5 things tenants, landlords should know about housing rights

Shortly after gaining custody of his 18-month-old son, a West Michigan man faced a threat to his newly won bond with his child – eviction.

When the father had attempted to add the boy to his lease, his landlord immediately sent him a Notice to Quit, telling him he would have to move out if his son lived with him. Contrary to fair housing laws, the landlord called the housing arrangement inappropriate for a child and said local codes would not allow the child to stay.

The father turned to the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan for help. The Center explained to the landlord the fair housing protections for families with children. It also pointed out that local codes allowed the father and son to remain in their current living arrangement and that rent could not be increased due to the addition of the child to the household. After this intervention, the landlord rescinded the Notice to Quit and added the child to the lease.

The Fair Housing Center of West Michigan often is asked to help tenants in such situations. Liz Keegan, director of education and outreach at the Center, and Delores Trese, managing attorney at Legal Aid of Western Michigan, have been spreading the word on how tenants can recognize when they are victims of discrimination, as well as how to be a good landlord and keep up with Michigan’s housing laws.

“Our mission through Fair Housing Center of West Michigan is to prevent and eliminate illegal housing discrimination, ensure equal housing opportunity, and promote inclusive communities,” Keegan says.

State, federal and local protections

Fair housing laws protect people from discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity), national origin, familial status, disability, marital status, and age. Discrimination is illegal in housing transactions such as rentals, sales, lending, and insurance. There are federal, state, and local fair housing laws; most housing in Michigan is covered.
 
“We’re always asking two questions: How can we further fair housing? And how can we promote inclusive communities?” Keegan says.
 
There is an abundance of information for tenants and landlords, but it’s a lot to sift Liz Keegan, director of education and outreach at the Fair Housing Center of West Michiganthrough. Keegan shared five fair housing facts tenants and landlords should know.
  1. Tenants can report fair housing issues to the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan as well as other agencies like the Michigan Department of Civil Rights or U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
  2. People should be able to choose housing that meets their needs without the additional barrier of being treated differently because they belong to a protected class.
  3. State and federal laws protect many classes, including race, color, national origin, religion, gender (including gender identity and sexual orientation), disability status, familial status, age, and marital status. Local laws can also protect based on education, source of income, gender expression, height, and weight.
  4. Those with a disability are entitled to reasonable accommodations from their landlord. Accommodations are changes in rules, policies, or practices of the property so that a person with a disability can live in or use a housing unit. Examples include allowing an assistance animal, assigning an accessible parking spot, or installing different types of handles vs. doorknobs.
  5. People cannot be discriminated against or charged more for having children or for the number of children they have, if it’s within the local housing code.

Illegal housing discrimination includes falsely telling someone a dwelling is not for sale or rent; steering people toward or away from particular buildings, floors, neighborhoods, etc.; redlining or reverse redlining; blockbusting; coercion, intimidation, harassment, threats, or interference with anyone asserting a fair housing right; and retaliation. Housing discrimination sometimes is blatant, but more often is difficult to recognize or fully identify, making it challenging to address.

Source of information

While the Fair Housing Center cannot give legal advice or handle legal cases, it can explain a person’s rights and responsibilities. It also has plenty of information and great connections to provide necessary help.

“Where you live directly impacts how you live,” Keegan says, “so being able to choose freely is important – Something we learned a little more thanks to the COVID pandemic.”

Dolores Trese, managing attorney at Legal Aid of Western Michigan
Trese, who has been working in housing law for many years, shares four tips for tenants who want to be treated fairly and well:
  1. Put your request for repairs in writing. This usually gets a good response from a landlord. If it is not put in writing, the request can easily be forgotten or ignored.
  2. Many landlords charge late fees that are more than a judge would allow if the matter were to get to court. Courts usually only allow a $25 per month late fee. There is no hard and fast rule on what late fees can be, but they are only meant to cover the landlord's expenses for collecting late rent. They are not allowed to be a punishment against the tenant.
  3. When it comes to responsibility for repairs, the general rule is that the tenant is responsible for damage they cause to their unit, but the landlord has to pay for normal wear and tear. For example, if an appliance breaks down and it is not the tenant's fault, the landlord needs to replace that without charging the client.  
  4. If the landlord is paying the utilities and the tenant is paying the landlord, the tenant should understand exactly what they’re paying for to ensure that they’re just paying for their unit’s utilities.

For more information on whether a landlord is doing something they shouldn’t be, visit michiganlegalhelp.org.

“This website is for people with many different types of legal issues and who are not represented by an attorney,” Trese says. “It gives very good explanations of Michigan law in several areas, including landlord/tenant law. It also has many legal forms that a person representing themselves can fill out and use.”

To provide more information, the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan is offering a free training titled “Fair Housing Rights for Homeseekers in Rental Housing.” It will be Tuesday, Nov. 29, from 6-7 p.m. on Zoom. Preregister here.

Landlords who would like to learn more can visit the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan’s website or attend a fair housing responsibilities training session through the Center. Contact the Center to be added to its notification list.

Take a look at “A Practical Guide for Tenants & Landlords” here.

Read more articles by Kelsey Sanders.