After a natural disaster, renters can often be left in vulnerable situations (read our story about how that happened in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, and Louisiana after Hurricane Laura). Every state has laws designed to protect tenants from being taken advantage of after a natural disaster, though not all states offer the same level of protection.
Legal aid services in each state may be able to represent or advise renters in need of further assistance. This guide outlines your legal rights as a tenant during and after a disaster, and where you can seek legal help if you need it.
Terms to Know
Usable Property: A residence that is considered to be safe to live in, without any major damage. This is most likely the state of your home pre-disaster.
Partially Unusable Property: Legal determination that a residence requires repairs, but is still suitable to live in. The term “Partial damage” may also be used. There is not always a clear legal distinction between “partial” and “complete” or “total” damage.
Totally Unusable Property: Legal determination that a residence is so damaged that it is uninhabitable. Typically, if a building is completely destroyed, you will have the option to terminate your lease and you will not have to pay rent, though specifics depend on state law and your lease terms.
Casualty Loss: An uninsured property loss resulting from a sudden, unexpected and unusual event such as a fire, hurricane or tornado that damages a residence.
Repair Requests: If possible, send repair requests in writing to your landlord after a disaster. Certified mail is best if you need proof that you attempted to communicate with your landlord. Sending texts or emails can also be useful as proof, as well as photos of damage. In your request, include details about the needed repairs and how the damage may be harmful to health and safety.
Landlord’s Responsibility to Repair: Your landlord’s responsibility to repair damage will be specified in your lease agreement, and their legal obligations may vary by state law. In some cases, if a tenant pays for repairs they may deduct that cost from rent with prior agreement. In Louisiana, for example, a landlord must make repairs to keep a home livable according to the state’s civil code. But in Texas, the law only says that a landlord must comply with tenants’ requests for specific repairs. In Mississippi, a landlord cannot terminate your lease because they do not have money to make repairs. In some cases, the landlord may wait to begin repairs due to insurance claims. If a landlord does not comply with the law or your lease, you may be able to sue for damages, or break your lease.
Terminating your Lease: Depending on state law and the terms of your lease, you may be entitled to terminate your lease if your residence is unlivable after a disaster. Always consult a lawyer, legal aid service, or expert before terminating a lease or stopping rent payments. You may be liable for unpaid rent if the law or terms of your lease do not allow you to break your lease.
Refund or Reduction of Rent: In some cases, if your residence was damaged, you may be entitled to reduced rent if you can no longer live in your residence. Do not attempt to pay your landlord less than full rent without a court order or written agreement. Doing so could result in eviction if you are still legally obligated to follow the terms of your lease.
Evictions: Your landlord must file proper paperwork and go to court to evict you. If they don’t — if your landlord changes your locks, cuts off your utilities, or removes your things from the property— it’s a wrongful eviction. These are common after disasters, particularly when tenants have evacuated (it could appear to a landlord that they have abandoned the unit), or if there is a lack of consensus over the extent of damage and the livability of the unit. It is best to notify your landlord of plans to temporarily evacuate. In the event of a wrongful eviction, many states have legal aid services that can help protect tenants.
The following guides were prepared by legal aid services in each state and offer an overview of your rights as a tenant after a natural disaster. While these may be a useful starting point, Southerly does not offer legal advice; you should consult a lawyer either through these legal aid services or a private practice before attempting to break a lease, reduce rent, or otherwise change the terms of legal agreements with your landlord.
Legal self-help guide for Texas tenants affected by natural disaster
Renter’s Rights after a Disaster
Hurricane Ida FAQ for Renters in Louisiana* – SLLS
Landlord Tenant Law in Mississippi
Mississippi Disaster Legal Assistance Reference Manual (from page 27)
Rental Property Problems after Disaster – Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida
Legal Aid of Kentucky: Tenant-Landlord FAQs
When There is a Natural Disaster: Tenant Law in West Virginia
Tenants Rights and Responsibilities
South Carolina Appleseed Disaster Assistance Manual
Rights of Tenants After a Natural Disaster – North Carolina Justice Center.
Landlord/Tenant Issues – North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center
Georgia Legal Aid: What Should I Know About Renters’ Rights After a Disaster?