Winter Whittaker, whose former landlord responded with a string of expletives and a racist slur when she asked him to repair a leaky roof, stands outside her new apartment in Richmond. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A state senator says he’ll introduce legislation that would allow tenants to make essential repairs if their landlords won’t and then deduct the cost from their monthly rent.

“Too often the landlord has all the power and none is given to the tenant,” said Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin. “What we’re seeing, especially in lower rent housing, is that those landlords base their profits on having large amounts of tenants, and in doing so, they fail to do the most basic repairs.”

Advocates say many tenants already wrongly assume such laws are already on the books, leading them to withhold rent payments if the heat goes out or a roof starts leaking, which can then lead to their eviction. Instead, current Virginia law requires tenants to file paperwork in their local district court and begin paying their rent into an escrow account. Tenants can only file such an assertion if they are current on their rent.

Christie Marra, a lawyer with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, says most tenants don’t understand that process and that, even if they do, she and other tenant advocates argue the current system unfairly requires people to continue paying for a defective product, which, in the case of a low income tenant without heat in the dead of winter, is not practical if they also have to arrange for alternative housing.

Stanley says he’s filed two legislative proposals addressing the issue. One would allow tenants to make repairs landlords refuse to and deduct the cost from their rent. A second would allow tenants to raise a landlord’s failure to make repair as a defense in an eviction case — a law that exists in about 40 other states, according to Marra.

Landlords oppose the legislation, arguing the existing system is sufficient and that a “repair and deduct” approach would bog them down with frivolous maintenance-based defenses to late rent payments.

That said, the director of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, Patrick McCloud, says the organization is pursuing compromise legislation that would entitle tenants facing emergency maintenance requests that have gone unheeded to an expedited hearing before a judge.

“We all recognize that there is a certain segment in society that can be preyed upon by less than reputable people and we want to take care of that scenario without harming everyone else who’s doing it correctly,” he said.

It’s one of several tenants-rights issues that lawmakers will debate this year after a Princeton University study found the state’s cities have some of the highest eviction rates in the country. Lawmakers passed a package of legislation addressing evictions last year, including additional funding for legal aid lawyers and the eventual creation of an eviction diversion program.

This year, Gov. Ralph Northam introduced a budget that would fund the diversion program established last year and establishes a prevention program that would provide rental assistance before court proceedings are initiated.

Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, filed legislation that would cap late fees landlords can charge tenants at 5 percent.

Three of the proposals require landlords to give tenants more information at various points in their tenancy.

Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, has filed legislation to draft a “Tenant Bill of Rights” that would use plain language to explain the provisions of the state’s rental housing laws and require a landlord to furnish every prospective tenant with a copy along with the lease agreement.

Dels. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, and Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, and Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, are proposing requiring all landlords to include contact information for legal services programs on any termination notices delivered to their tenants. Current law only requires public housing authorities to notify their tenants about legal services that may be available to them.

And Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, want to require landlords to warn tenants before they sign a lease if the land is located in a special flood hazard area. The legislation, endorsed by the Virginia Housing Commission, would also apply to residential real estate transactions.