Tips for Landlords: Your Obligations and Legal Liability for Criminal Activity

By Robert S. Griswold, Laurence Harmon

As landlord, you probably know that you have responsibilities to not only protect residents from crime but also work with residents and local law enforcement personnel to identify and stop criminal activity occurring on your property. You may wonder what those responsibilities entail and what measures you must take to fulfill those responsibilities.

As a word of caution, you need to know the possible legal and financial consequences of failing to do your part to protect residents from crime and to stop criminal activity occurring on your property that you know about.

Knowing your responsibilities

Regardless of whether your state or municipality has specific requirements to secure your rental property, you need to take reasonable measures to protect residents and deal with any criminal activity. Reasonable measures include providing doors and windows that residents can lock and latch from the inside and providing sufficient lighting in parking areas, walkways, and hallways at night.

In addition to establishing these essential security procedures, you may need to strengthen them if your rental property is in a high-crime area or if state or local codes require you to do so. For example, in some areas, you may be legally required to equip standard entry doors for every unit with a peephole or install additional security lighting or alarms.

Contact your local property association or state or local housing authority to find out about any specific security measures you’re required to implement to protect residents from crime.

Grasping the potential costs of lax security

Failure to perform your due diligence in protecting residents from crime is potentially very costly legally and in other ways. Here’s an itemized list of the costs you could incur by failing to implement reasonable security features and those required by law:

  • Attorney fees and court costs if a resident files a lawsuit against you for loss or damage resulting from criminal activity on your property.

  • Damages a judge orders you to pay a resident for property loss, personal injury, and possibly even emotional distress.

  • Decreased occupancy and rent collections as your property develops a reputation as being a dangerous place to live and demand for your rental units drops.

  • Higher repair and maintenance costs for any vandalism and other damage done to your property caused by commission of a crime.

  • Forfeiture of your rental property to the state.

Increasingly, judges are finding that landlords are legally liable for any losses or personal injuries residents suffer at the hands of a third-party criminal, and the awards are often huge. Make security a top priority.