While much attention has been paid to the losses of homeowners and business owners after Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the U.S. Virgin Islands (and rightfully so), there are thousands of renters who have suffered considerable losses, as well. There are many ways for property owners to seek various forms of financial assistance, but what rights do tenants have after a natural disaster?
Analyze the lease
To start, renters should be familiar with the terms outlined in their leases, as this is the primary governing document for the relationship between any tenant and landlord. There is no legal obligation for a landlord to help tenants recover from natural disasters, but there can be incentives for them to do so. The lease could include language that specifies what would happen in a post-disaster situation.
Insurance companies often require landlords to ensure that their properties have a certain level of storm protection. The steps landlords take to protect their properties, in turn, can protect their tenants. But if the property becomes uninhabitable due to storm damage, the lease agreement does not end. For the lease to be formally terminated, one of the parties must act to bring it to an end.
Therefore, if your building is uninhabitable after a disaster, the landlord must still provide official notice before terminating the lease agreement.
Steps you can take
You have the right to seek a reduction in rent that is proportional to the amount of damage in your unit. If your property is completely unlivable, you can move out. But in either situation, you must send an official certified letter to your landlord informing them of your actions. This is the only way you can protect yourself from any retaliation for non-payment of rent.
If you had renter’s insurance, get in touch with your insurance company as soon as possible. If your loss is covered under your insurance policy, you may request advance payments to cover your losses, at least in part. If you do not have renter’s insurance, find out if your landlord had insurance that might cover your unit and belongings.
If no insurance policy exists that would cover your losses, you might be able to get relief from The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under the Individual and Household Program (IHP). This enables you to replace necessary personal items such as clothing, furnishings, appliances and other household items.
If your property is considered irreparable, your landlord could have the right to terminate your lease. To do so, the landlord must file an eviction action in court and have a judge enter a final eviction judgment. Finally, you are entitled to getting back all or part of your security deposit in accordance with your lease agreement.
For more information on your rights as a tenant while recovering from a hurricane or another natural disaster, meet with a skilled real attorney in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
J. Nash Davis is an associate in the Real Estate and Financial Services and the Corporate, Tax & Estate Planning Practice Groups of BoltNagi PC, a full service business law firm on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.