Q: My sister leases an apartment in an area hit by a natural disaster and was forced to evacuate. Now she cannot return to her apartment due to damaged roads and is temporarily renting elsewhere. Her landlord is unwilling to work with her and is demanding rent even though it is impossible to use the apartment. What can she do? — Colleen
A: The law in most states provides that, at a minimum, when a property is damaged or destroyed by a disaster, the tenant can terminate the lease and find a new place to live.
If the home is only partially damaged, but the rest is still habitable, the rent will be reduced.
A lease can give tenants more rights than the statutory minimum, so every tenant should carefully review its terms. In your sister’s situation, the apartment is not damaged, just her ability to get back to it from the evacuation.
I hope your sister purchased renters insurance and can make a claim. Renters insurance is usually reasonably priced and can make a big difference when a tenant finds themselves in an unexpected situation.
Fires, break-ins, storms, and other calamities are rare but are easier to bounce back from if properly insured. I recommend that every tenant get renters insurance.
She also should see if there is any assistance available from governmental programs, such as those FEMA offers, or charities providing disaster relief.
While I can understand that her landlord might need the money to pay the mortgage on the home or other reasons, people should try their best to work with each other when a disaster hits.
If the landlord attempts to evict your sister for non-payment, she should speak with an attorney or her local legal aid society.
The law provides several possible defenses that might help her, depending on the specifics and where she lives.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Gary M. Singer is a Florida attorney and board-certified as an expert in real estate law by the Florida Bar. He practices real estate, business litigation and contract law from his office in Sunrise, Fla. He is the chairman of the Real Estate Section of the Broward County Bar Association and is a co-host of the weekly radio show Legal News and Review. He frequently consults on general real estate matters and trends in Florida with various companies across the nation. Send him questions online at www.sunsentinel.com/askpro or follow him on Twitter @GarySingerLaw.
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