10 laws/guidelines every Oregon tenant should know: safeguarding against incompetence, frugal landlords and understanding your options

For Rent

Ask about any lawyer in Oregon and they will say, “housing laws tend to favor the tenants.” This happens to be true, although, what’s not often said is that individuals whom are renting must first be aware of the laws that protect them. The following are 10 laws/guidelines that all Oregon tenants should know to aid in protecting themselves against frugality, incompetence, threatening landlords, understanding the landlords/tenants responsibilities and small claims court/law suites. This information is attributed to the 2013 Oregon Revised Statutes (ORS), Chapter 90, Landlord/Tenant Laws with specific sections annotated for verification and further reference.

(Note: if living in federally subsidized housing, these laws do apply to you, stated so under the 2013 ORS.)

  1. Time Limit Warning: When dealing with a potentially troublesome situation involving a landlord, it’s crucial that tenants know there is a time limit for executing their legal rights. There are both federal and state laws encompassing the various statutes on time limitations, but the Oregon Residential Landlord and Tenant Act typically requires that any court cases begin within one year of the incident.
  2. What To Do Before Renting: Inspect, inspect, INSPECT! This goes beyond noting a little wear and tear on the carpet or a few nicks the wall, but a thorough inspection – top to bottom – of the entire unit. Ensure everything works and verify if any parts of the unit, along with any provided services such as a dishwasher, are dirty or damaged. Take photographs and make notes of each issue, and then request the landlord’s signature (required by law, if requested), verifying the landlord is aware of any issues and that they’re not your doing.

This sounds simple (because it is), yet few people do this properly. In addition to making it easier to get that illusive security deposit back, spending a few hours to thoroughly inspect your new rental unit could potentially save you a lot of heartache and money down the road.

  1. What if my landlord doesn’t fix anything?: Your landlord is required by law to make repairs (ORS 90.320). This is a large and complex area, which may require legal aid (review #10), but basically, the landlord must keep your place and common areas in good repair at all times. A few of the numerous requirements include effective protection from weather and waterproofing, safety from fire hazards, provision of “essential services” (heating, exterior locks, working appliances if provided by landlord, etc.) and maintaining structure in good repair.

If your landlord has failed to provide essential services, or any other landlord-involved issue, the first step is to tell your landlord. Often times, this is all that is needed, however, if verbal communication is not enough, write a “letter of repair,” mailing it to your landlord. The letter should state the issues previously discussed, the mention of Oregon law (specifically ORS 90.320), and a list of unresolved repairs/issues. Ensure you request a reasonable response date, asking the landlord to respond to your letter, in writing, on their intentions to complete repairs.

Include in the letter that if no response is received, you will “pursue tenant remedies stated in the Landlord/Tenant Act.” Also include the following sentence (VITAL!): According to Oregon landlord/tenant laws (ORS Chapter 90), it is unlawful for a landlord to respond to this letter by sending an eviction notice, increasing rent or otherwise retaliating (ORS 19.385).

  1. What if my landlord fails to make repairs or retaliates?: You can sue a landlord for a court order to force repairs. If you have given the landlord a notice of repair, and the problem was not caused by you or any you’ve allowed inside the rental unit, you may sue the landlord for damages. You could be compensated for a reduced rental value, destroyed property, attorney fees and court costs. This type of case often requires a lawyer (review #10).

You can sue a landlord for money in small claims court. You may sue for money if the landlord fails to make repairs, because your landlord damaged or destroyed your clothing or furniture, for each month the home is worth less money because of the need for repairs, lost work time, medical expenses, higher heat bills and other expenses caused by the landlord’s failure to make repairs. Withholding a portion or all of rent is also a legal option, but it’s recommend to speak with an attorney first before doing so.

The landlord may not legally retaliate by increasing rent, decreasing services (shutting off a utility), serving an eviction notice, threatening eviction or filing an eviction case for a tenant operating within their legal rights to hold the landlord accountable for repairs or provision of essential services. Tenants, however, can sue for retaliation and may ask for twice the actual damages or two months rent, whichever is more. Retaliation cases can be tricky and acquiring a lawyer is the best option (ORS 90.385).

