By Tonya Sams
When housing conditions are endangering your family, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by worry and fear. One common problem is the presence of lead in older homes. Most homes built prior to 1978 used paint that contained lead.
Children exposed to lead poisoning may suffer from learning and behavioral issues and may have trouble paying attention.
If you are a homeowner concerned about lead, learn about assistance programs by contacting your public health department.
If you are a renter and your rental property was built before 1978, contact your landlord to find out if they ever conducted a lead check. If you notice peeling paint or large areas of bare dirt near your home, or if your child has tested positive for lead poisoning, send a dated letter to your landlord requesting repairs and keep a copy of that letter for yourself. If your landlord has not made the repairs within 30 days, you can file a request in housing court to order the landlord to do so as soon as possible.
Another option is “rent deposit” or “rent escrow.” You cannot legally withhold rent because repairs have not been completed, but rent escrow is a way to put financial pressure on your landlord. This process allows you to pay your rent to the court and protects you from eviction.
To use the rent deposit option, you have to be current on your rent. A landlord cannot retaliate against you (for example, by evicting you) if you have properly deposited your rent payments with the court. One important thing to note is that you could lose the right to sue your landlord for damages caused by lead poisoning if you use rent deposit.
Once you start to deposit your rent in court, you may continue to do so until an agreement is made between you, your landlord, and the court concerning when and how the funds can be released. Landlords can request the funds be released to them if their tenant did not tell them repairs were needed, or if the landlord was not given enough time to complete the repairs.
Once the landlord files an application to release the funds, the application becomes a complaint which starts the process of a civil lawsuit against the tenant. The landlord is required to send a copy of the complaint to the tenant.
If a civil lawsuit has been filed against you, you can file an “answer and counterclaim” against the landlord. An “answer and counterclaim” is your response to the landlord’s civil lawsuit. You have 28 days after the landlord filed the complaint to respond.
Within 60 days of the initial filing of the landlord’s civil lawsuit, both parties must appear in court for trial. The court will then decide what happens to the funds.
More information is available in Legal Aid’s “Lead Poisoning: Know Your Rights, Remedies & Resources” and “How to Rent Deposit when Housing Conditions are a Problem” brochures at www.lasclev.org.
Legal Aid may be able to help if you are facing unsafe housing conditions or have questions about rent deposit. Call 888-817-3777 or visit lasclev.org/contact for more information.
Tonya Sams is the Development and Communications Assistant at The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.