“The insurance company said the trailer was a total loss and would cover the deposit,” Teer said.
As the couple returned to their single-wide trailer, they discovered a portion of the interior was impossible to reach because of the huge trees that had fallen on it. They decided to cut out a window to get into their bedroom and gather personal belongings.
Now, Teer said, their former landlord is trying to withhold the $500 damage deposit, saying the damage was caused by the tenants and not the storm. Attempts Friday to contact the landlord were unsuccessful.
The storms that hit the state three weeks ago damaged thousands of homes and created a legal nightmare for tenants and landlords alike.
Teer said they contacted the Alabama Bar Association to get help and were told it could be a week before a lawyer gets back to them, but she said she’s hopeful everything will be resolved soon and is keeping things in perspective.
“I’m just glad the kids weren’t at home,” she said.
Linda Lund, director of the Alabama State Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program, said it might be legal for landlords to require tenants to pay rent on damaged dwellings depending on their specific lease or other information. She said anyone with a legal question about issues after the tornado can call the Disaster Legal Hotline at 1-800-354-6154.
“It sounds like that landlord is treading on thin ice,” said Grayson Glaze, executive director at the Alabama Center for Real Estate in Tuscaloosa, referring to Teer’s situation.
“The key is that the house is totaled,” he said, adding there might not be a problem if the deposit could actually be used to make the house livable again. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
It is important for tenants to take action to figure out legal issues with damage to their rental.
“Some landlords will test the boundaries because it’s a unique situation,” Glaze said. “In some cases, they’re totally in the right.”
Overall, Glaze said, he’s been surprised at the lack of landlord and tenant problems he’s come across since the tornado.
David Webster, an attorney at the Anniston office of Legal Services Alabama, said he expects more issues to arise in the months to come, after the initial shock of the tornado wears off. He said that before the storm, landlord-tenant issues were one of the biggest issues dealt with at the office, especially landlords not repairing things.
David Skinner, a Birmingham lawyer who specializes in landlord-tenant issues, said he can see several possible situations arising from a disaster like the recent storms. One issue centers on when tenants vacated their damaged houses after the storm.
Under Alabama law, a tenant has 14 days to give notice to his landlord saying the home is too damaged to live in and that he is breaking the lease. For many people, the 14 days would have started the day of the tornado. Skinner said this start-date could be later, though, if a person was unable to get to his home because the area was blocked off or they were in the hospital, for example.
“Some of them are saying you can’t terminate unless it substantially impaired the use of the house,” Skinner said. In that case, it must be determined what “substantially impaired” means.
In the instance of a house being completely gone or severely damaged, it’s obvious that it can’t be used.
“It gets fuzzy with less dramatic damage” Skinner said.
Whether the property can be used is “fact specific” to each person affected.
Tenants also can get out of a lease if a landlord doesn’t fix damage that causes a health and safety problem within 14 days.
“An exterior door that doesn’t lock is a health and safety issue,” Skinner said, as is a lack of electricity or a leak in the natural gas line. “Tell the landlord in writing that you have an issue.”
Getting legal advice is important, but Skinner said people need to ensure they’re getting accurate information.
“One of the problems that I’ve seen out there is that most lawyers aren’t articulate in landlord-tenant law, or residential tenant law,” he said.
Asking individual lawyers if they normally handle landlord-tenant cases is a good way to measure how well they’ll know the law, as well as whether they have recently drafted leases or have been involved with evictions, Skinner said.
One less obvious question is to ask about the Uniform Alabama Residential Landlord and Tenant Act.
“Ask them to tell you how my rights are different under the act than before the act,” he said. “They ought to have that information in their head.”
Skinner said he believes, though it’s not written as law, tenants and landlords have a moral obligation to communicate with each other.
“Let’s disagree face-to-face,” he said. “Not in silence.”