I-TEAM: Know your rights as a renter

Florida, local laws give tenants options for dealing with maintenance concerns

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – One of the most common complaints the I-TEAM receives involves tenants upset with their landlord about maintenance problems that are not being corrected. In many cases, we learn that tenants are often not following the correct legal steps to hold their landlord accountable.

Recently, a local father reached out to us, asking for help. He told us he felt the property manager of the Avalon Hill apartments was giving him the runaround when he complained about mold and a plumbing problem. The housing community is located in Arlington off the Arlington Expressway.

“I have mold under my window and in some of the closets,” said Larry Johnson, who lived there with his 5-month-old daughter and her mother. “When I did my tour (of the apartment), the blinds were down and I never pulled them up. She (property manager) was leading me around the apartment and I wasn’t searching for mold,” he explained.

Johnson had never previously rented an apartment and has now learned to look more closely. He also did not know, until he had already moved in, that the sink leaked so badly, water would flood the kitchen floor if he used one side. He said when he complained he would get “the run-around” from the property manager.

Larry Johnson speaks with Jennifer Waugh about the maintenance concerns at his apartment
Larry Johnson speaks with Jennifer Waugh about the maintenance concerns at his apartment (WJXT)

Johnson also said he believes mold is what caused his infant daughter’s respiratory infection. He started talking with his neighbors and said he discovered a number of them are having similar problems with serious maintenance issues that are not being corrected.

We visited one of those neighbors, who did not want to be identified because of concerns about an eviction. We found exposed wires near the air conditioning unit and a black substance that appears to be mold inside the A/C closet. We were told water also leaks into the home around the sliding door. This tenant said there is very little affordable housing in Jacksonville and that it is too expensive to move.

When Johnson asked to be released from his lease so he could move out, he said he was told, “No, I don’t want an eviction on my record." An eviction can prevent someone from renting elsewhere. Johnson consulted Jacksonville Area Legal Aid for advice, as it provides free clinics to tenants who can meet with a lawyer and learn more about their rights.

Leaks under the sink at Larry Johnson's apartment
Leaks under the sink at Larry Johnson's apartment (WJXT)

We contacted the city of Jacksonville’s code enforcement division to find out if the Avalon Hill apartments had any code violations issued against it. We learned code enforcement has been contacted 38 times within the last two years. The complaints include reports of mold, leaking pipes, cracked ceilings with holes, a leaking roof and sewage problems. Seventeen of those calls resulted in code violations.

When we tried to get some answers from the property manager, we found the on-site office is permanently closed. A letter taped to the front door lists a phone number for tenants to call with maintenance problems and an address to send their rent check.

We called the number and discovered it is routed to an answering service in the Philippines. The person who answered my call gave me an email address for St. Johns Properties, which oversees management of Avalon Hill and several other apartment communities in Northeast Florida. We received a response to my email asking to set up a phone conversation, but then never heard back from the management company for comment.

What are your rights as a renter?

If you have a serious problem as a renter there are a few steps you must follow, legally, to hold your landlord accountable. “The tenant should follow the normal procedures for requesting a repair, but if that normal procedure does not involve creating a paper trail, then the tenant should make one,” said Mary DeVries, managing attorney of Clay County’s Legal Aid office.

Jennifer Waugh speaks with Mary DeVries of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid
Jennifer Waugh speaks with Mary DeVries of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (WJXT)

DeVries said documentation of your complaint needs to be specific.

“You can demand repair within seven days,” she explained.

The condition has to be serious and it has to violate your lease, state law or local codes. She also said the notice must inform your landlord that if the repair is not made within seven days, you will exercise your rights to withhold future rent or terminate the lease.

Before you do this, she said you need to be current on your rent. If the landlord still does not respond, she recommends you call code enforcement.

“If they (code enforcement) find a code violation, they’ll demand the landlord make a repair," DeVries said.

In addition, Florida law requires landlords in Duval County to comply with Jacksonville’s Property Safety and Maintenance Code. According to Legal Aid, this means, among other things:

  • The roof must not leak
  • The walls must be weather-tight and in good repair
  • Windows and doors must be basically weather-tight, watertight, rodent-proof, and kept in sound working condition, and outside doors must have proper locks
  • Window panes cannot have cracks and holes, and outside windows must have screens
  • Inside floors, walls, ceilings must be basically rodent-proof and kept in sound condition and good repairs, and should be safe
  • The house or apartment must have hot water, which is connected to the kitchen and bathroom sinks, tub or shower
  • All houses or apartments must have a flush toilet in good working condition
  • When cooking and heating equipment are provided by the landlord, they must be safely installed and in good working order
  • There must be adequate garbage disposal facilities or garbage storage containers
  • All electrical systems must be in good repair and good working order

Your landlord is also required to comply with your lease and your lease may add to your landlord’s responsibilities under the Jacksonville code. For example, the Jacksonville code does not require landlords to provide air conditioning, but your lease may require your landlord to provide and maintain air conditioning in your rental home.

Code enforcement visited Larry Johnson’s apartment and documented six violations. The management company did eventually release him from his lease and he has since moved to another apartment community. In the city of Jacksonville, you can file a code enforcement complaint by calling 904-630-CITY (2489) or online at myjax.custhelp.com

Johnson said the advice he received from Jacksonville Area Legal Aid was instrumental in helping him. Legal Aid offers free weekly clinics that allow you to meet with a lawyer to discuss your rights as a tenant. You can call 904-356-8371 to schedule an appointment or go to www.jaxlegalaid.org to apply online. The Duval county office is located at 126 West Adams Street.

JALA serves 17 counties of North Florida, including Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Clay, Columbia, Dixie, Duval, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Lafayette, Levy, Madison, Nassau, St. Johns, Suwanee, Taylor and Union.

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