By: Rabbi Tzvi Price
For the last two years, I’ve been living in an apartment and paying rent of $750 a month. My landlord never discussed with me anything about a rental period and we never signed a lease. Today he informed me that starting tomorrow the rent will now be $875, and if I don’t agree to pay it, I should leave by the end of the week.
Q. According to Halacha, is he allowed to raise the rent like that?
Applying Civil Law
The first thing that must be determined in order to answer your question is whether or not any governmental ordinances apply to your apartment rental. Various sorts of laws and statutes restricting the rights of the landlord have been enacted by many local governments (Lakewood Township included). For example, many townships have made it illegal to raise the rent more than a specified percentage per year, usually somewhere in the range of 5 to 7 per cent. However, there are often exceptions and dispensations built into these laws, so it is important to find out the exact application of the civil law to your case.
Why does Beis Din consider these civil rent laws applicable to a rental between a Jewish landlord and a Jewish tenant? Shouldn’t Torah law apply here? A number of halachic authorities discuss whether or not the principle of dina d’malchusa dina (“the law of the land is the law”) gives halachic legitimacy to civil rent-control laws. Although there have been arguments made on both sides of that issue, both Chazon Ish and Igros Moshe rule that now that these laws are on the books and enforced by the civil authorities, they have attained the status of being a Jewish marketplace custom (minhag). It is for this reason that civil law regarding apartment rentals apply to rental agreements made between Jewish landlords and Jewish tenants. They argue that since the rental marketplace at-large customarily operates according to all the applicable civil ordinances, when a Jewish landlord and a Jewish tenant enter into a rental agreement they do so under the assumption that their transaction will also follow the general marketplace custom. Nevertheless, it is still possible for a situation to exist in which a self-contained Jewish rental marketplace has clearly not accepted civil ordinance as customary.
Applying Torah Law
In situations where it is determined that rent laws have not been enacted or are not applicable, or where those laws have not been accepted as customary in the Jewish rental marketplace, then Torah law as codified in Choshen Mishpat would determine the rights and obligations of the tenant and the landlord.
According to Halacha, neither the tenant nor the landlord has the right to change the price of the rental for the currently agreed-upon rental period even if the marketplace value of the rental has changed significantly. In other words, signing a year lease locks in the rent for that year.
However, in your situation no lease was signed and no rental period was agreed upon. In this case, the landlord does have the basic right al pi halacha to raise the rent as he wishes. However, if the new rental price demanded by the landlord is above the current fair market value of the apartment then the landlord is required to give the tenant a month’s notice before the raise in rent can take effect. If the new rent is not above the fair market value, then no prior warning is required and the new rental price takes effect at the beginning of the coming month.
Let us apply these rules to your case. You said that you are now paying $750 a month for your apartment and your landlord is asking for $875. If similar apartments to yours are now going for $875 a month, then your landlord can raise the rent immediately. Technically, he even has the legal right to inform you of the raise on the 31st of the month and it would take effect the next day on the 1st, though doing would seem not to be very menschlich. However, a raise in rent cannot take effect during the middle of a month – only at the beginning of the coming month. Your landlord cannot inform you on the 15th that he is raising your rent starting the 16th. This is because the default rental period for apartments is from the 1st of the month until the end of the month. Of course, it would be your choice to either pay the higher rent for the coming month or vacate the apartment before the month starts.
If, however, similar apartments to yours only go for $750, then, although your landlord has the right to raise the rent to $875, Halacha requires that he notify you a full thirty days prior to the rent increase taking effect in order to give you time to find a different apartment to rent. If you choose to stay in the apartment and pay the higher rent then you must start paying the new amount starting from the 1st of the coming month. If you choose to vacate the apartment, then for the thirty days after notification of the rental increase you may continue to pay rent at the $750 rate.
 See Shu”t Imrei Yoshor, chelek 2, siman 152, os 2, and Chaveles Hasharon, Ch.M., siman 8, and Shu”t Chibas Hakodesh (mGr”a Kletzkin) siman 81. And see Amek HaMishpat, Hilchos Schirus, siman 55, os 12.
 See Shu”t Ateres Shlomo (HaGaon R’ Shlomo Karelitz, zt”l) siman 88, os 1
 Chelek Ch.M. 1, siman 72
 Choshen Mishpat 312:10
 Choshen Mishpat 312:6.The landlord raising the rent is tantamount to requiring the tenant to vacate the premises. See Amek Hamishpat Schirus, siman 27, os 2. See Amek Hamishpat, Schirus, siman 4, os 4 that rules that in our times 30 days notice applies even in the winter months when vacant apartments are not as easy to find. However, if in a particular community it is known that no apartments are available during a certain time period, then a landlord in that community is not allowed to raise the rent above the market value during that time period even if he has given thirty-days notice.
 Choshen Mishpat 312:9
 See Amek Hamishpat siman 28 for a discussion regarding this halacha as it applies to a situation in which someone actually makes an offer to pay a higher rent than the current tenant is paying.
 As indicated from the wording of the Teshuvos haRosh klal 1, siman 6
 Although the landlord cannot be legally stopped from charging more than the market value for his apartment he still may be transgressing an issur if he does so. Ramban in his commentary on Chumash (Vayikra 25:14) states that although in land sales (and rentals) the buyer (or tenant) has no legal redress when overcharged, there is still an issur on the part of the seller (or landlord) to do so. However, see Mishneh Lemelech, Hilchos Malveh v’Loveh, perek 4, halacha 1, which would indicate that there is no issur to overcharge in land sales.