How can I resolve a complicated dispute with my landlord? What is a landlord-tenant dispute resolution and litigation option?


Here's the problem: My landlord and I disagree about who needs to take care of cockroaches. I say that pest control is his responsibility. He says that he never had roaches in the rental house before I moved in. He blames them on my 2 dogs and 3 cats and says that the pet food is attracting them. I say that's bull because I keep the place clean, but he refuses to pay for the exterminators to get rid of the roaches. So I stopped paying rent until he takes care of the problem and now he's threatening to evict and sue me. There's also a problem with the air conditioning—the home has a central A/C unit but it doesn't work. The landlord says the lease never promised one, but I say that if there's unit on the side of the house, you have a right to think it works. He says that if I don't like how he runs the place, I could sue him. I don't have the money for a lawsuit. What do I do? Thank you.


First and foremost, you should start paying your rent again, until you're sure your situation qualifies for rent withholding. You don't mention which state you're from. Not all states allow tenants to withhold rent when the landlord is not providing services, and those states that do have very strict rules:

  • Usually, the repair or maintenance problem must be serious (and make your rental unit unlivable). Your cockroach problem may not qualify.
  • The problem must not be your fault. You'll want some independent verification of the causes of the cockroach infestation.
  • You must give the landlord a reasonable amount of time to fix the problem (or the minimum amount required by your state).

Overall, withholding rent is a dangerous tactic that puts you in violation of a key condition of the lease (to pay rent), which very often gives the landlord the right to evict you (as you know from your landlord's threats).

However, even if you can avoid eviction by getting current on rent again, that still leaves two substantial issues of disagreement with your landlord: pest control and air conditioning. Unfortunately, the vast majority of landlord-tenant disputes have to be resolved by the parties themselves—there is no government agency whose job it is to resolve these issues.

The main venue for enforcing lease obligation is litigation—that is, one or the other party brings a lawsuit. Fortunately, you can generally bring claims like this in either small claims court or, if you state or city has them, landlord-tenant courts. These courts are faster and less expensive than other courts, and you often don't need a lawyer—in fact, some small claims courts don't even allow lawyers.

You could also try an alternative route to dispute resolution: mediation. Mediation is when a neutral third-party helps the other two parties (in this case, you and your landlord) come to a decision or agreement that works for both of them. It's basically a structured form of negotiation, with a referee/advisor to help out. In many cities, there are free or low-cost community mediation programs that handle landlord-tenant disputes. You can call your mayor's or city manager's for referrals.

Mediators can't enforce a decision, but that also means that if you don't like what the mediator proposes, you can still go to court. Since mediation is fast and inexpensive, it may be a good thing to try first. Note that both parties have to agree to mediation, but it never hurts to ask—worst case, the landlord won't want to do this and you'll simply go straight to court (assuming you still want to stay in the rental unit and you feel you have a strong case).

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