Jackson Hole’s housing scarcity can make landlord-tenant relationships trickier to navigate, and with the average cost of lawyers in Teton County ranging from $350 to $600 an hour, hiring one might not be an option.
But Jackson has some free legal resources for tenants and landlords. Those legal experts have tips for how tenants can protect themselves in Wyoming, which offers limited legal recourse for renters. Experts also see common patterns locally that can lead to disputes.
A victim advocate and housing ombudsman for the town of Jackson, Angie Uhl said she gets one to two calls a day regarding landlord-tenant issues.
“A common issue I see is landlords giving tenants their notice to vacate and tenants wondering what their rights are,” Uhl said. “In town there is a municipal code in place that states landlords and tenants both must give a 30-day notice.”
Unless the lease states otherwise or folks are living outside town limits, Uhl said, a month’s notice is required at a minimum.
For those living outside town limits, the landlord does not legally have to give 30 days’ notice. The term should still be stated in the lease, however.
David Baker, also a housing ombudsman, said a common problem he sees is a lack of leases.
“Based on calls that I’ve received, a big issue is the simple fact that handshake agreements are being made for rentals instead of written leases,” Baker said. “Then when a handshake agreement goes south, parties are scrambling for some sort of recourse. A handshake agreement won’t hold water in a court of law. The biggest message from my limited perspective is to get it in writing, get it in writing, get it in writing. That protects both sides of the agreement.”
And make sure both parties sign it.
“We’ve had instances where the landlord has signed it, and the tenant didn’t sign it or vice versa,” Baker said. “It’s quite eye opening the number of calls we get with folks in that situation.”
Uhl added: “If people have questions regarding their rights, our first question is ‘Do you have a lease?’”
A growing frustration in the past year has been landlords upping the rent. Tenants want to know if there’s anything preventing a steep increase, Uhl said. When it’s time to renew a lease, Uhl said, legally landlords can raise the rent as much as they like, unless there’s something in the lease stating otherwise.
For those looking for help navigating the legal landscape, the housing ombudsman program is the “middle man,” Uhl said.
“We’re a place for people to come, ask questions, and we’ll direct them to resources,” Uhl said.
“We do it all,” Baker said. “We don’t do windows, though.”
One of these resources the ombudsman commonly sends people to is the state-funded Teton County Access to Justice Center.
Local attorney Jeremy Macik hosts free legal clinics every week on Wednesday evenings. He’s become somewhat of an expert on the issues area residents are facing when it comes to housing.
“It’s mostly renewing leases and increases in rent,” Macik said.
Before signing a lease, Executive Director of the Access to Justice Center Tricia Kalish and Macik encourage people bring it in for help reviewing the legal contract.
“We do not give advice; we’re not forming an attorney-client relationship,” Kalish said. “We provide legal education. You can come in with your lease and say, ‘What does this clause mean’? ‘How do I respond to this?’”
Leases are “pure contracts,” Macik reiterated. “Landlords set the terms. A lot of times the landlord is legally in the right but they’re nitpicky.”
Another issue landlords bring up tends to snowball.
“We’ve had snowplowing issues,” Macik explained. “A lot of landlords say, ‘You have to mow grass, plow the driveway,’ and then if the tenant doesn’t do that, that is the reason the landlord then terminates the lease.”
“Especially when there’s so many people out there willing to pay more,” Kalish said.
The motive behind this is usually because “the landlord is pushing them out because they’re selling,” Macik said. However, because those terms are in the contract the tenant signed, “the tenant doesn’t have a lot to work with.”
Macik suggests renters look closely at a lease to see what, if anything, it says about vacating upon a sale of a property.
“People sell a house and then want to end the tenant’s lease,” Macik said. “There’s usually a term in the lease agreement that if I sell, you have X amount of time to vacate.”
Is there a cap to how much landlords can increase your rent? In a word, no. Other states employ yearly caps in the percentage rent can legally be increased, but Wyoming has not, in favor of strong property rights.
“There’s no limit to what they can charge,” Macik confirmed. “But landlords can only increase when the term of the lease expires.”
“In Wyoming it is the Wild West,” Kalish said.
What can tenants do when they spot mold, or their stove breaks, or their roof starts leaking?
“Generally speaking, if there’s an issue with the tenant’s ability to be in the house, the roof is leaking, there’s mold, something that makes it untenable, the tenant needs to give the landlord notice so they can fix it,” Macik said. “If they don’t fix it, you can just cancel the lease and move out.”
Water, heating, plumbing and electricity are also essential amenities the landlord should cover. Most leases, Macik said, include a “time to cure” clause, which outlines how long the landlord has to fix a problem.
“Usually the landlord has like 15 days to fix what’s going on,” Macik said. “It has to be something serious, like the roof is leaking or the heat is not working.”
Another key tip Macik has is to schedule an inspection with the landlord to protect a security deposit.
“My recommendation when you rent an apartment is to go around with the landlord and take photos,” Macik said. “This is how it looked when I got here. I took photos, and I emailed those photos to the landlord. “These are all the pictures, correct? ‘Yes they are.’”
Two inspections should always be completed: the initial inspection and the move-out inspection.
“There’s a statute that says if the landlord is going to take damage off of your deposit, they have to itemize that for you,” Macik said.
If you are evicted, the landlord has to hold your property in the house for 15 days, Macik said.
“After 15 days, they can dispose of it,” he said.
Challenging lease terms or demanding inspections is good in theory, if it weren’t such a competitive housing market where the landlord could just find a “less difficult” tenant. There’s also another aspect that discourages tenants from challenging their landlords.
“A lot of lease agreements have a clause that if whoever sues, the other person pays attorney’s fees,” Macik said. “Essentially, ‘If I have to sue you to evict you, you have to pay the attorney fees.’ This dissuades you from challenging an eviction.”
But wait, there’s more.
“If you challenge an eviction and you lose and you get evicted, then if you apply for another place you have an eviction on your record and you can’t get the place,” Macik said. “Nobody is going to rent to you.”
A landlord will give tenants a “notice to quit” giving them three days to vacate the property. After that the landlord can formally file for an eviction with Circuit Court. Judge James Radda will then schedule an eviction hearing, usually within two weeks.
“After the hearing, if you lost, the judge decides how much time you’re given to move,” Macik said. “After the judge has determined that your time to leave has expired, that’s the only time the sheriff can show up and kick you out. You’re a trespasser at that point.”
Only with a court-ordered eviction in hand can the sheriff forcibly remove you, Macik said.
Teton County Circuit Court was unable to provide eviction data, citing a lack of reports by case type.
“We do not have reports we can generate by case type,” Chief Clerk Erin Munk said in an email. “The Wyoming Supreme Court advises us not to try and create reports of any kind to give to the public, media or any other agency.”
Judge Radda said he doesn’t see many evictions in Teton County.
“If we see one to two evictions a month, that’s a lot,” Radda said. “I typically see 10 to 12 evictions a year.”