Landlord Tenant Q&A with RICHARD VIERRA
Q. I am a tenant who just moved into an apartment, sight unseen. I paid my deposit and signed a 6 month lease, but the day I moved in, I discovered dozens of adult and baby roaches in the kitchen and bathroom cabinets and drawers.
I tried spraying with roach spray on the first day to no avail. I then called my landlord for help and he tried roach spray as well with no success. The first two nights, I’ve had roaches fall on me while I’m sleeping and I have seen what are now hundreds of roaches scatter when I turn on the lights. It’s been three days now, there is no end in sight, and I want to terminate my lease, but my landlord won’t let me. What can I do?
A. First, it is important to know that roaches are typically found in warm, tropical or humid environments, and often nest in dark moist areas of a house, such as drawers, cabinets, up under the counter-tops, or in corners and cracks near water pipes. A severe problem like the one described, especially within the first day of occupancy, would suggest that the unit may have had a problem prior to your moving in, and certainly suffers from what could be described in the Revised Ordinances of Honolulu (ROH)
Housing Code Section 27-9.1 (b) (11) as “Inadequate sanitation due to an infestation of insects, vermin or rodents…”
The key, however, is that the level of infestation must be determined by a health officer of the State of Hawaii. And while the Hawaii Revised Statutes (HRS) Chapter 521-42 (a) (1), (2) and (3) do not specifically address pest infestation, they do state that the “Landlord is required to supply at all times during tenancy…a unit in a clean and safe condition and the premises in a habitable condition…; and must comply with all building and housing laws materially effecting health and safety…” Further, HRS Chapter 521-62 clearly states that if the “Landlord is in material non-compliance with Chapter 521-42 (a), the tenant may, on notice to the landlord, terminate the rental agreement and vacate the dwelling unit at anytime during the first week of occupancy.” Chapter 521-63 (a) cites that “If any condition within the premises deprives the tenant of a substantial part of the benefit and enjoyment of the tenant’s bargain under the rental agreement, the tenant may notify the landlord in writing of the situation and, if the landlord does not remedy the situation within one week, terminate the rental agreement. The notice need not be given when the condition renders the dwelling unit uninhabitable or poses an imminent threat to the health and safety of any occupant.” Chapter 521-62 also cites that even if the landlord is notified and promises to make the repairs upon which the tenant relies and continues occupancy past the first week, the tenant retains the right to terminate the lease beyond the first week of occupancy.
Ultimately, the law is reasonably clear on the topic of pest infestation but it starts with a decision by a health officer of the State of Hawaii making an impartial judgment on whether a habitability issue exists. Often, habitability is a subjective term which makes the declaration by a health officer essential to a situation regarding pest infestation. And while it may appear obvious, as a tenant, it is always safe to take the extra steps outlined in the law in order to support one’s case. If the infestation is documented and exists, and the landlord is properly notified, the tenant has the right to vacate within the first week of occupancy or beyond, in the event the landlord fails to address or reasonably correct the problem.