  1. Can small claims court help me?: There are multiple issues that can be addressed in small claims court regarding landlord/tenant issues. This includes, but is not limited to, the landlord unlawfully shutting off utilities, illegally changing locks, destroying your property, failing to make needed repairs, entering the residence without the required notice. It’s always a good idea to speak with a lawyer before filing a case against a landlord. Small claims court cannot order the landlord to make repairs or return possessions.

You cannot ask for more than $7,500 in small claims court. Before you can sue in small claims court, you must write a letter to your landlord asking that your landlord pay whatever money is owed to you within 10 days (ORS 46.405).

  1. If I am a victim of domestic violence, can I terminate my rental agreement?: **NOTE – Chapter 90 of the ORS states, “victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and/or stalking [also includes] victims of dating violence as well.”

In cases involving domestic violence, a person can terminate the rental agreement with a 14-days written notice to the landlord. The written notice must include verification that you have been a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking within the last 90 days of your notice to terminate the rental agreement. Until recently, the “verification” would come in the form of a signed restraining order, police report or statement by a law enforcement officer. Now, a qualified third-party – such as an attorney or a victims’ advocate at a victims’ services provider – can provide the verification. Any time the abuser has been in jail or lived far away does not count against the 90-day limit. For example, if the abuser spent 30 days in jail and the incident occurred 90 days ago, legally only 60 days apply to the timeframe of the incident.

A landlord cannot treat you differently because you have been a victim of domestic violence (past or present), due to a violation of a rental agreement caused by an incident of domestic violence, nor treat you differently because of any criminal activity or police response related to the violent act.

  1. What are my rights if facing eviction?: First, the landlord must go to court to force the tenant to leave. Landlords cannot legally change the locks, shut off the utilities, remove furniture, threaten these actions or take any other action to force a move without a court order.

While it is illegal to discriminate against a family because they have children, it is not illegal to evict a family for nonpayment of rent or other legal reasons. In this situation, call the state’s Department of Human Services to see if you qualify for an emergency grant to help pay for moving. Contact a law office if you’re having trouble getting a grant, and call local organizations and churches to find out whether they have emergency money or even housing.

  1. What if I don’t have a written lease?: As long the terms and conditions have been discussed with the landlord, your tenancy is considered to be month-to-month. Both the tenant and landlord have all the rights and responsibilities provided for by the law, except where an agreement is required in order for the right or responsibility to go into effect (ORS 90.220).
  2. It’s been a month and I still have not received my security deposit after moving: This seems to be a big one! One that can often be avoided by taking two precautions, with the first being a thorough inspection of the unit. The second is not giving the landlord a reason to keep your deposit.

By law, 31 days after moving, your landlord is required to either provide a full refund of your security deposit or a written accounting of what the deposit was used for. If this has not happened, send a “request for return of deposit letter.” State the date you moved and request that the landlord inform you of their intentions within 10 days of sending the letter. Include the following sentence: If I do not hear from you by [insert date that’s 10 days from the letter], I will file a claim in small claims court. The law (ORS 90.300) says that I am entitled to twice the amount wrongfully withheld.

  1. Oregon legal resources available for free/low cost: the following is a list of useful contacts regarding landlord/tenant matters.
  • Oregon State Bar, 1-800-452-7636: this service provides an attorney in your area where the first consultation is $35 or less. Based on income, this service may also provide referrals for continued reduced-fee legal services.
  • Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT), 503-288-0130 or http://www.oregoncat.org: a 24-hour service that provides information on how to obtain reasonable accommodations for rental units.
  • Fair housing Council of Oregon 1-800-424-3247: enforces fair housing laws.
  • Housing and Urban Development (HUD) – Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, 1-800-877-0246: a federal agency that enforces fair housing laws.
  • Oregon Department of Human Service, 503-945-5944
  • Oregon has regional legal offices, geared to aid low-income individuals/families throughout the state. Contact the Oregon State Bar or visit oregonlawhelp.org to find these locations.

(NOTE: This is a news story containing information attributed to either verifiable sources or provided by individuals.)

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