When you think about the relationship between landlords and tenants, public health might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but the interplay between our homes and our health is great. Renters have less control over their living environments than those who own their homes, so it is important to have strong housing laws that promote the health of the public.
Housing laws have changed dramatically over the past forty years. Much of this change was spurred by the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA), promulgated in 1972 by the Uniform Law Commission. The Uniform Law Commission is an organization that provides states with non-partisan, well-drafted model legislation meant to bring clarity and stability to critical areas of state statutory law. URLTA focuses on the rights and duties of residential landlords and tenants.
URLTA was extremely innovative and important to the progression of housing law and public health because it codified the implied warranty of habitability. The implied warranty of habitability amounts to a promise by the landlord that the property is suitable to be lived in. Research has shown that poor quality and unsafe housing contributes to health problems such as infectious and chronic diseases, injuries and poor childhood development. Under URLTA, a landlord must comply with all applicable building and housing codes that materially affect health and safety, make all repairs to keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition, keep common areas in a clean and safe condition and maintain good and safe utilities and fixtures.
Twenty-two states adopted the implied warranty through statutes based on URLTA and twenty three states have statutes influenced by but not based on URLTA. Four states and the District of Columbia recognize the implied warranty as a matter of common law.
The Uniform Law Commission is now in the process of redrafting URLTA to reflect changes and concerns that have developed over the 40 years since the act was originally promulgated. The first meeting of the revision committee took place March 8-9 in Washington, D.C. I went to the meeting to ensure that public health legal interests were heard and considered during the redrafting process, which takes a minimum of two years, sometimes much longer.
I raised a number of important public health issues that affect both tenants and landlords. I proposed an addition to the act which would address bedbug infestations, including a no-fault provision that places duties on both landlords and tenants to address infestations in a prompt manner. I also proposed a duty on landlords to test for lead paint in housing built before 1978. If lead paint is found, the landlord has the duty to clean the area, cover over old paint and replace windows in order to make the housing safe for pregnant women and children.
Another important area of public health concern is second hand smoke exposure. I proposed additions to the act that would explicitly grant landlords the right to adopt and enforce smokefree housing policies in their rental properties. I also suggested a duty that landlords notify prospective tenants of smoking policies, inform them of any adjoining smoking units and clearly disclose permitted smoking zones within the property.
Overall, the committee, including landlord advocates and tenant advocates, seemed open to considering these provisions. These issues will be discussed and refined over the entire committee review process. And although this process is long and ongoing, it could strengthen public health law and translate into important gains for the public’s health. To follow the developments of the committee, sign up on the Uniform Law Commission site.
This information was developed by Jennifer Bernstein, staff attorney for the Network for Public Health Law – Mid-States Region at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state