Know Your Rights: You cannot be locked out of your apartment

Oct. 1, 2011 at 5:01 a.m.

By Richard Alderman

I am behind in my rent. I hope to be able to pay in a few days. My landlord said if I do not pay tomorrow he will lock me out and put my property on the sidewalk. Is this legal?

Tenants have to pay rent, and if they do not, they can be evicted. But a landlord does not have the right to just lock you out or remove your property.

Under the law, a landlord has the right to change the lock on your door when you are late paying rent, but he must make a key available to you 24 hours a day. In other words, the landlord cannot deny you the right to enter your apartment. The landlord also has no right to just remove your property. The landlord may evict you, but to do this he must file a legal proceeding in justice court. After that he must get a court order directing the constable to evict you. This process usually takes a few weeks.

My guess is that the landlord is just trying to scare you into paying. I suggest you let the landlord know you know your legal rights and that you will be able to pay in a short time. You cannot stop him from filing a proceeding to evict you but my guess is that once he knows you know your rights he will wait for the rent.

My parked car was hit by another car in a private parking lot. Someone told me that the other person is not responsible because it was private property. Is this correct? It will not cost very much to get it repaired but I don't think I should have to pay.

You are correct in thinking you should not have to pay if someone else runs into your car. If someone is negligent and damages your property they are responsible. It doesn't matter where the accident happened. If you were parked and the other person drove into your car, the accident was his fault and you have the right to be compensated for the damage. I suggest you let him know you expect to be paid, and consider small claims court if you are not.

I am being harassed by a debt collector for a credit card bill. I know I owe the money and I am trying to pay, but they want more than I can afford. The debt collector told me that if we do not work something out soon, he will sue. He said if he wins, he will put a lien on my house and sell it. What can I do to stop this? I don't know what my family will do if we lose our house.

As you are aware, we all should pay our bills. But Texas law protects those people who cannot afford to pay by making some property "exempt" from creditors. This means that even if a creditor sues you and wins, you can keep "exempt" property.

Under Texas law, your homestead, which is your house and up to ten acres of land, is "exempt" and may not be taken. You may be sued for the credit card debt, but you will not lose your home. In fact, the debt collector's threats to take your home violate both state and federal debt collection laws. Let the debtor collector know you know your legal rights and see if you can get him to agree to a payment plan. If the debt collector continues to harass you and make these threats, speak with a consumer law attorney.

I have a common law marriage and want to marry someone else. How do I get a common law divorce?

There is no such thing as a common law divorce. As far as the law is concerned, a common law marriage is no different than any other marriage. Once you have a marriage, you are married. To legally end any marriage, including a common law marriage, you must file the proper court documents asking for a court to grant a divorce.

Richard Alderman, a consumer advocate popularly known as "the People's Lawyer," is a professor at the University of Houston Law School in Houston. His column appears weekly in the Victoria Advocate. Write to him at UH Law Center, Houston, Texas 77204-6391. He also maintains a Web page at



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