do if your landlord is harassing you

If your landlord is harassing you in any way, it’s important to stand to up for your rights. This isn’t always easy to do, as you may be concerned about retaliation or your own safety. Remember, there are resources available to you, regardless of your situation.

If your landlord crosses the line, follow the steps below to put a stop to this behavior.

Document every instance of harassment

If your landlord does anything that could be considered inappropriate, document the incident carefully. Write down the date, time, and location and a description of the inappropriate interaction or behavior. If possible, save screenshots of conversations, copies of notices that were issues, or any other type of evidence that can help illustrate what occurred. 

Often, a single instance of harassment isn’t enough to convict a problematic landlord. That’s why it’s important to keep track of every inappropriate action your landlord takes. An single incident might seem minor at the time, but if it becomes a pattern you will be glad you have documentation to use to file a complaint or pursue legal action.

Write a letter to your landlord requesting that they stop

Depending on the nature of your landlord’s inappropriate behavior, it may be worthwhile to write a letter requesting that he stop.

If the harassment is extreme, say verbal abuse or physical intimidation, skip this step and file a complaint with the police. 

For instance, let’s say your lease agreement includes use of a swimming pool and suddenly your landlord has placed a lock on the gate, limiting your access. You should then write a letter to your landlord quoting the section of your lease agreement in which you are promised use of the pool and kindly request that he restore your access.

Hopefully, demonstrating that you are aware of your rights will be enough to have your landlord fall in line. If nothing else, writing a letter like this helps create a paper trail illustrating your landlord’s refusal to uphold his side of the lease agreement.

File a formal complaint against your landlord

If your landlord is harassing you it’s important to report it. By doing so, you can protect yourself and others from future problems with the landlord.  

There are a few different places to file a complaint or a report of harassment. 

  • US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): If you live in a HUD-insured or -assisted property, file a complaint with the Multifamily Housing Complaint Line. They will ask you questions about your experience to create an internal report and help you contact the relevant local authorities. 
  • Rental Protection Agency (RPA): This national organization operates a public database of landlords across the US and you can file a formal complaint with them for a fee. The organization offers mediation services and will help you come to a resolution with your landlord. Your complaint will be visible in their database and can be used as evidence in court if necessary.
  • State Government Agencies: Landlord/Tenant disputes are most-often handled at the state level. The agency you need to go through may vary from state to state. You can use this directory to find the resources you need for your particular state.
  • Local police: If your landlord is threatening you, using physical intimidation, entering your rental without permission, or making you feel uncomfortable or unsafe in any way, contact your local police.

File a restraining order against your landlord

A temporary restraining order can be used to force a landlord to stop treating your unfairly. This is a short-term legal injunction that can be used to slow an unfair eviction process, force your landlord to restore access to your rental, force your landlord to turn your utilities back on, or put a stop to other unfair actions on the part of your landlord. 

Sue your landlord

If your landlord has created a living environment that is unsafe or uninhabitable, you could sue him for damages in small claims court. If your personal property has been damaged due to unresolved maintenance issues or you’ve experienced personal injury due to a substandard environment, you may have recourse in court.

If you choose to sue, you will need as much documentation as possible regarding your landlord’s harassment. 

What to do if your landlord retaliates

Your landlord cannot legally retaliate against you for filing a formal complaint against you. If your landlord threatens eviction, or engages in any other form of unjust treatment after you’ve taken action against him, this is inappropriate retaliation.

In these instances, you likely have recourse to sue your landlord for damages. You can report your landlord’s attempts to retaliate to the same authorities you reported his initial harassment. If convicted, your landlord could face fines. 

Final thoughts

Tenants have a right to a safe and habitable home. If your landlord does anything to intentionally compromise these qualities or to coerce you to move out of your rental, his actions are considered harassment.

If you feel that your landlord is failing to uphold his side of your tenancy agreement and engaging in any form of harassment, document each instance carefully in case you need to pursue legal action.

As always, it’s essential that you know the terms of your lease and that you are familiar with tenancy laws in your area so that you can recognize harassment and stand up for yourself should you ever need to.