VOLUME 6RAvoid Landlord Retaliation When Reporting Building Violations
By Anna Quinn
When tenants move into a unit, they may not know that their landlords will be unresponsive. Some choose to quietly tolerate their disappearing landlords because they like their rentals and/or cannot afford to move. Others choose to fight back, even if it puts them at risk of evictions and retaliation.

In one recent example, a survivor of an apartment fire moved into a second rental only to have an alleged faulty stove and dishwasher. After complaining about the appliances to her landlord and then the local housing authority, she received a lease termination letter. Eviction proceedings started when she would not move voluntarily. The tenant still chose to challenge the landlord, installing security cameras, hiring an attorney and starting a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for legal fees.

Arguably, it may be easier to move out than it would be to confront a landlord. But for tenants who choose to do so anyway, there is always the risk of retaliation. Tenants can put themselves in the best position to avoid these traumatic experiences by understanding when and how it's legal to report repairs that become as serious as a Building Violation.

Here are some tips for recognizing and reporting violations, and what to do if retaliation occurs.

Know the Law for Building Codes
The first step in deciding whether to report rusty balcony brackets or a malfunctioning dishwasher is learning what constitutes a Building Violation. Generally, landlords are responsible for keeping their properties in a liveable and safe condition, and in compliance with property maintenance codes.

Repairing any unsafe or unsanitary conditions in a timely manner falls under these responsibilities, including, but not limited to holes in walls, ceilings or floors; insect or rodent infestations; unsafe balconies or building structures; and/or exposed wiring or problems with heating or smoke alarms, according to a list from Dallas City Hall.

Building inspectors can also enforce issues outside a specific unit’s living space, such as tall weeds or grass, trash and debris pileups, or unpermitted construction, notes a list of common violations from the Austin, Texas official website.

How to Report Building Violations
If tenants determine there is a Building Code violation in their home, they should first notify their landlord (or property manager) about the issue. If the problem still goes unaddressed, the next step is to report the conditions to the local housing agency.

Most cities will have options for reporting violations by phone or online. In Austin, Dallas, Houston and Miami, tenants can call a hotline at 311 to report the problem. Orlando and College Station require tenants to call the city directly. Before calling, tenants should make sure they have all the information about the violation ready for the report, including photos if applicable.

What If The Landlord Retaliates?
In both Texas and Florida, it is illegal for landlords to retaliate against tenants who have exercised their right to request a repair or report unsafe or illegal living conditions. Still, some landlords might try to take out their frustration on tenants, whether that’s terminating their leases, filing eviction lawsuits, increasing rent without proper reason or decreasing services in the building.

If this happens, tenants have several legal avenues to fight back. Among those options is to fight to prove their eviction was retaliatory in court. Another option, particularly for tenants who saw rent hikes or decreased services, can be to file a lawsuit in small claims court.

In each case, tenants should enlist the help of an attorney. For those who don’t know where to start, groups like Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid or Florida’s Community Legal Services are organizations that may be able to help. Tenants can also find several hotlines for more general questions about their rights or landlord problems in both Texas and Florida, including the Texas Association of Realtors Legal Hotline at 800-873-9155 or Florida’s Statewide Tenants' Rights Hotline at 888-495-8020.

Should tenants successfully prove their landlords acted in retaliation, there are several remedies a court might offer. This can include monetary damages, covered court and attorney fees, help with moving costs or a civil penalty of one month’s rent.