What does it take for a rental unit to be habitable?
Every rented residential unit in Oregon, regardless of how low the rent is, must meet certain standards for safety, health and cleanliness. These are called "habitability" standards.
A rental must be waterproof and weatherproof. Doors and windows should seal properly, and the roof, floors and walls should keep out wind and rain. Windows should latch, and all outside doors should have working locks. Those locks should work properly with the keys the landlord provides to the tenant.
A unit must have hot and cold running water supplied through appropriate fixtures that are connected to a sewage system. The water must be safe to drink, and the plumbing system must be adequate for normal use and in good working order.
The unit must have a heat source (or sources) adequate to heat the whole unit. The heating system must have been installed properly and be safe and in good working order. Electrical equipment, lighting and wiring must be properly installed at the time of installation and also must be adequate for normal use and kept in good working condition.
The unit must be safe from fire hazards, and the landlord must place at least one working smoke detector in the unit. Tenants must test the smoke detectors at least once every six months. Tenants are responsible for replacing batteries in smoke detectors. The landlord must provide the tenant a written notice containing instructions for testing the smoke detector when the tenant first takes possession of the premises.
If the rental unit includes appliances, they must be in good working order. Appliances include stoves, refrigerators, air conditioners and ventilators. Sometimes, air conditioning and ventilation systems may serve a large building and aren't necessarily placed in a specific unit; even so, the landlord has the duty to maintain them for the use of the individual units. The landlord also must keep elevators in good working order. This duty applies not only to the tenant's individual unit, but also to common areas, such as hallways and stairs in an apartment complex. Floors, walls, ceilings, stairways and railings must be maintained in good repair.
For rental agreements entered into on or after July 1, 2010, the landlord must equip any rental units with a carbon monoxide source with a working carbon monoxide detector installed by the landlord. Housing is subject to this requirement if the unit has a garage that is connected directly to the living space. Even if there is no garage, the unit must have carbon monoxide detectors if it contains any appliance, fireplace, heater, or cooking source that uses coal, kerosene, wood, petroleum products, natural gas, or any other fuel that may emit carbon monoxide when it is burned. (Natural gas is generally a "clean" fossil fuel, but if it is not burning properly, or if the appliance has a mechanical problem, it could create carbon monoxide.)
All rental agreements entered into after Jan. 1, 2010 must disclose the landlord's smoking policy. The disclosure must state whether smoking is prohibited on the premises, allowed on the entire premises, or allowed in limited areas on the premises. If the smoking policy allows smoking in limited areas on the premises, the disclosure must identify the areas on the premises where smoking is allowed. Tenants who feel strongly about smoking, or have any additional concerns about where they and other tenants may and may not smoke, should ask the landlord to address those concerns in writing.
All rental agreements entered into after Jan. 1, 2010 must also disclose whether or not the dwelling unit is in a "100-year flood plain."
If the rental unit was built prior to 1978, the landlord must disclose in writing the presence of known lead-based paint and lead-based paint hazards in the rental dwelling.
The landlord must make sure that the building, out-buildings, and the grounds are clean and free of trash, rodents and bugs at the time the rental agreement commences. When the tenant moves in, the whole property should be safe inside and out and the place must be clean. During the tenancy, the landlord has a continuing responsibility to keep all areas under his or her control clean, decent, healthy and safe.
What about trash collection and recycling?
If the rental unit is in Portland, the landlord must provide an adequate number of trash containers in good repair and clean condition for all tenants who occupy a building or premises of four or more dwelling units. Otherwise, the tenant must furnish such containers unless there is a written agreement between the landlord and tenant stating otherwise. Depending on local laws and any written agreement between the landlord and tenant, in areas outside of Portland a landlord is also required to provide an adequate number of trash containers and to arrange for their removal. Finally, in any city or county that has multi-family recycling service, a landlord with five or more units on one parcel of land must provide a place for recyclable materials and regular collection of it.
What are the tenants' responsibilities regarding habitability?
If you are a tenant, once you move in you also will have certain responsibilities to keep the place habitable. You must use the rooms, appliances, plumbing fixtures and facilities in a reasonable manner. You must keep the rental clean, sanitary and free of trash. You must remove trash properly and safely.
You must test the unit's smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors at least once every six months and replace the batteries in the smoke detector as needed. Inform your landlord in writing if a smoke detector or carbon monoxide detector the landlord provided isn't working properly. Do not remove batteries from, or tamper with, a properly working smoke detector or carbon monoxide detector.
You must not deliberately or negligently destroy, deface, damage or remove any part of the rental property. As a tenant, you also are responsible for the actions of your family and for anyone else who is on the premises with your permission.
What about repairs to the rental unit?
Immediately report any habitability or other problems to your landlord. Although you are not required to so, it may be more beneficial to report such problems in writing. It is against the law for a landlord to retaliate against you if you are seeking repairs.
There are special circumstances when you and the landlord can agree that you will perform certain repairs or improvements or you can have repairs made and deduct the cost from rent. To learn how this process should be done, read "Getting Repairs Made
What if the rental was condemned?
In rare cases, a landlord might rent a residence that has been condemned for health or safety reasons by a government agency. If the landlord does so knowingly, the tenant may immediately end the tenancy simply by telling the landlord and may recover either two months' rent or up to twice the damages the tenant sustained as a result of the violation, whichever is greater.
A government agency may condemn a rental after the tenant moves in. If the condemnation was not caused by the tenant's misuse of the property, the tenant has the right to end the tenancy immediately simply by telling the landlord. Similarly, if the condemnation was not a fault of the landlord, the landlord may terminate the tenancy by giving the tenant 24 hours written notice. In either case, the landlord must return all deposits and prepaid rent within 14 days.
A landlord who knew or should have known about the conditions posing an imminent and serious threat to the health or safety of the occupants may be liable for money damages of either two months' rent or up to twice the damages the tenant sustained as a result of the violation, whichever is greater. The tenant may also be able to terminate the tenancy simply by telling the landlord.
Tenants that are in situations that pose a serious threat to their health or safety should seek and obtain legal advice about their rights.
Legal editor: Jason Posner, November 2011