November 19, 2018 Ben Smith

Tennessee's Unequal Protections

Renting law in Tennessee is a mixed up mess of decades-old common law and new “uniform” law. Renters and landlords across the state struggle to defend themselves in a broken system. 

By Benjamin Smith

On Feb. 21, 1989, a Bradley County, Tennessee, resident named Linda Crawford discovered a fire had broken out in her apartment building. The fire quickly spread to block her exit, forcing her to jump out of a second-story window. Crawford suffered numerous injuries in part because of the debris behind her building. Crawford alleged that her landlord was “negligent in failing to maintain the fire alarm, the premises behind her apartment, and in continuing to allow the [tenants below Crawford’s apartment where the fire started] to reside at the apartment complex after numerous altercations and complaints.”

Crawford had signed a lease that let her landlord, McKenzie Development Corp., off the hook. The so-called exculpatory clause would have been illegal in counties governed by URLTA, Tennessee’s housing law. But in Bradley County, that law doesn’t apply. Eventually, the defense was struck down and McKenzie Development Corporation was found liable for injury and damages. [Crawford v Buckner Case File]

But the fact remains – had Crawford lived one county over, the law would have protected her without first the burden of a lawsuit. The discrepancy raises concern for the effectiveness and (according to at least one lawyer) constitutionality of Tennessee’s renting law.

WHEN LAND MATTERED MOST

In the state of Tennessee, only 14 of 95 counties are subject to state laws in place to govern the renting process. The remaining counties are still governed by common law.

A majority of Tennessee counties have long been rural, and “the landlord-tenant relationship developed in an agricultural society,” writes Ashby Richbourg Scott in the Memphis Law Review. “The lease gave the tenant land, and any house, building, or improvement on the land was incidental to the lease.”

Modern-day common law, in other words, is a holdover from an era when rental agreements were focused on land, not dwelling units. So over time, the lack of structured laws have posed more problems for renters and landlords, as evidenced by cases like Linda Crawford’s.

Common law has changed very little over the decades since its establishment.

“Most judges are reluctant to tinker with common law – it tends to stick. The legal theory is that it’s worked well for a long time and has a certain predictability,” says George Shields, an attorney at Legal Aid of East Tennessee, in an interview.

SIZE MATTERS: HOW BIG IS YOUR COUNTY?

In an effort to better meet the needs of renters and landlords, Tennessee adopted the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA) in 1975 as a set of laws that define the rights and responsibilities of both parties in a renter’s contract.

URLTA came about as a response to the nationwide realization that the landlord-tenant relationship had changed. For the tenant, writes Joshua Baker, a Memphis lawyer, a “loss of interest or gain in the land should diminish his risk in the dwelling. This rebalancing of risk and reward creates a more equitable relationship between the parties”.

Tennessee is the only state that limits the law’s application according to population. Under its latest amendment, URLTA applies to those counties in Tennessee with a total population above 75,000. This includes only 18 of Tennessee’s 95 counties.

However, the limitations to the URLTA’s coverage do not end there. In 2001, the Tennessee legislature passed an amendment that permanently excluded four individual counties from URLTA coverage. Rutherford, Sullivan, Washington, and Williamson counties, though they all have populations well above the required 75,000, are exempt from URLTA.

“Let’s see. Rutherford and Williamson, not covered, lie just south of Nashville (Davidson County); Montgomery and Sumner, covered, lie north of the Music City,” the late Donald Paine wrote in a scathing critique of URLTA’s uneven application. “Am I to believe that residential rental problems differ in these two directions? Get outta here.”

In the original four amendments brought up to individually exclude these counties, no reasoning was given except in the case of the bill excluding Sullivan County. According to an audiotape of a meeting of the Tennessee House of Representatives, Rep. Alan Hubbard of Sullivan County said “that it might require [Sullivan] county to spend its resources to hire code enforcement officers it does not have now.”

To date, no legal challenge has been brought against any amendments concerning the exclusion of specific counties from URLTA.

But “lawyers whose clients are prejudiced by this patchquilt map should challenge constitutionality at every level,” Paine urged in his 2005 article.

For lawyers, working in common law counties is far more difficult than working in URLTA counties. “If I’m in a common-law county, I can give you verbal notice. Imagine proving that in court. You’re in a terribly awkward proof situation,” says Shields. The legal process for solving housing disputes is unstructured and ill defined.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

In the decision given on Linda Crawford’s case in 1989, the court wrote:

"It is clear we no longer live in an agrarian society where land, not housing, was the important part of a rental agreement… Residential landlords offer shelter, a basic necessity of life, to more than a million inhabitants of this state."
Crawford v. Buckner Court Decision. 1989

For the majority of tenants across Tennessee, their lease has nothing to do with farming or the value of the land. They need a place to live. Yet the only protections guaranteed to them are decades old and do not address the problems at hand.

When the Tennessee Legislature first enacted URLTA they defined its purpose as

  • Simplify, clarify, modernize and revise the law governing the rental of dwelling units and the rights and obligations of landlord and tenant;
  • Encourage landlord and tenant to maintain and improve the quality of housing;
  • Promote equal protection to all parties;
  • and Make uniform the law in Tennessee.

While URLTA provides protections for those whom fall within its bounds, it certainly does not simplify or clarify the landlord and tenant relationship.

The issue of URLTA and equal protection has been debated for years. The permanent exemption of four counties would seem to be in direct opposition to this stated purpose.

And finally, The Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act in Tennessee is NOT in fact uniform as it is only applied in 14 of Tennessee’s 95 counties.

It is clear that there are problems with the current state of housing law in Tennessee. Renters across the state are not given the legal protections they deserve, and many lawyers agree that change is needed. However, there has been virtually no discussion on this matter in the Tennessee legislature and there remains a lack of transparency surrounding the complicated system that is Tennessee housing law.