Tenants eager to learn about their rights filed into the John C. Harris Community Center for a forum Thursday evening.
The event was organized by Central Missouri Community Action and featured Mid-Missouri Legal Services staff attorney Roger Dyer, who spoke about tenant rights and responsibilities.
"Our task force is trying to help people find safe and affordable housing here. We are doing this by educating, by advocating and hopefully getting development going for safe and affordable housing in Callaway County," said Kellie Pontius, Central Missouri Community Action community organizer.
Mid-Missouri Legal Services provides free legal services, including advice and representation.
"Generally speaking, landlords have to first make sure that the property is livable when the tenant moves in and that it remains local throughout the course of the tenancy," Dyer said.
Any other responsibilities, such as repairs, have to be included in the lease agreement.
"I'm really trying to hammer home the importance of reading those leases, understanding those lease agreements and seeking assistance for anything you don't because a big responsibility of the tenant and the landlord is to know the lease agreement and follow the lease agreement," Dyer said.
A tenant should always get a copy of the signed lease. They should also make sure the document includes the names of both parties, the address of the property and contact information for the landlord, as well as sections on rent, late fees and the security deposit.
If late fees aren't included in the lease agreement, landlords can't lawfully collect them.
Other issues to address early in the agreement are whether or not pets are allowed and what the policy is on overnight guests.
Though technically verbal agreements can count as lease agreements, if a dispute occurs, it is hard to prove anything to the courts without a written record.
"Always get it in writing" was a frequent refrain of the evening.
If a landlord doesn't want to write down what they've promised the tenant, that's a red flag, Dyer said.
"I would seriously reconsider entering into something like that," Dyer said.
Similarly, if the tenant and landlord come to an understanding after the initial lease is signed, that should also be written down. Even if it starts as a verbal conversation, the tenant should confirm any changes in writing — sending an email or a letter is an easy way to do this.
Once living on the property, the tenant is expected to keep drug abuse or crime off the property, or else they could be in danger of lease termination or eviction.
"Always pay rent," Dyer said. "Unless you've spoken with an attorney and the attorney advised you otherwise."
On the subject of security deposits, Dyer informed the dozen attendees a landlord is only allowed to set the security deposit at twice the normal rent. The tenant has the right to attend the move-out inspection, which Dyer recommends.
The tenant should be share to share a forwarding address with the landlord to ensure the security deposit makes it back to them after moving out.
Dyer also explained the difference between a lease termination and an eviction. While a landlord might terminate a lease for a violation of the agreement, all the lease termination does is end the tenant's legal right to possess the property.
An eviction, which could include shutting off utilities, changing locks or removing personal property from the space, can only be done by law enforcement.
The landlord has to go to the courts first, and a judge will set a day for the eviction. If the tenant is not gone by that date, the landlord still cannot forcibly evict the tenant on their own. Only the sheriff's office can serve that eviction and remove the tenant.
"These (unlawful or self-help evictions) are becoming really common right now," Dyer said.
A reason for an increase in unlawful evictions is because the federal government has imposed a moratorium on evictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
To benefit from the moratorium, renters must be experiencing a substantial loss of household income or extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses and making best efforts to make timely partial payments as close to the full rent amount as circumstances permit.
The renter must also submit a declaration form, available at cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/declaration-form.pdf, to the landlord.
Mid-Missouri Legal Services can provide free assistance to those who reside in their 11-county service area, including Callaway County, and meet financial guidelines.
To inquire about eligibility, email [email protected] or call the Columbia office at 573-442-0116 and the Jefferson City office at 573-634-4545.