In the early 1900’s, a landlord had no legal obligation to make repairs to a tenant’s premises. Under common law, once property was leased out to a tenant, the responsibility to maintain and repair that property belonged solely to the tenant. Unless the landlord assumed the duty of repair contractually, usually within the actual lease itself, there was no statutory requirement for the landlord to make repairs or even perform routine maintenance for the tenant. Since then, property laws have evolved substantially in favor of tenant’s rights.
Today, most states have adopted a legal doctrine called "the implied warranty of habitability". Under this doctrine, if the landlord fails to provide any of the "basics" required by the housing or health codes, the tenant may simply stop paying rent until the landlord makes the necessary repairs.
If the landlord sues to evict the tenant for nonpayment of rent, you may invoke the landlord's breach of the implied warranty as an "affirmative defense". If you prove the breach, the court might set a "reasonable rent" that is lower than the rent you agreed to pay. If you pay that lower rent, then you might defeat the eviction lawsuit.
But be careful before you start a "rent strike".
If the landlord failed to repair something that is "basic" - like fixing a leaking roof - you might call the city or county housing code inspection agency. It's their job to make sure that landlords obey the local housing code.
If you have rats, mice, or the like, call the city or county health department. Generally, they act quicker than the housing inspector, because they don't want anyone to become sick and they don't want the problem to spread to other dwellings.
There is one problem with using these remedies: you are dependent on government agencies to solve the problem. Some agencies are under-staffed, under-funded, or under-competent (and sometimes even under-honest). You might have to wait a long time for a housing inspector to force the landlord to fix the roof. It would be nice if you have some way to put pressure on the landlord by yourself. In many states, you do, through your states "repair and deduct" laws.
Some states have laws that permit you to "repair and deduct." This means that you may pay to have the repairs made yourself and then deduct the cost from your next rental payment. This might work for minor repairs that don't cost much, but it's not the best way to deal with an expensive project like replacing a roof.
Stopping your rent payments however is risky, because if you fail to prove your implied warranty defense, you might end up being evicted. It might be safer to pay the rent and sue the landlord for breach of the implied warranty at a later time.
If you are thinking about using the implied warranty of habitability, the safest course is to get a lawyer's advice before taking any action on your own. Property and rent ordinances can be very tricky to interpret and apply, and a wrong move legally can leave you looking for another place to live very quickly.
For more information on eviction, repair and deduct, security deposits, tenants rights, visit GotTrouble.com