Are You Threatened With Eviction?

Whether a landlord has mentioned the possibility in passing, told you to get out by sundown, or served you legal notice to quit (leave) the premises, you need to pay attention. Eviction is the last resort of a landlord to recover control of his or her property from someone who is not authorized to continue possession.

Are you entitled to possession? Read your lease. Every lease should have a section specifically focused on termination of the lease and another on remedies for "breaking" the lease. If you have a valid (signed) lease that still has time to run—until the end date—you have the right to retain possession. If you have paid your rent in full and on time, you have the right to retain possession. If you are not doing anything prohibited by the lease, you have the right to retain possession. If you are doing everything required of you by the lease, you have the right to retain possession. Get the idea? Follow the rules spelled out by the lease and for as long as the lease runs—you will have the right to retain possession of the property. In fact, by law, you have the right to quiet enjoyment of the property you leased. This means that the landlord is not allowed to kick you out without reason, threaten or harass you regarding your possession of the property, shut off the electricity or water to force you to leave, or change the locks to keep you out of the apartment. It also means that a landlord cannot threaten, harass, or intimidate you or your guests to force you to leave the apartment. Of course, if your conduct, or that of your guests, violates the lease or the law, a landlord is allowed to complain and confront you and your guests and may try to evict you for that conduct.

All right, so this is getting serious. A landlord has given you a written notice of eviction—it looks like a legal document—that orders you to move out of your apartment by the 15th of the month. If you accept the notice and move out, you have been evicted. Do you get your security deposit back? What about the rent you already paid for the rest of the month? If you simply move out, you may need to take legal action to get your money back, unless you simply give up and walk away poorer and not much smarter. If you do not want to move out, you are not required to unless a court of law, after a hearing of the facts, orders your eviction. If the court orders you evicted, you must be gone by the date specified in the court order, or a deputy sheriff will arrive and physically place you and your belongings into the street. That is the ultimate eviction.

If a landlord wants you leave, he or she must either convince you to leave voluntarily—without threat, harassment, or intimidation—or ask a local court to hear the case and decide whether you must leave involuntarily. Going to court is troublesome, irritating, and inconvenient for pretty much everybody involved except the judge (or magistrate in Oakland), who gets paid to be there and will not tolerate foolishness or obstruction from you or a landlord. What happens is that a landlord must go to the court and file a request for a hearing asking the judge to order your eviction. The court prepares a notice of the date and place of the hearing and what the hearing is about and sends you notice. If you ignore the notice and the hearing date, the court almost certainly will decide the issue in favor of the landlord and issue a court notice ordering you to leave the premises by a specific date. That notice usually assigns to you the responsibility of paying the court costs and legal expenses of the hearing that you ignored. It may assign all or part of your security deposit, the rental balance, and even future rent payments to the landlord. If you ignore this notice from the court, the deputy shows up and you are evicted.

Don’t think you did anything wrong? Want to fight the eviction? First, find out what has caused the landlord to want you out. Loud parties; cars parked on the lawn; beer cans in the hall; unpaid rent; nerf balls in the toilet; an arrest for drug possession; false information on the rental application; panhandlers sleeping on the porch; a business being run out of the apartment; rent checks bouncing; your own locks on the door; a pit bull puppy; garbage dumping in the alley; threatening, harassing, or intimidating your neighbors—these are behaviors for which a landlord may try to evict you. If you are doing any of these things, talk to the landlord, ask forgiveness, promise not to do it again, get rid of the puppy, clean the garbage, pay the rent, etc., and agree to resume the positive relationship that should exist between landlord and tenant. This may work the first time, but subsequent problems are less likely to end as happily.

Fine, if you are going to be like that ... let’s go to court! The landlord is required to give you a notice to quit before filing with the court unless you waived that right in your lease. Read the lease carefully. Ten to 30 days after the notice to quit, a request for a hearing can be filed with the court and a date set. If you waived your right to notice, the hearing notice could be the first document you receive. You must receive notice of the hearing and should attend. Do you need an attorney? No, but it is a good idea to talk to one about your problem and how to proceed. At a minimum, you should have a copy of your lease (carefully note and read the relevant sections), your notice from the court, and any correspondence or notes relevant to your relationship with the landlord. As a college student, you should be able to frame a reasonable argument and be articulate enough to present it to the judge. Experience in debate or parliamentary proceedings may be an asset, as long as you avoid a clumsy or combative lawyer-look-alike impersonation.

A judge can order a landlord’s request to evict to be ignored or followed. A judge can assign court costs and legal expenses, if any, to be paid by one or both of the parties. The judge can order you to pay rent, penalties, or even the entire amount of rent due for the entire term of your lease. The judge may order any, or any combination of, penalties he sees fit. It is important to understand that the worst case may include lost of deposit, loss of apartment, immediate payment of the entire amount due under the lease agreement, costs, and expenses. You do not want to experience that level of retribution for violating the lease or the law. Nor is it unreasonable to expect that by following the lease and the law, you will be free from harassment, threat, intimidation, or legal action. You may choose (or an attorney might recommend) to file a counter-claim against your landlord to be adjudicated simultaneously with the eviction hearing. Your claim might include court costs, legal expenses, recovery of security deposit and rent payments, termination of the lease, and penalties and would be based on the landlord’s failure to honor the terms of the lease or the law.

You may also be able to settle an outstanding obligation – unpaid rent or damages —anytime prior to eviction and the action will be stopped (this depends upon the ruling by the Magistrate).

That’s the story. Eviction is a legal process by which a landlord reclaims his or her property from a tenant who has violated the terms of the lease or the law. The landlord has rights and responsibilities in undertaking to evict a tenant. The tenant also has rights and responsibilities under the lease and the law that protect him or her from unreasonable or discriminatory conduct by the landlord. In a hearing with a judge, the rights of both parties to the dispute are protected and responsibilities are assigned. Win or lose, both parties have their day in court. The judge’s decision is final. Yes, there is an appeal process, but that is another story.

For more information, review the Pennsylvania Landlord-Tenant Law, visit the Housing Resource Center—there are no lawyers on our staff, but we do have additional information—and/or see an attorney. Although any attorney (any member of the Bar of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania) will suffice, one experienced with real estate and landlord-tenant issues is recommended.

If you and your concern about eviction have gotten this far, good luck in court. But if you are able to avoid the issue by choosing your apartment and landlord wisely, by knowing and honoring your lease and the law, by meeting your financial obligations fully and promptly, and by practicing good citizenship, congratulations. You are taking care of business!