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What Is an Illegal Eviction and When Is it Illegal to Evict a Renter?

In the United States, 3.6 million legal eviction filings occur annually. Yet, housing experts believe this number is much greater when factoring in illegal evictions that take place each year, despite each state having explicit laws prohibiting them. In 2020, the rental market faced a new challenge; COVID-19. Due to a CDC health safety order instilling a nation-wide eviction moratorium, legal evictions across the country hit a historical low. However, illegal evictions continue.

Illegal evictions, also known as self-help evictions, are still a reality for many renters even during a global pandemic. Illegal evictions have immense consequences for the landlords that carry them out, which is why it is crucial to understand what constitutes an illegal eviction, how they work, and what the aftermath looks like.

What Is an Illegal Eviction?

According to the Eviction Crisis Act of 2019, “The term ‘‘illegal eviction’’ means self-help measures taken outside of the legal process for eviction to recover possession of residential property from a renter, including one residing in a public housing dwelling unit or receiving tenant-based assistance or project-based assistance under section 8 of the United States Housing Act of 1937.”

In other words, an illegal eviction is when a landlord uses force to evict their renter rather than following state eviction guidelines. As mentioned in the statement above, illegal evictions are also referred to as “self-help” evictions, which comes from the idea of a landlord taking evictions into their own hand with no legal oversight.

What Does an Illegal Eviction Look Like?

When a landlord takes it upon themselves to illegally evict a renter, the most common measures taken include changing the unit’s locks, removing the renter’s belongings without a court order, removing the front door of the unit, or turning off the unit’s heat and or electricity.

Illegal evictions are not limited to the physical actions a landlord might take; the exaggerating or falsifying of reasons (also known as “just cause”) for evicting a renter are also considered acts of an illegal eviction. This includes claiming a renter breached their lease even when they haven’t or changing the renter’s lease after the renter signed it.

While these forms of illegal eviction are much harder to prove, maintaining documentation of interactions, damages, repairs, and rent payments will help shine a light on any inconsistencies.

When Is it Illegal to Evict a Renter?

Legally, a landlord needs a reason, or “just cause”, to evict a renter. Some examples of this include falling behind on rent payments or breaking the lease in another manner (causing excessive damages, threatening other renters, etc.). Furthermore, a landlord must follow local and state laws that outline the process of legally evicting a renter. This may include giving a 30-day notice, pursuing an eviction filing, and taking legal actions in eviction court against the renter.

With this in mind, an illegal eviction is the opposite; it’s illegal to evict a renter when the landlord has no proof of a breach of contract or missed payments and has not followed eviction guidelines as laid out by the law. This also includes the exaggeration or falsification of facts in order to justify the eviction of a renter — another reason why both renters and landlords should keep all documentation proving rent payments, maintenance issues, and possible complaints or conflict between the renter and landlord or renter and other tenants.

What Are the Consequences of an Illegal Eviction?

Depending on the state where the rental unit is located, the amount by which a renter can sue their landlord after an illegal eviction may vary. Various costs, including damages to personal property, legal costs, and attorney fees, are factored into the amount a landlord will have to pay to their renter if the eviction in question is determined to be illegal. There are also laws in some states that give the renter the right to stay in the rental until the end of the lease if they so choose.

For example, in Alabama, a renter can sue for three months’ rent or actual damages, whichever is greater. If the renter ends the lease, the landlord will have to pay them their entire security deposit plus all unpaid rent. In California, the law states that renters can sue for the cost of damages plus $100 per day of violation, with a $250 dollar minimum.

Because the consequences of illegal evictions change depending on state and local laws, every landlord and renter should be aware of the rights that apply to them in the area where they live.

Because illegal evictions, and evictions in general, can be a difficult topic for both landlords and renters to understand, it’s always smart for both landlords and renters to have ample documentation of all rent payments, paid or unpaid fees, maintenance requests, and damages to the unit in case this documentation ever needs to be referenced during an eviction process.

It’s important to understand the unique state of evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, no eviction is legally allowed for those who are protected under the CDC’s nationwide eviction moratorium. The consequences of carrying out a legal or illegal eviction during the nationwide eviction moratorium are much more extreme in order to slow the spread of the virus.

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