Page last updated: 04/28/2023
Common Housing Issues
Major disasters can have a big impact on housing for disaster survivors. For example, the disaster could cause major damage to your home or affect your job and income. Some of the more common housing issues you may have to deal with are:
- Lease terminations and evictions.
- Home foreclosures.
- Rent subsidy programs.
- Landlord’s refusal to make repairs.
- Utility shut-offs.
- Insurance claims and disputes.
- Proving home ownership or rental unit occupancy.
- Home repair contractor scams (such as not completing their work).
- Price gouging by businesses (extreme price hikes for repairs and supplies).
- Security deposit disputes.
This page provides an overview of these housing issues, including your legal rights. However, the rights you have may depend on your local and state laws. It’s a good idea to ask for advice from an attorney who knows the laws for your area.
If you qualify, you may be able to get free advice from an attorney through a local legal aid organization or the American Bar Association’s Free Legal Answers website. You can also use Legal Help Finder to view resources by state or territory, including some resources specific to housing issues. Just Shelter can direct you to organizations in your state that may provide free assistance on housing issues.
Lease Terminations and Evictions
After a disaster, you may need to end your lease early and live somewhere else if there is damage to your home or a change in your job status. Or you may have a landlord who wants to force you to move out, even though you don’t want to leave. Here are some tips on how to handle both situations.
How To Terminate a Lease
Your lease is the contract you sign with the landlord to rent your home. In the lease, you usually promise that you’ll continue to pay rent until a certain month and year — even if you move out. Your ability to end the lease early after a disaster, so you can move without paying any more of the rent, depends on several factors. These include:
- The content of your lease. Some leases provide options for ending the lease early. You might find this content in a section of the lease titled “termination provisions.”
- Your landlord. Your landlord could simply agree to let you end the lease early, no matter what the lease says. If so, get this agreement in writing.
- The amount of damage to your home and how long it will take to repair it. Most state laws say tenants have the right to safe and livable housing, no matter what the lease says.
- The laws of your state or territory. The laws where you live may differ on how and when you can end a lease. Ask an attorney about the legal options in your area.
How To Protect Yourself From Eviction
After a disaster, some landlords find they can rent a property at a higher rate, so they evict tenants to make room for someone who can afford to pay more. Also, some landlords see an opportunity to illegally evict tenants when a disaster causes courts to close or tenants to temporarily evacuate.
What can you do to prevent eviction? Here are some options:
- Check local laws. Many states and territories have laws to protect you from eviction after a disaster. Ask an attorney or legal aid organization for advice on the laws in your area.
- Check your lease. Take a close look at what the lease says about when the landlord has the right to evict you.
- Seek help. Just Shelter can direct you to organizations in your state that help to prevent evictions and family homelessness.
If you’ve lost your job because of the disaster and can’t make a loan payment, you may have options that enable you to keep your home. You can:
- Contact your lender or loan servicer. This is the company you borrowed money from to buy your home. Many lenders will offer a grace period as you recover from a disaster. During this grace period, you may not have to make your monthly payment.
- Force the issue. What do you do if the lender won’t work with you? The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) suggests a few options to help change the lender’s mind.
- Talk to a HUD-approved housing counselor. They can guide and assist you.
Learn more about HUD’s tips for ways to keep your home.
Rent Subsidy Programs
A disaster may affect your job and income. If you live in public housing or use the federal government’s Section 8 housing choice voucher program, you may be able to get some additional help with your rent payments. The program also might make it easier for you to renew your rental assistance or use your voucher to find a new place to live.
Here are two ways you might get this type of support:
- Rent reduction. People who live in public housing or receive Section 8 assistance can usually have the rent reduced when they have a loss in income. To get this reduction, you must notify the public housing agency in your area.
- Housing voucher extensions. If the U.S. president declares a major disaster or emergency for your area, keeping your subsidy may become easier. Under either type of declaration, HUD may let public housing agencies give families one or more extensions of their voucher term. The “voucher term” is the length of time you remain eligible to keep receiving the aid.
