Flood and Fire Victims' Rights as Tenants
About Flood or Fire Damage and Destruction
It depends. If the leased residence is "totally destroyed" by the flood or fire by no fault of the landlord or the tenant, the lease terminates. Under the law, the lease can be automatically canceled, effectively evicting you. However, your landlord has to file an eviction against you in court and a judge has to grant the eviction before you are actually evicted.
If the flood or fire results in only partial destruction, the answer is no. The landlord cannot evict you unless the lease gives him specific permission. Even in those cases, the landlord would still have to file an eviction against you in court and a judge would still need to grant the eviction.
In either case, if you, a member of your household, or your guest caused the flood/fire, your landlord will be able to evict you, and may even be able to collect damages from you. You are responsible for damage to the unit that is beyond normal wear and tear and caused by you, a member of your household or your guests.
If you caused the flood or fire, you may only be evicted if the flood or fire was a serious violation of the lease, connected to criminal activity on the premises, or you caused the flood or fire purposefully. The serious violation of the lease must adversely affect other tenants or the physical/financial security of the residence for you to be evicted. The criminal activity must threaten the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of other tenants for you to be evicted.
If a person you invited into the caused the flood or fire, you may be evicted if the flood or fire threatened the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the residence of other tenants.
If the fire or flood makes your home unlivable, the Housing Authority may be required to transfer you to a new home. You should check the specific requirements of your program.
Rent is generally not due if you are forced out of the residence. If you are temporarily displaced while repairs are made, you are entitled to an “abatement,” meaning you are not required to pay rent for the period of time you are displaced from the unit while it is being repaired. However, if you were responsible for the flood or fire, you may be required to pay some or all of the rent, even if the residence is no longer habitable.
If the flood or fire completely destroys the residence the lease can be canceled.
If the flood or fire partially destroys the residence, you may be able to cancel the lease. The damage must make living in the residence unsafe or unreasonably difficult. This will depend on the specific circumstances of your case. Even if you are unable to cancel the lease, you may be able to reduce your rent. This will be determined by the court, and will also depend on the circumstances of your case.
Your landlord might sue you for damages if he thinks you caused the destruction. You may also have a claim for damages against your landlord if you think they are responsible for the destruction.
You will be responsible for repairing any damages to the apartment resulting from a fire or flood that you caused or that were caused by your guests. Your landlord will be responsible for repairing any damages to the apartment resulting from a flood or fire that's not the fault of the tenant.
If a flood or fire damaged your belongings, you may have a claim against your landlord if the flood or fire was caused by your landlord’s negligence. However, your lease may contain a liability waiver stating that your landlord is not responsible for damage to your personal belongings. This waiver may or may not be enforceable. You should consult an attorney to get a legal opinion on this. Either way, it is a good idea to have renter’s insurance to cover you in case something happens to your belongings and your landlord won’t cover the damage.
If the residence is no longer fit to live in, you may be able to cancel your lease. The damage must make living in the residence unsafe or unreasonably difficult. This will depend on the circumstances of your case. Talk to a lawyer before you move in the middle of your lease.
Alternatively, you may give your landlord a written demand for necessary repairs. The notice should be in writing so you can prove that you gave it. If your landlord fails to make repairs in a reasonable amount of time, you can make the repairs yourself and deduct the cost from future rent. The rent deduction cannot be taken in the month the repairs are made- only in a future month. You should keep your receipts from the repair so you can show your landlord what you are deducting for. If you follow these steps correctly, you will have a defense to any eviction for nonpayment of the portion of the rent you deducted.
You should NEVER withhold your rent to attempt to force your landlord to make repairs. This is true even for tenants living in subsidized housing.
Your landlord is permitted under the law to make necessary repairs to the residence that cannot wait until the end of your tenancy. You may be entitled to a reduction of rent for the days you are displaced from the residence. However, if you caused the damage that the landlord is repairing, you may not be entitled to a rent reduction. You also may be allowed to get out of your lease early depending on the circumstances of the case.
If your losses are a result of a major disaster declared by the president, you may qualify for rental assistance from FEMA. You can apply for assistance online at www.fema.gov, or over the phone by calling 1-800-621-3362. For more information, please visit https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance.
Additionally, property damage and loss not covered by insurance may be deductible on your income tax return. You should speak to a tax specialist.
Adapted from content authored by Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (New Orleans office)