A security camera dangles from a wire off the roof of an apartment building.
A broken security camera hung from the wires at Winchester Grove apartments in Whitehaven last year. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Landlords fail to fix major issues all the time. 

In her Raleigh home, April Chambers was forced to brave a recent winter without heat. Joy King, renting from Rayna Mike in North Memphis, slogged through a summer without air conditioning. 

If your landlord or property manager is treating you like this, you may feel helpless. It’s hard to know what to do, especially if you can’t find anywhere else to live.

So, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism reached out to local experts and advocates, asking what steps tenants should take. Below are six pieces of their best advice.

Unfortunately, none of these tips can fully overcome a legal system that favors landlords, experts said.

If the Tennessee General Assembly allowed for a rental registry, local judges were more helpful or there were more local lawyers helping tenants for free, maybe things would be different. 

For now, though, tenants must work within the status quo as best they can. Hopefully, these tips help you do that. 

Pro tip #1: Decide your goals

After being forced to live with mold or extreme heat, you may want to fight back.

Anyone who’s been wronged wants justice.

Experts and advocates wish it were that easy. Instead, because of the way Tennessee’s legal system is structured and implemented, there’s a large power imbalance between landlords and renters. If a landlord decides to evict you, they can usually find a way to do it, even if you have always been a good tenant. And, given the current shortage of housing in Memphis, eviction can lead to homelessness.

Jamie Johnson, founder of the Memphis Public Interest Law Center and The Greater Memphis Housing Justice Project, said tenants should determine their ideal outcome, worst-case scenario and what they can live with. 

“Let’s not bow up (for a fight) if you definitely don’t have a place to go, because you could end up with no place to go,” Johnson said.

Each case is different, she said. Some tenants want to stay in the apartment at all costs, some want their landlord to reduce their rent to make up for the lack of maintenance and others just want the leak fixed or the air conditioner repaired. 

All of these goals are reasonable and can be achieved, she said. But getting what you want requires different approaches. 

Pro tip #2: Document

Whatever the ultimate goal, the experts and advocates recommended that you keep your receipts — figuratively and literally.

When the problem starts, you should immediately photograph it, said Cindy Ettingoff, CEO of Memphis Area Legal Services. And you should send those photos to your landlord or property manager. If the problem keeps getting worse, she said renters should take new photos daily or every other day. 

“You are building a history,” Ettingoff said. “You’re basically building your case. You’re gathering proof.”

If you have to pay for a repair person, you should keep any receipts they provide, Johnson said. And if you have to purchase something because of the issue — such as a space heater because the heat isn’t working — you should do the same. This will increase the odds that your landlord will reimburse you for your out-of-pocket expenses. 

You should also take notes about every conversation with your landlord or property manager, Johnson said. And if you text or email them, you should save those too. 

A cellphone screen detailing a tenant's balance is held in a Black woman's hand.
Susie Mitchell shows part of the running ledger in 2021 of what she owed her apartment’s property management company.  Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Pro tip #3: Pay your rent

One of the worst things you can do is to withhold rent.

Renters commonly try this when their landlord isn’t fixing something. But it almost always backfires, according to Johnson. This is because it encourages landlords to evict and makes it easier for them to do so.

With legal help, you may be able to negotiate a reduced rent because of a maintenance issue. But, the experts said you shouldn’t attempt this without a lawyer’s help, even if you think you’re good at making deals.

“Always pay your rent, because you will get evicted,” Johnson said. “In Tennessee, if you don’t pay your rent, (the judge) will not listen to any bad thing that your landlord did.”

Pro tip #4: Be strategic

Tenants frequently yell at their landlord or property manager and sometimes threaten lawsuits. While that anger is often justified, it rarely helps them achieve their goals.

“Trying to be (civil) is more strategic and more effective than ‘You owe me this,’” Johnson said.

Even if you plan to sue your landlord, threatening to do so is almost always a bad idea. 

You should balance your insistence for better treatment with appearing reasonable to your landlord, Ettingoff said. Generally, it’s a bad idea to yell or curse at a property manager. And while making repeated phone calls might get the landlord to make repairs sooner, it also might backfire. Some landlords would prefer to file eviction than deal with tenants who annoy them with persistent repair requests.   

“You can only exercise power when you have it,” Ettingoff said. “If you don’t have it and you aren’t willing to (lose your home) … then you better think it through.”

Sometimes, it’s smart to report health or safety issues — such as large amounts of mold, pest infestations or broken air conditioning systems — to City of Memphis code enforcement. You can do this by calling 311, downloading the Memphis 311 mobile phone app or using the 311 website

Sharon Hyde, who leads the nonprofit Green & Healthy Homes Initiative’s efforts in Shelby County, generally recommends reporting issues that could affect your health to code enforcement. This is because code complaints are often the most effective way of forcing landlords to maintain the property. Code enforcement officers and the local judge they report findings to can often pressure your landlord to repair your air conditioner or address your pest infestation. But, Hyde warned, this is another way tenants sometimes anger their landlords or property managers.

Chase Madkins, a tenants’ rights organizer with the Center for Transforming Communities and the All City Tenant Initiative, said his mom recently submitted a complaint to code enforcement. Her landlord quickly evicted her, which was easy since she didn’t have a current lease.

“Nothing was going to stop the property owner from finding a way to evict her,” he said. “Because she went to code, she had to leave sooner than she was prepared to do.”

He said he still usually encourages people to submit code complaints but always warns them of this potential outcome. 

Pro tip #5: Seek help 

The experts all encouraged tenants to seek professional help.

For major health and safety issues — such as sewage entering the home — Ettingoff said tenants should seek legal advice as soon as possible. 

You can call Memphis Area Legal Services at (901) 523-8822 or attend its free legal clinics. These are held at the Benjamin J. Hooks Central Library from 10 a.m. until noon, on the second Saturday and fourth Thursday of each month. Or, you can call the Memphis Public Interest Law Center at (833) 773-6837 or complete its contact form.

The Community Legal Center, which largely helps people who aren’t living in poverty but still can’t afford a lawyer, can be reached by calling (901) 543-3395 and leaving a voicemail.  

The Green & Healthy Homes Initiative can help you deal with code enforcement or your landlord, and it can pay for some repairs. Hyde encouraged tenants to sign up for a free home inspection — by calling (901) 287-4984 or emailing memphis@ghhi.org. This way, she and her team can see health or safety issues themselves and then help fix them.

Madkins also offered his services as an advocate for tenants’ rights. He said renters can email him at chasemadkins@gmail.com. He’s not a lawyer, but he has plenty of experience helping tenants advocate for themselves.

Pro tip #6: Organize  

Six residents of an apartment complex sit on couches. A Black man in a suit is standing to the right facing the residents.
Residents of Memphis Towers, an affordable housing complex in the Medical District, meet with representatives from Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy’s office. With the help of the Memphis Tenants Union, they are advocating for their landlord to make the property more secure. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

In apartment complexes, Madkins says banding together with neighbors is often the best way to get results. 

If dozens of tenants submit code enforcement requests on the same day, the city will send an inspector quickly. 

“Blow (code enforcement’s 311 hotline) up, and that’s how you actually get them to come out,” he said.

Most maintenance issues in apartments affect many tenants, said Alex Uhlmann, an organizer with the Memphis Tenants Union. By working together, they can offset some of their lack of power. 

If you cooperate with a large group of neighbors, it will be tougher for your landlord to retaliate with eviction.

Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

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