If you’re not currently living in public housing or using the voucher program, but you think you may need these services after a disaster, contact your local public housing agency or your state or territory’s HUD office. Eligibility for these programs is usually based on income, household size, and other factors, such as whether you’re a veteran or have a disability.
Landlord’s Refusal To Make Repairs
If you’re a renter and your home was damaged by a disaster, contact your landlord right away to figure out a plan for getting the damage repaired. But what can you do if a landlord refuses to make repairs? Here are some steps to take:
- Document the damage. Make a written list of everything that was damaged and describe the damage. Take photos and videos. You should do this even if you and your landlord agree on repairs.
- Put your request in writing. Notify your landlord or property manager by sending a written notice. This notice should include your list, photos, and videos. It should also include a request to complete the repairs by a specific date. Keep a copy of any communications and documents between you and your landlord, such as this request.
- Contact local authorities. For example, if repairs aren’t being made, you could report this lack of action to the local health department or housing code enforcement office.
- Check your lease. Some leases give you the right to lower your rent payments until your landlord repairs the damage to your home. This language may be in a section of the lease described as “rent abatement.”
- Stop paying rent. Laws in some states give tenants the right to stop paying rent until major damage is repaired. This is called “withholding rent.” Some states also give you the right to pay for the repair yourself and then deduct that amount from the rent you usually pay (“repair and deduct”). But be careful. If you withhold rent in a state that doesn’t allow you to do so, the landlord could evict you for nonpayment.
Major disasters can affect the amount of money you have for services like heating, cooling, water, and sewer (water sanitation). Here are some things you can do to get help with paying these bills, or to keep the utilities on until you can pay:
- Find out if the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) can help you pay your cooling and heating bills. This federal program can help with bills for electricity, natural gas, propane, fuel oil, or wood.
- Contact your utility company. Ask if the company has any policies or programs that protect customers from utility shut-offs during emergencies.
- Contact your state or territory’s consumer protection office. Even if this office cannot help you directly with a bill, the office may be able to give you a list of organizations that can.
- Check your state, territory, or local government’s website. Look for information on energy assistance programs, consumer protection, or emergency preparedness.
In some areas, the law lets you sue for damages if your utilities are shut off improperly. You should take this step only with the guidance of a lawyer or housing advocacy organization.
Insurance Claims and Disputes
As a homeowner, you may be paying for insurance that includes coverage for damage to your home and the things you own inside of it. As a renter, you may be paying for renter’s insurance that covers only the things in the home that you own. Your landlord should have insurance for damage to the home itself.
What can you do after a disaster if the insurance company says it doesn’t have to help pay for certain repairs? What if the insurance company will help pay, but you don’t think it’s giving you enough money for the repairs?
Here are some steps and options to keep in mind:
- Document the damage. Make a written list of everything that was damaged and describe the damage. Take photos and videos. Collect any receipts you have that show what you paid for things that were damaged. Get estimates for the cost of repairs as soon as you can.
- Be careful when filing your insurance claim. Follow the steps explained in your insurance policy for filing a claim. A “claim” is your request to have the insurance company help pay for repairs. Contact your insurance broker if you have questions. Keep copies of all information you submit. Following insurance policy instructions and keeping copies will help you if there’s a dispute.
- Be prepared for the insurance adjuster. The insurance adjuster is an expert the insurance company often sends to a person’s home to see what has been damaged and how bad the damage is. Be ready with your list of damaged things, purchase dates and receipts, and cost estimates for repair or replacement. Take notes on what things the adjuster does and doesn’t look at when in your home.
- Talk it out. Don’t assume that the first decision you receive from the insurance company is the final one. If you disagree with the decision, contact your insurance agent or the insurance company’s claims department manager. Calmly explain why you disagree. Take notes during the discussion. Include the date and what was said. If you send other documents to the insurance company, keep copies.
