A couple years ago, a woman came in to speak with a housing counselor. She had slipped on the ice at her rental housing (it was one of those winters where the ice never really went away), and she kept getting progressively more injured throughout the winter, because of slipping and falling on the walks outside the house. Injury meant that she couldn't go to work, not going to work meant that she couldn't pay her rent. Pardon the pun, but the whole situation snowballed.
Winter weather can be a really big problem. And it's not always clear whose responsibility it is to clear those sidewalks, and plow those driveways.
Before you do anything else: Read the lease.
- If the tenant is responsible for shoveling the sidewalks and clearing the ice, this should be in the lease. It isn't always, though.
- If the tenant also leases the grounds (not just the interior of the rental unit), and has "exclusive possession" of the yard/sidewalk/exterior, then the tenant is probably responsible for the snow removal.
- If the tenant is responsible for mowing the lawn, and nothing is said in the lease about shoveling snow, then it's likely that the tenant is also responsible for shoveling snow and removing ice.
- If it's an apartment building, and there are common spaces, and the lease doesn't say anything about shoveling snow, then it's likely that the tenant is not responsible for shoveling snow or removing ice.
When things aren't working (for tenants): If tenants have looked at their lease, and it's clear that the landlord is responsible for clearing the snow, but it's not happening, what can those tenants do? We recommend following similar steps to getting repairs done.
- Write a letter. Write a polite letter asking the landlord to shovel the sidewalks. If you write a letter saying that the sidewalks/parking lot/driveway are slippery and dangerous, then later on, if you get hurt, then you'll be able to show that the landlord neglected their duties (and it wasn't that they didn't know about them). Tips on writing letters are here and here.
- Write another letter. If it isn't an emergency, try writing again. This makes it clear that you're really trying to resolve things directly with the landlord or manager, and that this is a big deal to you, even though you're polite about it.
- Call in the authorities. Depending on where you live, that might be a building inspector, or the streets division of your local municipality. Here in the City of Madison, there's a complaint form online. The building inspector can issue requests improved safety on private sidewalks (like those inside the property line, like from building to building in an apartment complex), but the city you live in most likely has ordinances for what is required on those public sidewalks and has complaints to deal with those concerns. Here is our statewide list of building inspectors. Search for your own municipality complaint systems, though a few of them are listed here.
- Sue for damages. If you get hurt because the landlord didn't comply with your request to clear the sidewalks/driveway/parking lot, then you can sue them for the costs of your treatment, or possibly your lost wages (IF they were supposed to be responsible for removing the snow/ice). This is a tough argument to win unless you can prove that you really did ask them, and it was really their job, so make sure to have a paper trail. Small Claims Court Tips are here.
Note for tenants: It's always a good idea to protect yourself, if possible. Short term disability insurance and renters insurance are easily purchased, and worth the cost if you end up needing it.
When things aren't working (for landlords): When the tenant isn't clearing the walk and they are supposed to be clearing it, then you have choices, too.
- Write a letter. It's always a good idea to start by putting things in writing. Explain why you believe that clearing the snow is the tenant's responsibility (it says so in the lease, right? Because you're sharp that way?). Tips on writing letters are here and here. Making sure that you have a paper trail helps you hold them responsible if someone gets hurt due to an un-shoveled sidewalk, and will make a judge look more kindly at actions that you might need to take, down the road.
- Try to work it out. This is a situation where it's a good idea to work it out, just because there is the possibility of lots of innocent folks getting hurt if the sidewalks and driveways aren't cleared. You could offer to set them up with a service where the tenant would pay for snow removal, or refer to a neighborhood teen interested in helping out. You might ask if the tenants have shovels that they are able to use, because if they lack the equipment, then it makes sense that they wouldn't be able to take the needed action. Get agreements in writing, if possible.
- Give an eviction notice. If there is a clause in the lease that makes the tenants responsible for clearing the snow and ice, then you can issue an eviction notice for not complying with the lease. You can give a 5-day notice with a right to cure for "term" leases (where there's a start and end date), and you can give a 14-day notice for month-to-month and periodic tenancies. You always have the option to make an eviction notice MORE lenient (ie, you can give a 14-day notice with a right to cure, instead of a no-cure notice), but you can't make it shorter or less lenient. Info on evictions is here, and the law on those notices is here. You can't give an eviction notice for this unless your lease supports it (so, if you don't have anything in the lease saying that this is the tenant's responsibility, you're on slippery ground. Pun intended.)
Fines from the City: If the landlord gets a fine from the local government, saying that the sidewalks weren't clear and they were supposed to be, it can be troublesome to figure out who should pay. Generally, the landlord is required to pay it where the landlord is responsible for clearing the sidewalks.
Where the tenant is responsible for clearing the sidewalks, though, the fines don't necessarily go to them. The lease has to further say that the tenant will be responsible for any fines occurring from non-compliance with local ordinances, and if the landlord wishes to take those fines out of the security deposit, down the road, it must ALSO be stated in the NONSTANDARD RENTAL PROVISIONS. (No, I'm not shouting. NONSTANDARD RENTAL PROVISION explanation here.)
Disabilities: It might be possible that a tenant with a disability would ask for a "reasonable accommodation" for a disability, which would exempt them from any responsibility to shovel a sidewalk. I wrote about it in my post a while back, "Renting with Disabilities" (see #2, Reasonable Accommodations). Upshot: if you have a disability, you can request that the landlord release you from a clause in the lease where you are not able to comply. However, the landlord can opt to charge you for the cost of that, depending on the exact situation.
Also, many municipalities offer places to call, to support those who are unable to shovel their sidewalks - so, if you need help, you should check with your city to see if there are resources on that front.
* Hi! Did you know that we are not attorneys here at the TRC? And this isn't legal advice, either. If what we've written here doesn't sound right to you, talk about it with someone you trust. For help finding an attorney, check out our attorney referral list.