Landlord Shaming and the Law

The following guest post is contributed by Avvo, an online legal services marketplace that offers on-demand, affordable legal advice, especially when it comes to landlord/tenant laws.

For tenants who believe they’ve been ripped off by a landlord, ranting about it on social media might feel pretty good. With rents skyrocketing in major U.S. cities and around the world, many renters see themselves as stuck with their current apartment—after all, even a terrible apartment is better than no apartment.

So when a landlord doesn’t respond to complaints and the tenant can’t afford to move, the disgruntled renter may wonder, “What else can I do besides warn away future tenants with some digital landlord shaming?” Jumping on trending hashtags like #VentYourRent may make unhappy tenants feel better, but does it really make any difference, and could it come back to haunt them? And what can landlords do if they find themselves being made a target?

Tenants beware: If you can’t say anything nice…

Tenants beware: If you can’t say anything nice…

The old adage that if you can’t say anything nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all certainly has some wisdom, and discontented renters should attempt to deal with their landlord before whining about them on social media. It’s a simple matter of fair play, and besides, doing so might solve the tenant’s problems.

Even if a landlord is unresponsive, tenants should take care not to hinder their ability to take legal action by becoming a defendant themselves. At least one person has been sued for landlord shaming; a property management company in Chicago sued a tenant for defamation after she tweeted that her apartment managers would not do anything about mold in her apartment. The case was thrown out, but that probably won’t stop someone else from trying, and under the right circumstances, a property owner might win.

Needless to say, tenants who do air their complaints on the Internet had best stick to the truth. If a renter tweets about rats when he’s actually just mad about being told to turn down his music, the landlord may have a solid case for defamation. Anonymous posts to Passive Aggressive Notes are unlikely to ever be seen by the landlord or traced back to the tenant, but physically displaying a sign about grievances (even just to take a photo to post online) could open a tenant up to charges of trespass, and altering “for rent” signs by adding juicy details about the lousy conditions of the apartment could, ironically, be considered vandalism.

Landlords: You should tread carefully, too.

Meanwhile, landlords who think the law is always on their side in shaming cases could be in for a rude awakening. New York City has made it safer, and potentially more effective, to shame a landlord. The Public Advocate of the City of New York maintains a landlord watchlist, publicly revealing the names of New York landlords with multiple reported violations. Each year it releases a list ranking the 100 worst landlords in the five boroughs.

A year and a half ago, Public Advocate Letitia James announced in a press conference that Robin Shimoff was the worst landlord in New York. While acknowledging that identifying the culprits was only the first step in cleaning up their act, James’ office also claims that publication of the list has caused “at least one” landlord to contact her agency for help making changes. For the rest of them, the Public Advocate has stronger tools – including court, charging for repairs made by the city, and tax liens.

Results: Is landlord shaming effective?

Are the combined strategies of public shaming and legal action effective? They might be. Over 5,000 landlords made the 2014 watchlist, while just under 4,000 were called out in 2015 (although the number of buildings on the list grew). Robin Shimoff’s name dropped completely out of the top 100.

In the end, it’s important to recognize that both tenants and landlords have legal rights and responsibilities, and that a dispassionate conversation between the parties should be the first step in resolving disputes instead of landlord shaming. If that doesn’t work, affordable legal advice can help.