- Contact your state or territory’s insurance ombudsman or insurance regulators. An insurance ombudsman is someone appointed by the government to investigate consumer complaints. Regulators include state insurance commissions. Many also investigate complaints. USA.gov’s State Consumer Protection Offices finder includes insurance regulators in its listings.
- Be cautious about accepting arbitration or mediation. Arbitration and mediation are ways to resolve the dispute without having to file a lawsuit in court. But arbitration and mediation can cost a lot of money. Find out ahead of time how much you might have to pay.
- Consider filing a lawsuit. You’ll likely need an attorney. These lawsuits can be challenging and complicated. They can also cost a lot of money, especially if you can’t get an attorney for free.
Proving Home Ownership or Rental Unit Occupancy
After a disaster, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) programs are among the primary sources of aid for disaster survivors. But to receive most of this assistance, you must prove you own or rent your home and have been living there. There are many ways you can do this.
Proving Home Ownership
The most direct way to prove you own your home is by providing your property deed. A deed is the legal document that transferred the property to you when you bought it. To request a copy of the deed for your home, contact your county recorder’s office.
If you can’t get the deed, you could provide proof with:
- Mortgage documentation.
- Homeowners insurance documentation.
- Property tax receipt or bill.
- Home purchase contract.
- Last will and testament (with death certificate) naming you heir to the property.
- Receipts for major repairs or maintenance dated within five years prior to the disaster.
- Letter prepared after the disaster from a mobile home park owner or manager.
Visit the FEMA website for more information on proving home ownership.
What happens if a home is owned by a person who died and the property was not transferred to another person before their death? If that happens, the deceased person’s property will go through a process called “probate.” Probate is a legal process for deciding who gets the person’s money and the things the person owned. Usually, a probate court will oversee the distribution of the money and property to the deceased person’s heirs or beneficiaries.
If many people say they own the home, a court may need to decide, based on the available evidence, who gets to own it.
For a home you’re renting, FEMA will accept any of the following documents as proof that you’ve been living there:
- Lease or housing agreement.
- Rent receipts.
- Utility bill (for example, electricity, gas, water, or sewer).
- Pay stub.
- Bank or credit card statement.
- Driver’s license, state-issued identification card, or voter registration card.
- Medical provider’s bill.
- Motor vehicle registration.
- Affidavit of residency or other court documentation.
- Documents from a social service organization, such as a welfare agency or Meals on Wheels.
- Written statement from a public official, such as a police chief or mayor. This statement should include their contact information and your name, address, and when you lived there.
- Letter or mail delivered to your address from an employer, public official, social service organization, local school or school district, or mobile home park owner or manager.
Visit the FEMA website for more information on proving occupancy.
Home Repair Contractor Scams
After a disaster, you want repairs done as quickly as possible. This need may be urgent.
Some home repair contractors try to take advantage of this need. They might charge you much more than usual or have you pay in advance for work that they never complete. They might do the work but do it poorly so that it costs them less. Some people might pretend they are contractors to collect money from you.
Here are some things you can do to protect yourself from these scams.
Check to find out if the contractor can be trusted:
- Be extra careful with contractors from outside your state or territory. Although some of them are OK, this can be a sign of a scam.
- Collect contact information from your contractor, including name, phone number, business name, and business address.
- Ask for references — other people the contractor has done work for.
- Confirm that the contractor has a current, valid license with your state or territory’s contracting authority and the necessary insurance. Do the same for any subcontractors that will work on your property. A subcontractor is another person or company doing the work on the contractor’s behalf.
- Check for any complaints against the contractor with your state or territory’s attorney general’s office and the Better Business Bureau.
Take steps to make contractors keep their promises and to protect yourself if there is a dispute:
- Ask potential contractors for written estimates of how much the work will cost.
- Get a contract and read it carefully before signing. This written agreement is a legal promise that should cover the cost of the project, the work to be done, the materials to be used, and when the work will begin and end. The contract should also say that it’s the contractor’s job to get any necessary building permits.
