To the Editor:
Most landlords, as is likewise true of most tenants, conduct themselves in an honorable and law-abiding manner. But, as with the proverbial rotten apple, it just takes one (or very few rotten ones) to spoil the barrel. For landlords, tenants used to be easy marks – easy to cheat, easy to extort. That’s why Ohio’s Landlord-Tenant Law was enacted – to correct what formerly was great disparity in relative power between the two.
Because a tenant’s failure to pay rent is a violation of the Landlord-Tenant Law, that statute contains procedures by which a landlord may compel a delinquent tenant to remedy their failure(s). None of the solutions provided by the law include any of the actions postulated by Melissa King, “shutting off utilities or locking tenants out of houses” (“During Pandemic, Renters More Than Ever Need Secure Shelter,” letter to the editor in The NEWS, April 9, 2020).
Both of those “self-help” acts, termination of utilities and locking out tenants, as well as any and all similar actions, are prohibited by the law, even if a tenant has failed, even repeatedly failed, to pay their rent on time. It is not that utilities, as well as any and all other services, may never be terminated, nor is a landlord prohibited, in certain circumstances, from changing door locks. But, absent a court order specifically authorizing them, all such actions by an aggrieved landlord are violations of the law. Courts issue such orders only after holding a hearing at which the tenant is provided the opportunity to argue that it is the landlord, not the tenant, who has violated the law.
A landlord’s violation of some provision of the Landlord-Tenant Law, however, does not authorize a tenant to violate their obligations. Illegal acts by a tenant faced with a scofflaw landlord, do not, as a consequence, become legal. A tenant or landlord may call upon the courts to compel proper behavior. Both parties also have the administrative powers of the state; the Code Office, the local Health Department, the local police and the county sheriff.
A tenant who is locked out or faced with landlord-caused utility termination(s) without court approval, absent evidence to the contrary, has the law on their side. And in situations, such as the current pandemic, courts will usually expect all parties to cut one another some serious slack. Nevertheless, a wise tenant will seek assistance of an attorney.