Your neighbor called you by a word best left in the antebellum south. Or they took issue with your "lifestyle" and keep pulling their children away when you and your partner walk by.
Tenant-on-tenant harassment is a thing; but do landlords hold any responsibility?
What is a Discriminatory Act by a Renter?
A discriminatory act is one that is based off of a protected class. Protected classes under the Fair Housing Act are race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability. Familial status means the presence or absence of children in the family. In seventeen states and the District of Columbia, sexual orientation and gender identity are also covered, and in four further states, sexual orientation is included. The HUD has also ruled in the past that sexual orientation is covered, but it is not in the law itself, so it is best to check current and state law.
If you are being harassed or exposed to a hostile environment by another renter or renters because of your membership in a protected class, then you are experiencing a discriminatory act. Although another renter can't, for example, force you to leave your apartment or rented house legally, they can absolutely make it untenable for you to remain. They can even make you feel unsafe, and harassment can eventually become assault or worse if not dealt with quickly.
Are Landlords Liable?
You can file a complaint against your landlord and their staff, but technically cannot complain against other tenants.
However, the HUD filed a rule in September, 2016, that makes landlords liable for not taking prompt action to correct a practice by a third party if they have the power to prevent it. Which means a landlord is not responsible for somebody who walks past on the street and says something awful in your direction; but may be responsible for other tenants if they knew the conduct was going on.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed this in March, 2019, when an African-American man complained about the extreme harassment he was receiving from a neighbor (the police had to e involved). In 2018, an assisted living community was sued for allowing harassment of a lesbian resident to continue and blowing off her complaints.
By implication, landlords are also liable if they or their agents take retaliatory action against you for filing any complaint. That means, for example, that if you complain about your neighbor, they can't force you to move units to be further away from them. They also can't casually raise your rent or start looking for a lease violation that would allow them to evict.
Landlords should, in fact, ensure that harassment of other tenants is specifically referred to in the lease so that they have the power to properly deal with violators and can end harassing behavior without having to worry about the perpetrator's rights as a tenant.
What Should You Do?
If you are being harassed by another tenant and feel it crosses the line into discriminatory behavior, your first course of action should be to complain to your landlord.
Before you do so, give your lease a quick read through. Your lease will include rules and regulations, and those probably include some prohibition against harassment or disruptive behavior. You should be ready to use this for ammunition when talking to your landlord. If there is no such clause then there may be an issue, as the other tenant has rights and if they are not violating the lease it may be difficult for the landlord to take action.
If the harassment is serious or you feel your life is in danger, then you should call the police first then worry about complaining to your landlord. This might also be a good idea if harassment or noise is happening in the middle of the night, as your landlord may not be awake or available to assist you.
If your landlord takes no action, then it can also be a good idea to involve the police (unless you have reason to believe the police will escalate the matter).
File a formal complaint in writing, citing the law and why you feel you are experiencing a hostile environment. You probably want to involve a lawyer at this point. Think about what your goals are, and talk to your lawyer about the kind of compensation or redress you want. Do you simply want the offending neighbor gone? Is it bad enough that you feel you deserve compensation? In some states you may also be able to file for a restraining order, but check the law; some states restrict this to intimate partners and/or family members only.
Bear in mind that if your landlord takes all legal steps, they may no longer be liable (which, again, is a problem if harassment of other tenants is not mentioned in the lease) and that it's unlikely you'll be able to get much out of the other tenant. If your landlord becomes particularly hostile, it might be time to consider moving out.
If you suddenly are informed of a lease violation or your rent jumps after filing a complaint, you may be a victim of retaliation; this is also illegal and a good time to call a lawyer even if action was taken over the initial problem. If it wasn't, then you can be fairly sure it was retaliation. Unfortunately, it's not impossible that a landlord will ignore harassing behavior because they want to drive you out.
Hostile environments at work are bad enough. At home, they are a fast way to destroy your basic right of quiet enjoyment. It is much harder to avoid a harassing neighbor than a harassing coworker. If you are experiencing one, check your lease, complain to your landlord and don't be afraid to call the police if you feel that you are in danger.
VerticalRent provides services for landlords and tenants alike, including the ability to pay your rent and double check clauses in your lease online. To find out more about what we do, contact us today.
About the author
Matt Angerer is the Founder and President of VerticalRent. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics that help Landlords, Property Managers, and Renters across America. He is particularly interested in helping renters understand their local marketplace, pick the best places to live, and find an awesome roommate. Since 2011, VerticalRent has grown to service over 100,000 landlords and renters across America.