Dealing With Tenants Who Have an Addiction to Drugs or Alcohol

With the sheer prevalence of substance use disorders and addiction in the United States, most real estate investors will have to confront the issue of a tenant suffering from the disease of addiction at some point. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that one out of every eight of American adults are currently struggling with alcoholism, and an additional one out of ten are addicted to narcotics. Our nation is also in the midst of an increasingly fatal opioid drug crisis that has claimed thousands of lives. So, what can a landlord do when confronted with evidence of a tenant's addiction? This article will explore the rights of addicted tenants and discuss some of the basic strategies for managing such tenants.

How Your Tenant's Addiction Can Affect You

Many landlords simply do not want to deal with a tenant in active addiction. Some of these concerns are based on stigma or stereotypes about people who use drugs and alcohol. Others are more practical. It is often true that a person struggling with substance abuse is unreliable. Addiction leaks into every facet of a person's life as the disease progresses. Problems with daily tasks and finances are extremely common among alcoholics and addicts. As a person's addiction grows more severe, they are more likely to make a mess of your property, neglect their financial obligations to you, fail to report problems with the property, and even become hostile or belligerent in their communications with you.

So many landlords don't want a substance-abusing tenant in the first place. However, there are laws that protect your addicted tenant's right to housing. Knowing these laws is vital to handling your business relationship with the tenant in a fair and legal way.

Can You Evict a Tenant Over Their Addiction?

Upon discovering that a tenant is an alcoholic or addict, many landlords want to evict the person immediately to avoid some of the consequences discussed above. However, addiction is a recognized disability under the Fair Housing Act. This federal law was designed to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against. While discrimination certainly still occurs, engaging in discrimination as a landlord could land you in court. Even restricting access to your home based on suspicion that your tenant has a current or former addiction could expose you to liability.

Without fair housing laws, people with mental and physical disabilities would not be able to access housing. So, what can you do in the case of addiction, as it is considered a disability?

Do Discrimination Laws Mean I Have to Put Up With Bad Tenant Behavior?

Discrimination laws are designed to protect groups of people, not their behaviors. A simple analogy might be to consider a tenant who is blind. You cannot evict the tenant for their blindness, but if that same blind tenant happens to be bashing holes in your wall with a sledgehammer or otherwise violating their lease, you can indeed evict them based on the behavior.

Behaviors that are against the law are not protected by discrimination laws. For instance, a person who is using and dealing cocaine in your home is committing multiple crimes. If the person is using a substance illegally, that's a whole different ball of wax than a person whose drinking habits or legal prescription drug use you might not personally approve of.

What to Do if You Suspect Your Tenant Is Abusing Drugs or Alcohol

These six practical tips can help you navigate your relationship with an addicted tenant.

1. Understand the Difference Between Active and Former Addiction.

Landlords should be aware of addiction recovery. People recover from alcoholism and addiction often, meaning they no longer use drugs or alcohol. People in recovery often make great tenants, as they have addressed their problems. Understanding this distinction will help you, but the remainder of this article will discuss active users.

2. Screen All Applicants Fairly.

Treat all applicants equally to avoid discrimination accusations. If you're concerned about drug and alcohol use, ask all applicants the same questions. The little old lady with blue hair and the 20-something in a sketchy trench coat with circles under his eyes should get identical screening processes.

3. Be Aware of Your Own Biases.

Stigma against addiction alone is not a reason to take action against a tenant. Everyone has biases of some sort, particularly with how common these problems are. Don't take out your feelings about an alcoholic family member or a tenant without evidence.

4. Document Evidence You Find Troubling.

Focus on the behavior, not the person. Never rely on gossip. Just because a neighbor says they saw your tenant at the methadone clinic or an NA Meeting doesn't mean it's true. These behaviors are also normal for people in recovery, who generally abstain from drugs and alcohol altogether.
If you're concerned about a tenant's behavior, collect appropriate evidence. If maintenance sees drug paraphernalia, ask for a photograph. Take pictures of property damage.

5. Take Action Against Dangerous Tenants.

The law does not give any tenant the right to engage in behavior that is violent, destructive, or dangerous to others. Profound destruction of property, threats to neighbors, and regular drunken fights that wake the neighbors or summon the police are not behaviors you should tolerate. When out of your depth or in immediate danger, call law enforcement for help. Contact an attorney if you're uncertain of the best course of action.

6. Be Willing to Make Only Reasonable Accommodations.

Of course, this goes for tenants with any type of disability. Allowing a tenant with limited mobility to install a ramp or shower bars isn't just the kind thing to do--you may be legally obligated to make such accommodations.

However, active addicts are notorious for manipulations. If a tenant requests something outlandish or unfeasible based on their disability status for addiction alone, you don't have to cower or cave. The hard and fast rule for accommodation requests is that they must be both reasonable and directly related to the disability. You don't have to do anything absurd, like allow the addicted tenant to not pay their rent on time because they "need" the money to fund their habit. Just say no. When confused about the law, get professional help.
The bottom line here is simple. Treat the tenant with compassion, but be firm in your boundaries. Boundaries are essential for handling active addicts. If a tenant confides in you that they are in recovery, take care to treat them the same as you would any other. But never tolerate behavior that puts you or your property in danger.

Last Updated: 
May 2, 2018

Scott Royal Smith is an asset protection attorney and long-time real estate investor. He's on a mission to help fellow investors free their time, protect their assets, and create lasting wealth.

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