The second biggest issue we get at Arizona Tenants Union, just behind landlord’s refusal to return a security deposit, is legally terminating your lease without taking a hit on your credit or suffering other consequences. Lease termination is a tricky procedure, both in terms of how to do it and also how to write about it. The main thing to know is that although the landlord/tenant act generally does not give tenants very many meaningful remedies for landlord noncompliance with a myriad of obligations, the one remedy it does give for many of these noncompliances is the right of lease termination.
This puts us in a dilemma. The problem with the remedy of lease termination is that it essentially lets the landlord off the hook. We want tenants to fight for their rights and force the landlords to do the right things, not terminate their leases and move. Plus it takes the place of more meaningful remedies that exist in other states, such as the right to withhold rent or to pay a reduced rent for reduced services. On the other hand, we are a small, struggling nonprofit organization, a flea on the elephant’s back. We are funded almost exclusively by membership dues, which are set at $60.00/year or $5.00/month to make us affordable to any tenant. But that does not go very far. We also receive some outside funding. But helping tenants with lease termination, which is one of the two things we do for which we ask for a donation (the other being security deposit litigation) is really what allows us to keep our doors open.
The main ground for lease termination provided for in the Arizona Residential Landlord and Tenant Act is found in A.R.S. § 33-1361(A). Under this section, lease termination is the remedy for a wide range of the landlord’s “material noncompliance” with the rental agreement or the law. But there are specific notice requirements and time provisions the tenant has to follow; this is not something a tenant should do without professional help. The material noncompliance can range from landlord’s failure to maintain the premises under A.R.S. § 33-1324 to the landlord’s use of a lease with illegal provisions under A.R.S. 33-1315(A) to a landlord’s failure to make certain disclosures of ownership and management entities pursuant to A.R.S. § 33-1322. Then there are specific provisions that allow for lease termination: landlord’s failure to deliver possession under A.R.S § 33-1362; fire or casualty damage under A.R.S. § 33-1366; unlawful ouster under A.R.S. 33-1367; domestic violence under A.R.S. § 33-1318; and lease termination by a law enforcement officer under A.R.S. § 33-1318.01.
Additionally, the landlord has an obligation to “mitigate” (minimize) damages under A.R.S. §§ 33-1305(A) and 33-1321(D). This means that even if you did terminate your lease without going through the proper procedures, the landlord must attempt to re-rent your apartment so as to minimize your damages for lost rent. Sometimes you can limit your damages pursuant to this section as well.
Finally, there are technicalities that often allow for lease termination. These include landlord’s failure to register the building with the County Assessor pursuant to A.R.S. § 33-1902(C). Also, sometimes the entity listed on the lease does not have the capacity to enter into a contract to lease those premises for a variety of reasons.
The thing about lease termination is that there are very specific notice requirements and time frames for each of these provisions. We do not suggest that tenants try this without professional help because it is so complicated. This is particularly true insofar as if you give the landlord a single basis to for lease termination, say, failure to register with the County Assessor. In this situation the landlord has ten days to cure. If he does, you’re out of luck. Similarly, if you make a single complaint about bed bugs and the landlord brings an exterminator within the five day notice period, he has a receipt to defend himself against your challenge if it ever comes to court. That’s why the only sure way for lease termination to stick is to simultaneously invoke all of the provisions of the landlord/tenant act that apply. Usually the landlord is substantially out of compliance with many provisions in the law. It is not being unreasonable or acting in bad faith to demand that the landlord come into compliance within the time frames set forth in the statutes. That is the obligation the landlord took on when he started renting out units. But very often the landlords are so far out of compliance, they cannot correct the multiple conditions you cite within the notice periods provided.
I developed the program for lease termination with another person some 20 years ago in Chicago, and it became the financial underpinning that allowed us to run a tenants’ rights organization. Unfortunately, the business model was so good that it took a life of its own, and the organization in Chicago lost its mission of using lease termination as a mechanism for funding tenants’ rights in general and started just breaking tenants out of their leases as a business. When I came to Arizona the same thing happened: I taught the lease termination program to the man who was then the premier tenant activist in the state, and he, too, lost sight of the goal and turned his organization into a for-profit, fee-for-services company that charges almost double what we ask for as a donation. The Arizona Tenants Union is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization that actually is dedicated to tenants rights, to creating a culture in which tenants stand up for their rights, no matter what the circumstances. If you need to terminate your lease, we can help you do so in such a way as you’ll have no ongoing obligation for rent and no hit on your credit. But if you want to stay and assert your rights and force the landlord to do the right thing, we’ll be beside you there as well. Join the Arizona Tenants Union today.