A. In General
When a landlord is not complying with the rental agreement or there are repairs needed and a substantial health and safety problem is being caused by the noncompliance, the tenant may send or give the landlord a written notice pointing out the specific problem that is:
1) causing a violation of the agreement; or,
2) the failure to maintain the premise as specified under Section 22 of the "Act" (as mentioned in summary form in subsection 3D of the "Act" ).
The tenant may state that the rental agreement will terminate on a certain date (which must be more than 30 days after landlord receives the notice) if the breach is not taken care of in 20 days. The rental agreement will then terminate as provided in the notice if the problem is not fixed by repairs, damage payments, or if the landlord fails to make an ongoing, good faith effort to comply within the 20-day deadline period.
If substantially the same thing listed in a prior notice recurs within six months, the tenant may terminate the agreement after 14 days written notice by stating what the breach is and when the termination date of the agreement will be. A tenant can't terminate an agreement for a condition caused by a deliberate or negligent act for which the tenant, his or her family, or a person on the premises with the tenant's permission, is responsible.
If the rental agreement is terminated through proper notice (as mentioned), the landlord must return recoverable security and prepaid rent. In addition to the aforementioned actions, a tenant may seek (if necessary) to recover actual damages and obtain injunctive relief for the landlord's noncompliance. Payment for the attorney's fees may also be sought if the noncompliance has been willful (done intentionally).
B. Failure to Deliver Possession
If the landlord fails to allow a new tenant to take possession of the rental unit as promised in the rental agreement, the tenant is not obligated to pay rent until the unit is made available. In addition, the new tenant may:
1) get out of the rental agreement after having provided a five-day written notice to the landlord, who is then obligated to return all prepaid rent and security, or
2) demand the landlord honor the terms of the rental agreement and bring legal action for possession of the unit (if necessary) so the new tenant can move in. If the landlord's failure to deliver possession is willful and not in good faith, the new tenant may recover up to three month's rent or triple the actual damages involved plus attorney's fees.
C. Self-Help for Minor Repairs
If the landlord does not live up to his or her responsibilities (see subsection 3D of the "Act" ) in maintaining the premises (excluding common areas), and the cost to make the necessary repairs is under $125, the tenant may make repairs or have them done in a workmanlike manner. The repairs must be good enough to pass state and local housing and building codes. The tenant may then deduct the actual and reasonable cost, or value of the repairs, from the rent that is paid the following month.
When using self help for the aforementioned repairs, the tenant must do all of the following:
1) notify the landlord in writing of the intention to correct the condition at his or her expense:
2) wait 20 days as specified in the notice to the landlord to see if he or she complies or makes a good faith effort to comply by correcting the conditions; if it is an emergency situation and the landlord can't be reached or fails to comply as quickly as conditions require, the tenant may act sooner.
3) when the next rent payment is due, submit a written statement listing actual or fair and reasonable costs of repairs made and pay the remaining rental amount owed.
The tenant can't repair at the landlord's expense if the condition was caused by a deliberate or negligent act or omission of the tenant, his or her family, or persons on the premises with the tenant's permission.
D. Failure to Supply Heat, Water, Hot Water, or Essential Services
If, contrary to the rental agreement or responsibilities as stated under section 22 of the Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, the landlord willfully or negligently fails to supply heat (between October 1st and May 1st), running hot and cold water, electric, gas, or other essential services, the tenant may give notice to the landlord mentioning what the failure is, and:
l) get heat, running hot and cold water, electric, gas, and other essential services for the period of time the landlord is not supplying them and deduct the cost from the following month's rent; or
2) seek court damages based on the decreased "fair rental value" of the unit, or
3) stay elsewhere during the time the utilities or services are not supplied and not be liable to the landlord during that period of time. In addition, the tenant may recover the cost of the substitute housing (not exceeding the usual weekly or monthly rental amount) plus attorney's fees.
If the tenant takes any of the aforementioned actions, he or she can't take advantage of alternative remedies under the "Act" such as 1) giving notice of moving out after 30 days if the problem is not taken care of in 20 days or, 2) making a "self-help repair" if the cost is under $125. In addition, the tenant must give proper notice (see subsection 2C in the "Act" ) to the landlord and can't use these remedies if the condition was a result of deliberate or negligent action by the tenant, a member of the tenant's family, or someone on the premises with the tenant's permission.
