By Stephanie Reid, Avvo attorney and NakedLaw contributor

There it is: the dreaded eviction notice, taped not-so-subtly across the front door of your home. Getting an eviction notice may seem like the end of the world at first, but renters do have tenant rights that can help resolve the issue or change the landlord’s decision.

Unfortunately, not every eviction is avoidable: Landlords have rights, too, and obligations to uphold the value of the property and the safety of all other tenants.

Here’s a look at what’s legal and what’s not when it comes to the eviction process.

Lawful reasons for eviction

When you first moved in, you (hopefully) signed a lease agreement with the landlord. At a minimum, the lease should contain the payment terms and effective lease dates. Most likely, it also contains a broad list of prohibited acts that could lead to an eviction, such as:

  • Failure to pay rent on time
  • Criminal activity or drug use
  • Assaulting or threatening other residents
  • Damage to the unit or common areas
  • Failure to abide by property guidelines or restrictions
  • Subletting without written permission
  • Having a pet
  • Exceeding the number of approved tenants
  • Smoking in the unit

Your agreement may also include opportunities to correct the problems if they come up.

Unlawful reasons for eviction

Your landlord cannot evict you just because he “feels like it.” Your lease is a binding legal document, and it’s only legal to evict you if you have broken the terms of the agreement.

Discrimination is forbidden in the housing industry, and the Fair Housing Act strictly forbids any housing decision based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability or the presence of children. If you believe that discrimination has anything to do with why you’re being evicted, you should report the landlord to your state’s housing department immediately.

A landlord also cannot evict a tenant, or refuse to rent to them in the first place, based on a tenant’s disability or reliance upon a service animal — even if the property has a no-pets policy. A landlord must agree to make reasonable accommodations for the renter, including a wheelchair accessible housing unit or common areas designed to accommodate disabilities.

Proper eviction procedures

  • Time. Sticking a note on your door saying “Get Out” does not count as legal eviction protocol. Proper notice must be given, usually 30 or 60 days before the eviction date. In some states, a three-day eviction notice may be allowed if the tenant has committed an egregious act, such as assault or domestic violence, or failed to pay rent.
  • Details. An eviction notice does not always have to state the reason for the eviction, but some cities may require this. The eviction notice must properly identify the tenant, the unit in question, the contact person responsible for the unit — usually the landlord — and that person’s address. If the eviction has to do with non-payment of rent, the notice must include a valid address where rent may be sent.
  • Process. Under the U.S. Constitution, you’re entitled to due process of the law if you lose a fundamental right, including public or private housing. Telling a tenant verbally, giving the message to a mutual friend, or assuming he knows it’s time to leave will not cut it under the law. The tenant must be served the notice in person, sent the notice in the mail, or presented with the notice on the front door of the unit.

How to keep your home

It’s not impossible to remedy the problem or appeal an illegal eviction. In most cases, there is a way to fix the issue and avoid losing your housing.

  • Pay your rent. If the eviction is based on unpaid rent, the landlord must give you an opportunity to pay the entire outstanding balance on or before the final eviction date, which should be clearly stated in the eviction notice.
  • Fix or pay for damage. If the eviction is based on damage to the property, many jurisdictions allow the tenant to immediately repair or pay for the damage.
  • Appeal an illegal eviction. For residents of private housing units, an appeal is probably not available, but you may be able to pursue civil legal action if the landlord doesn’t follow your state’s proper eviction procedures. If you live in public housing, it might be possible to appeal an eviction, particularly if you think you’re being evicted illegally. In many states, pro bono fair housing lawyers are available to help renters defend against unlawful evictions and remain in their homes. Visit the U.S. Department of Housing website to see a directory of your state’s housing authority and resources.
  • Talk to a lawyer. If you have questions about your situation, you can consult a landlord/tenant lawyer for free in Avvo’s legal Q&A forum, where most questions are answered by a lawyer within 12 hours. If you would prefer immediate and confidential advice, you can use the $39 fixed-fee Avvo Advisor service to speak to a lawyer on the phone, right away.

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