Francesca Sutton was excited to move out of her apartment and into her first rental home in Mesa. She didn’t expect the scorpions.
“The first night that we moved in, my son noticed a scorpion in his bedroom, so he called me when I got off from work,” Sutton said. “Then the next day, I just started seeing them every day, every other day. This is not comfortable for me. I can’t live in a place like this.”
After living in the house some time, Sutton began to notice other issues, like low water pressure.
Sutton said when she contacted her landlord to fix the problems with her house, the landlord never followed through.
Tenant-landlord disputes are likely to grow. The housing crisis has led to more people in the U.S. renting than at any other time in recent history, according to the Pew Research Center. A decade ago, 34.6 million households were in rental properties. In 2016, there were 43.3 million rental households.
The system in Arizona moves slowly and inefficiently whether you’re a landlord or a tenant, those on both sides say. The Arizona Residential Tenant and Landlord Act outlines basic regulations. Phoenix and Tempe are among cities with codes that set more detailed conditions landlords must meet, such as a clean property, regular pool maintenance and minimum water temperatures.
But no local or state government agency enforces those regulations. The lack of accountability and a labyrinthian set of regulations leaves tenants and landlords dangling and can end up in court, advocates said.
The Arizona Department of Housing, which created the 44-page document, considers landlord-tenant relations “a private matter,” according to its website.
Several other states, including Tennessee, allow renters to file complaints with the county public health department or a local building inspector.
Kathy Hertzog, president and chief executive of LandlordAssociation.org, said pursuing a civil case is not a good process for landlords or tenants.
“Having to hire an attorney and go to court, it’s an expensive and time-consuming process,” Hertzog said. “It’s a delicate and fine line you have to walk along. Will it be worth your while or not?”
Ken Volk, who founded the nonprofit group Arizona Tenants Advocates, said most people lack the knowledge, time or money to take on their landlord.
“Most people think you’re going to complain about conditions and that’s it,” Volk said. “But in reality, that not necessarily a part of how you would proceed. It’s not really a procedure for the squeamish.”
Some of the most vulnerable people are renters. Pew research shows the majority of people renting in the U.S. are younger than 35. Hispanics, African Americans and the least educated are most likely to rent.
Hertzog said bad landlords prey on people who are poor.
“In the really poor, underdeveloped areas there’s more bad landlords because they don’t want to put the money into” their properties, she said. Such landlords think people will not take care of their housing just because they are poor, so the landlords don’t take care of the property, she said.
“It’s kind of a sad perception,” Hertzog said. “Everyone has the right to decent housing.”
Advocacy groups like the Arizona Tenants Union and Volks’ organization, which he launched in 1993, advise tenants of their rights.
Volk said when tenants understand their leases, they know when they have the legal right to break them.
Sutton, the tenant plagued with the scorpion problem, said Volk helped her feel confident she was legally in the right to break the lease. If the dispute goes to court, Sutton said she feels prepared.
“I have a good reason to break the lease,” said Sutton, whose landlord did not return phone calls and emails. “I have pictures and documentation, so I’m just waiting to see what has happens next.”