Recent laws on leases protect tenants

FOR RENTERS

January 30, 1994|By George B. Laurent

If tenants today feel that leases are one-sided contracts in favor of the landlord, they would have felt even worse a number of years ago.

In recent years, the state has passed laws that prohibit these actions under a residential lease:

* Agreeing to a shorter period for notice to quit than provided by law. Both parties, however, can agree to a longer period.

* Imposing a late charge that is more than 5 percent of the amount due for the period for which the payment is late. (Where the rent is paid in weekly installments, a penalty of $3 may be charged for each late payment, up to a maximum of $12 per month.) Five percent is a limit on the amount of the late charge. It does not give the landlord the right to automatically impose a late charge. It must be in the lease. Also, it is a one-time charge. If January's rent is still owed in February, there cannotbe a second 5 percent charge.

* Excusing a landlord from liability to a tenant or other person for any injury or damage caused by negligence or fault of the landlord or his agents.

* Permitting a landlord to take possession of the premises or tenant's property without legal process. A landlord may do so only if the lease has been terminated by the parties or by action of law and the tenant has abandoned his property.

This is the major concern of tenants who fall behind in their rent or have a dispute with their landlord.

"Can the landlord put my possessions out on the street at any time and without going to court?"

We have not known a professional landlord to take such action. But there are some major companies that, in an effort to collect rent, send intimidating notices implying that such can happen. Should an illegal eviction take place, the landlord can be sued for damages and, in some jurisdictions, could receive a fine.

* Authorizing a person other than the tenant to confess judgment on a claim arising from the lease. This would enable a landlord to take a tenant to court for financial damages without having had the tenant personally served with a court summons, as is the usual procedure.

* Waiving the tenant's right to a jury trial. To have a jury trial, however, the amount involved must be at least $5,000 -- the value of the remaining lease and cost of moving. The tenant would need a lawyer to conduct the defense.

Furthermore, if a lease of more than a month has an automatic-renewal clause, it must be signed or initialed by the tenant. Otherwise, it is binding on the landlord, but not the tenant.

Even if a lease contains one of these or some other prohibited provision, it is still valid. The prohibited provision is simply not enforceable in court. If a landlord tries to enforce or makes known to a tenant his intent to enforce any such provision, the tenant may recover any actual damage incurred because of it, including reasonable attorney's fees.

George B. Laurent is executive director of BNI, or Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a private nonprofit group that works to resolve tenant-landlord problems and to eliminate housing discrimination.

QUESTIONS?

Send questions to BNI, 2217 St. Paul St., Baltimore 21218. Or comment on Sundial, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County, 836-5028 in Harford County, 848-0338 in Carroll County). Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6171 after you hear the greeting.

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