NEW HANOVER COUNTY—In April, Holly Skipps signed a two-year lease on a three-bedroom home in Murrayville.
She set up home on Clewis Avenue with her three daughters and one granddaughter. Two weeks into her lease, Skipps said her toilet wouldn’t flush.
“We were literally cycling the kids out to Circle K or Walmart to use the restroom,” Skipps said. “It was just a nightmare.”
When sewage began leaking into the yard, she said her landlord, Paul Taber, asked her to start removing wastewater out of the septic herself, using a pumping system.
In May, Skipps began renting a port-a-potty for $108 a month. Her water is discolored and “smells like poop,” she said. She has been using plastic cutlery and bottled water to avoid what she believes is contaminated water.
“You can’t brush your teeth with it, you’ll gag,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to live like this.”
According to text messages obtained by Port City Daily, Taber attempted to begin the eviction process on June 8. He offered to return Skipps her $1,700 deposit and May rent of $890 if she would move out by June 15. Skipps declined the offer and consulted an attorney.
“There’s just no way that we can move a family in seven days,” Skipps said.
Aside from the septic system and leaking raw sewage, Skipps said the home has other potential issues as well. For example, she said the yard has rusty cans, metal and shards of glass. According to Skipps, the refrigerator is broken, the walls are warping, the home reeks of mold and is prone to blown fuses.
“We moved here under the pretense that it was a safe place to live,” she said.
What state law says
Where do a landlord’s rights end and a tenant’s rights begin?
In New Hanover County, somewhere in the middle. The duties of both landlords and tenants are outlined under state law and in lease agreements. In addition, both parties must also follow state housing and health codes, enforceable by the county.
A landlord-tenant issue may arise at the intersection of several areas, including public health. When a dispute arises, it can be handled privately by both parties, by the county or end up in the court system.
Landlord and tenant duties are found under North Carolina General Statute §42-42.
Generally, state law requires landlords to keep premises “in a fit and habitable condition.” When a tenant has an “imminently dangerous condition,” the landlord must make repairs in a “reasonable period of time, based upon the severity of the condition.” The statute defines an “imminently dangerous condition” to include things such as:
- Unsafe wiring
- Unsafe ceilings or roofs
- Unsafe chimneys or flues
- Lack of a functioning toilet
- Lack of a functioning bathtub or shower
- Excessive standing water, sewage, or flooding problems caused by plumbing leaks or inadequate drainage that contribute to mosquito infestation or mold
In cases of “imminently dangerous conditions,” regardless of whether the landlord or tenant — or both — is at fault, state law requires the landlord to repair the condition. If the condition is the tenant’s fault, however, state law permits the landlord to recover “the actual and reasonable cost of repairs.”
State Representative and attorney Deb Butler said in civil cases involving landlord and tenant disputes, judges will rely heavily on the language of the lease agreement in place.
She said, if warranted, attorneys may refer to common law practices from a higher court that may serve their client, given the particular case. Still, Butler said among state landlord-tenant laws, health laws, building laws and lease agreements, judges have a large statutory framework to aide in their rulings.
What’s a tenant to do?
When an imminently dangerous condition arises, law enforcement has a limited role.
“We’re law enforcement officers, we’re not judges,” Corporal Linda Taylor said. “If a landlord cuts a tenant’s water or electric off, they have to take that landlord to small claims court and the judge has to make that decision.”
Taylor has delivered eviction notices to tenants, but only after being ordered to do so by a judge.
“A lot of people think as law enforcement we can be the judge or jury out there on the street and we just can’t do it,” Taylor said.
When a tenant, landlord or neighbor chooses to call 911, New Hanover County Sheriff’s Department will respond to de-escalate, but officers can’t enforce or interpret state law governing landlord-tenant relations.
“Of course, we get out with landlord and tenant disputes, but we go out there because it’s been escalated,” Lieutenant Jerry Brewer said. “We do tell them it’s a civil matter.”
Brewer said he could not think of a circumstance in which a landlord-tenant dispute would be considered criminal. “Up north, it’s illegal for the power company to turn off the power even if they haven’t paid,” Brewer said. “It’s not really the case down here.”
During a dispute on the Clewis Avenue property, Skipps and Taber were visited by a Sheriff’s deputy. According to a recording of the visit, deputies told Skipps her complaints would be handled by the county health department or in small claims court.
Skipps said she is choosing to withhold rent payments to Taber on the advice of her attorney. If she went to court, she would seek $9,999.99 in damages from Taber, the maximum amount allowed in small claims court.
“We just want is right to fairly get us out of here,” Skipps said. “We signed a two-year lease; we planned on staying here a long time.”
Still, state law says tenants may not withhold rent before receiving a judicial ruling.
Even though she hasn’t gone to court yet, Skipps has received some attention from local government.
On June 4, New Hanover County’s public health department inspected Taber’s wastewater system after receiving a complaint from Skipps.
“We are authorized to enforce state regulations relative to public health,” said Dianne Harvey, the county’s environmental health services manager.
During the inspection, Harvell said a county official discovered a pipe that was being used to pump wastewater away from the malfunctioning septic system – the same pipe Skipps said she was instructed to use. The pipe was discharging raw sewage away from the septic into the yard and underneath the house, according to Harvell.
“We told them that had to be removed immediately,” Harvell said.
Taber received a notice of violation for the septic system via certified mail on June 5. In addition to the notice of violation, Harvell said the Health Department has engaged in direct conversation with Taber about the failing septic. He has until July 5 to bring the system into compliance with North Carolina General Statute §130A, which requires landlords to discharge wastewater directly to an approved wastewater system permitted for that use.
When asked about Skipps’ complaints, Taber said his tenant is aware the situation is being addressed.
“Ms. Skipp is aware that a Soils Engineer is looking into the situation,” Taber wrote in a text message. “As soon as he finishes his report he will let the Environmental Health Department, Ms. Skipp(s), and myself (know) how to proceed.”
Going to court
Even if a tenant has the financial means to hire legal counsel, the end result may not be worth the trouble, though.
A 2007 N.C. Department of Justice packet on tenant’s rights and landlord duties says that, for a tenant, the cost of pursuing legal remedies may outweigh the cost of any damages incurred.
“Suits against landlords usually involve only a few hundred dollars, and the attorney’s fee for representation in court may be equal to or greater than the amount of money a tenant is trying to recover from the landlord,” the packet states.
As for Skipps, she plans to continue renting the port-a-potty until the landlord fixes the septic system or, if it comes to it, a court rules in her favor.
“I just feel disgusting,” she said.
Author’s note: An attorney familiar with landlord-tenant civil disputes was consulted for this article.
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