E. Noncompliance or Retaliation as Defense in Eviction Action
When a landlord brings a court eviction action or sues to recover overdue rent, a tenant may (if able to provide supportive evidence) enter a counterclaim for amounts recoverable under the rental agreement or the "Act." The tenant may also use the landlord's failure to comply with the aforementioned requirements or obligations as a defense in the eviction proceedings.
Section 46 of the Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (entitled, Retaliatory Conduct Prohibited) prohibits landlords from retaliating by increasing rent or decreasing services, or by bringing, or threatening to bring legal action against tenants who justifiably complain to minimum housing code officials or other government agencies about building or housing code violations which may affect tenant health or safety; complain to the landlord about minimum housing violations or other matters mentioned in section 22 of the "Act"; organize or become members of tenants unions; or who take advantage of any other legal right or remedies.
If a landlord does attempt to retaliate in one of the aforementioned ways, the tenant should contact an attorney. There are tenant remedies mentioned under section 34 of the "Act" for some of the violations and a defense for retaliatory eviction actions under section 46. But since there are certain factors which determine whether or not a court action brought by a landlord may be retaliatory, the tenant is strongly advised to either follow the law closely in presenting this defense or discuss the matter first with an attorney.
F. Fire, Casualty Damage, or Condemnation
When a rental unit has to be vacated because it is substantially damaged or destroyed by fire or casualty, the tenant may move out immediately and notify the landlord in writing (within 14 days) of an intention to terminate the rental agreement. In such a case, the agreement will have an effective termination date as of the time the tenant moved out.
If the unit is still livable, the tenant may vacate any part of it that is unusable and the rent must be proportionately reduced by the fair rental value lost (as required by section 33 of the "Act").
When rental agreements are terminated in such situations, the landlord shall return security recoverable under section 19 of the "Act" and all pre-paid rent for any period of time after the date of the fire or casualty damage.
The landlord has the right to sue to recover whatever he or she may be legally entitled to if the fire or casualty damage was caused either negligently or deliberately by the tenant.
G. Remedy for Unlawful Ouster, Exclusion, Diminution of Services
A landlord cannot retaliate or otherwise take action against a tenant by unlawfully removing or excluding tenant from the rental premises, increasing the rent, or reducing the services by interrupting heat, running hot and cold water, electric, gas, or other essential services. It is usually considered unlawful if a landlord does any of the aforementioned things after the tenant has complained to a government code enforcement agency about property code violations having a significant effect on health or safety; complained to the landlord about his or her failure to abide by responsibilities for maintaining the premises; organized or joined a group involved with tenants issues; or made use of any other right provided tenants under Rhode Island laws.
If the landlord does act illegally against a tenant for one of the reasons mentioned, the tenant may regain possession of the unit or end his or her rental agreement by having an attorney bring legal action. If such action has to be taken, the tenant can sue for an amount equal to either three months' rent or triple the actual damages caused, plus attorney's fees.
H. Remedy for Wrongful Failure to Return Security Deposits or Other Prepaid Amounts
The landlord must return the security deposit or a listing of damages and the remaining amount (if any) within 20 days after the tenant moves, returns the key, and leaves a forwarding address. If the money and/or a list of any damages is not provided as the law demands, the former tenant can initiate legal action through the local district court by filing a "Landlord-Tenant Complaint" form (RIGL 34-18-56f is provided by the court clerk) for non-eviction situations and appearing on the court date specified with proof of having made the original payment. An alternative that can be taken is to request a small claims court form from the court clerk and filing the claim through a small claims court action. If the tenant files a court action under section 56f to recover security funds which legally should have been returned, the judge may allow the tenant the amount due together with damages equal to twice the amount wrongfully withheld, plus attorney's fees. A request for such damages must be made when filling out the complaint form.
While the tenant has similar legal options for recovering other prepayment amounts, the "Act" does not specify that specific damages and attorney's fees may also be sought.