The Arizona Residential Landlord and Tenant Act derives a series of what are called “uniform laws” that are proposed by a national group of judges, lawyers and law professors called the Uniform Law Commissioners. These “uniform laws” are not actually laws that are in effect, but models drafted by experts which the states can use as a basis to craft their own laws. Uniform laws range from the Uniform Alcoholism and Intoxication Treatment Act to the Uniform Child Custody and Jurisdiction Act to the Uniform the Uniform Foreign Money Judgments Recognition Act.
One of the most widely used uniform law, in one form or another, is the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, which has been adopted by about 40 states. But although the way these states structure their laws resemble each other, when you look closely you can see that there are significant differences in the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants from state to state.
Arizona is one of the states that has adopted a form of the uniform landlord/tenant act which, in its entirety, is referred to as the Arizona Residential Landlord and Tenant Act. As with the other states that have adopted it, it follows the outline which the Uniform Law Commissioners structured. But beneath the surface, it is one of the weakest landlord/tenant acts I’ve seen.
I first started practicing tenants’ rights in New York City, which is a jurisdiction that does not use the uniform landlord/tenant law at all: it has rent control laws and tenants are very much favored under its system. But then I moved to Chicago, where the Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance, based on the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, had just been enacted. Under Chicago’s version of the “Tenants Bill of Rights,” tenants had a wide variety of remedies at their disposal to deal with landlord misconduct, including the right to withhold rent in certain circumstances, the right to use their rent money to pay for repairs, the right to pay a reduced rent for reduced services, and other remedies that used the bargaining power afforded by giving tenants some control over the rent. It also gave tenants the remedy of terminating their lease in response to a wide variety of landlord noncompliances. Ironically, I was appalled when I first saw the Chicago ordinance, having just come from one of the most tenant-friendly city in the country. I couldn’t believe that if a tenant withheld his rent under the law and a judge ruled against him, he would be evicted, not just ordered to pay the rent.
The other main remedy the Chicago landlord/tenant ordinance gave tenants was the right to terminate their leases in response to a variety of landlord noncompliances. I also had problems with this remedy: it essentially let the landlords off the hook, and in doing so, it discouraged tenants from taking collective action which is what fundamentally gives them strength in their relationships with landlords.
But as I started building the first tenants rights organization in Chicago (the ordinance having just passed) when I moved there, and as I scrambled to find ways to fund the organization, I discovered that terminating their leases was the main thing tenants wanted to do. The culture of organizing rent strikes was unique to New York, and even in an industrial metropolitan city like Chicago, with its long history of union activism, there simply was not a parallel history (or recent history) of community or tenant organizing. And so I swallowed hard and designed a sophisticated program which, using multiple provisions of the Tenants Bill of Rights to overwhelm the landlord with demands so that he could not comply within the statutory time period (usually ten days), allowed the tenant to legally terminate his lease when the landlord failed to comply.
Then I moved to Arizona. Boy, did that sure change my perspective of the Chicago ordinance. Arizona, too, used a version of the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act. But in Arizona, virtually every provision in the Chicago ordinance and the uniform act which gave tenants any bargaining power whatsoever by virtue of having some control over the rent money was stripped from the law. If I was shocked by how few rights tenants had in Chicago, even with the newly enacted Tenants Bill of Rights in place, and how weak the culture of tenant organizing was there, I was virtually stunned when I saw the landlord/tenant landscape in Arizona. Pretty much the only remedy the Arizona landlord/tenant act afforded tenants here was the right to terminate their lease. There was absolutely no history of tenant or union or any other kind of community organizing here. And there were no operating tenants rights organizations to help tenants effectuate what limited rights they had.
But I had the break lease program I had developed in Chicago. I actually believe I was the only person in the country who had thought of and actually implemented the idea of designing a business program around breaking tenants out of leases. And although the Arizona legislature had chopped most of the provisions in the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act out of its landlord/tenant act, it retained the same provisions that allowed a tenant to terminate his lease as the Chicago ordinance. So it was just a matter of adjusting some of the time frames and other technicalities to make the program work here. And in the late 1990s I started legally breaking tenants out of leases in Arizona. This practice has developed into the sophisticated program we use at Arizona Tenants Union to help tenants legally terminate their leases today.
So how do we do this? Well, the Arizona landlord/tenant law has at least 11 separate provisions that allow a tenant to terminate his lease. Some provisions are substantive: horrible living conditions, lack of essential services, vermin infestation, inoperable facilities, and so on. Other provisions are technical. The State of Arizona requires a landlord to register his building with the County Assessor in the county where he is located, and upon notice requirements that vary from city to city, tenants can legally terminate their leases on this basis. Additionally, every standard preprinted lease form contains numerous illegal provisions: landlords know that tenants look to the lease as their authority for what their rights are, and so the landlords routinely include illegal provisions in their leases. But then we’re able to use these illegal provisions as another basis for which we are able to break tenants out of their leases. We also are sometimes able to break a tenant out of a lease because there are technicalities relating to the ownership entity and the named party on the lease. And sometimes we can mitigate a tenants’ damages who already illegally broke his lease by demonstrating that the landlord is not making a good faith effort to rerent the unit. Ironically, the very program that I had such a hard time justifying in Chicago and which appalled me in relation to the rights tenants had in New York, has become the bedrock of a burgeoning tenants movement in Arizona.
Breaking tenants out of leases is not the way to effectuate a meaningful change in the landlord/tenant landscape in Arizona. I stand by my original position that it lets landlords off the hook. And so there is a certain contradiction between what we do at Arizona Tenants Union in helping tenants legally terminate their leases and what we do when we organize tenant associations in buildings. But there are tenants who need to move from their apartments for a variety of reasons, and for whom organizing a tenant association in their building is simply not an option. We are a tenants union and we represent our members. So if you are a tenant and living in substandard conditions, or if you need to legally terminate your lease because of personal issues in your life, contact Arizona Tenants Union and we will go with you, door to door, to help form a tenant association in your building, or we will help you legally terminate your lease, as your situation warrants.