- Make sure the contract includes everything the contractor has promised. Do not sign a contract with blank spaces that have to be filled in or a contract that you do not understand.
- Make sure you get a copy of the contract signed by both the contractor and you for your records.
- Keep notes or records of your conversations with the contractor. Take photos of the work as the project progresses.
- Make sure any changes to the contract are agreed to in writing and signed by the contractor and you. Keep a copy of the changed contract.
Be careful with how you pay for the work:
- If you need a loan to pay for your repairs, contact your bank or a reputable lender. It’s usually not a good idea to accept financing from your contractor. These agreements often allow the contractor to place a lien on your home or foreclose if you miss a payment. That means the contractor could take your home from you.
- Pay your contractor by check, credit card, or money order. Keep records of all payments. Ask for a receipt from the contractor. Don’t pay your contractor in cash.
- Don’t pay the full cost before the work begins. Agree in writing to pay a small portion of the total. Ideally, this portion should be no more than 10% to 25% of the total. The agreement should say that you will pay the rest when the work is completed.
- Wait until the work is complete before making your final payment and signing a release that says the work was finished to your satisfaction. Take your time to review the release, and get a copy of the signed release.
The U.S. government’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website provides more information on questions to ask contractors. It also lists things to do and not to do when hiring or paying them.
Price Gouging by Businesses
Price gouging is when a company or contractor charges a lot more for things like repairs, fuel, and other supplies people need immediately after a disaster. If you think a person or company is price gouging, here are some things you can do:
- Report the incident to the attorney general or consumer protection office for your state or territory. The attorney general is the chief legal officer for the government and a representative of the public interest. The attorney general or agency can take or threaten legal action against businesses they believe are price gouging.
- Keep receipts, advertisements, photos, or any other documentation that supports your allegations of price gouging.
- Get price quotes from other businesses for the same product or service. You could use these other quotes to show that this company or contractor charged far too much.
- Consider legal action to recover money you lost if you’ve been a victim of price gouging. A consumer protection lawyer can advise you on your rights and help you take the necessary steps to hold the business accountable.
- Price gouging laws vary by jurisdiction. Ask an attorney or consumer advocacy organization for more information on the laws and protections that apply in your area.
Security Deposit Disputes
A security deposit is a set amount of money a tenant pays to a landlord before moving into the property. Landlords collect this money to protect themselves in case you cause any damage to the property or move out without having paid all your rent. Depending on what your lease says about the deposit, the landlord may also be able to use the money for other things.
If your landlord doesn’t need to use the security deposit for any of the things the landlord is allowed to use it for, you’re supposed to get the money back after you move out. What happens if the landlord uses the deposit to pay for something it should not be used for or refuses to give it back after you move out?
Here are some tips on how to avoid and handle these situations:
- Follow the procedures outlined in the lease agreement. Also know and follow state, territory, or local laws.
- If a disaster caused damage, document any damage with photos and videos. Make a list of all damage. Keep records of all communications with the landlord. This documentation may be useful in resolving the dispute.
- Before turning in your keys to your landlord, document the condition of the empty apartment by taking photos and videos after you’ve removed your belongings and cleaned the apartment.
- Give your landlord a written notice of your new address. Keep a copy of this notice.
- Most states and territories have laws that say when and how a landlord must return a security deposit. Ask a housing advocacy organization or legal expert about the law in your area. (See the Common Housing Issues section on this page for links to organizations and free legal advice.)
- Try to reach an agreement by talking to your landlord or property manager.
- As a last resort, you may want to try to resolve the dispute through mediation or small claims court. “Mediation” is a process in which an outside expert listens to the facts that you and the landlord present and proposes a solution that may be acceptable to both of you. But be aware that you may have to spend a lot of money for mediation or court. This cost may be more than the amount you could get back from the security deposit.
- Get advice from a legal professional, if needed.