Self-Help Eviction

Last week, a neighbor’s video went viral, showing the gaping hole where the exterior stairs used to be (video further down).  A Florida tenant had failed to pay their rent, and the landlord allegedly grew so irate that he removed the staircase that allowed access to the second-story apartment.

Most Internet commentary has been amused, and many people have praised the landlord’s creative approach to rent collection.  But there’s just one teeny tiny problem: was it legal?

The answer is a resounding no, much to the chagrin of landlords nationwide.

Landlords can’t change the locks, make the rental unit uninhabitable, or take any other actions that coerce tenants to move out before the lease term has ended.  A landlord’s only recourse when a tenant breaks the lease is a legal motion: the long, tedious, expensive eviction process.

Which, when you think about it, represents an imbalance in the real world application of law.  Tenants can break a lease with no real repercussions: they can abandon the property and stop paying rent, they can stay in the property and stop paying rent, they can damage the property and stop paying rent… you get the idea.  When they skip town, it’s nearly impossible to track them down to collect money from them.

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But if a landlord breaks the lease (for example trying to push the tenant to move out early), the tenant can take them to court and actually collect, since landlords must register their permanent address in public records.  And, of course, there’s a known asset that can’t be hidden or easily transferred: the property itself.

Not only can tenants collect money in lawsuits, but they can even press criminal charges when landlords violate landlord-tenant laws.  When was the last time a tenant was charged in criminal court for breaking a lease agreement?

The tenants who lost their staircase will, at the very least, be difficult to evict now that the landlord clearly violated Florida landlord-tenant laws.  Beyond being difficult to evict, the tenants have a civil case against the landlord as well, and may well sue.

Even worse, the tenants could press criminal charges against the landlord on several legal grounds.  One route they could take is claiming the landlord intentionally created a fire hazard in their home.  They could even claim “false imprisonment”, since they were in the rental unit when the landlord took the stairs out.  (Never mind that a quick call to a neighbor with a ladder would solve the problem in five minutes.)

All that said, despite all the media attention, who says this video is real, anyway?  Are we to assume that the landlord installed a safety railing in the middle of the night, after removing the staircase under cover of darkness?  And then paints it the same color as the rest of the railing?  And really, how the heck could anyone sleep through their entire staircase being removed from their front door?

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