Q. Is a landlord required to make sure that a rented apartment is livable?
A. Nowadays, the law generally holds the landlord to an "implied warranty of habitability." In other words, by the very fact of offering a property for rent he is assuring the tenant that the apartment meets generally accepted standards for dwelling.
Jewish law has imposed a similar requirement, at least since the time of the Mishna, about 2000 years ago. The Mishna states: "The landlord is obligated to provide a door, a bolt, and a lock, and anything else which requires skilled labor." The Talmud adds that this includes providing windows for air and light, strengthening the roof when this is necessary, and so on. The Mishna also states that routine maintenance, which can be done by an unskilled workman, is the responsibility of the tenant. (1)
Maimonides generalizes this ruling in a broad statement: the landlord is obligated to provide everything that is a "fundamental requirement in habitation of dwellings." (2) And the 19th century authority Rabbi Yechiel Michal Epstein points out that this standard is dependent on what is accepted in a particular time and place for ordinary dwellings. "In each place according to its custom, the landlord is required to install and repair fixed items."
Rabbi Epstein emphasizes that this obligation is absolute: "Even if the tenant came to see the house before renting and saw that these items were lacking, we don't assume that he accepts what he sees. Rather, the assumption is that he doesn't even need to mention it, and relies on the fact that the landlord will install and repair everything that is needed and everything that the majority of householders and properties are accustomed to."
Since these basic necessities are the obligation of the landlord to the tenant, if the landlord fails to provide them the tenant will generally be able to repair them at the landlord's expense. For example, he can deduct the costs from the monthly rent. (4) But this course should only be a last resort, after the landlord has been giving proper notification of the problem, a reasonable opportunity to take care of it and a warning that the tenant intends to take care of it by himself.
Naturally, the application of this rule will depend on the situation. If the radiator isn't working and it's summertime, there is no justification for the tenant to take responsibility for the work without giving ample time for the landlord to consider the most economical solution. On the other hand if a pipe bursts in the middle of the night and begins to cause massive damage to the apartment and to the neighbors, the tenant shouldn't hesitate to call straight for a plumber to take care of the emergency.
As we have already pointed out, the Mishna does not neglect the obligations of the tenant. Many kinds of routine, unskilled maintenance tasks are the responsibility of the tenant, and those who dwell in rental housing need to take this responsibility seriously. The property should be kept clean and well tended.
The ethical approach to business relations is the balanced one. While the exact extent and breakdown of responsibility will vary according to time and place, the unvarying principle is implied in the Mishna: landlord and tenant each have obligations to take appropriate care of any problems and to make the rental arrangement successful and mutually beneficial.
(1) BM 101b (2) Rambam Sechirut 6:3. (3) Arukh HaShulchan CM 314 (4) SA CM 375.
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