http://paloaltoonline.com/print/story/print/2012/06/29/rentwatch


Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - June 29, 2012

RentWatch

Can landlord ask for financial information after lease is signed?

by edited Martin Eichner

Q My wife and I just signed a one-year lease for a rental home. Before we signed her lease form, the owner of the home ran a credit check on me. Since we signed the lease after the credit check on me, I assumed the check turned out to be favorable.

Then, one week before we were scheduled to move into the house, the owner called me to ask for my wife's Social Security number. The owner said she had decided she needed to run a credit check on my wife before she would allow us to move in. She says that the lease has a clause that allows her to run a credit check whenever she wishes, and if my wife refuses, she won't let us move in.

We have already given notice at our current apartment and made arrangements to move into this house. Does the owner have a right to insist on my wife's Social Security number for a credit check at this late date?

A Every tenant has a right to privacy guaranteed by the state Constitution. This right applies to a tenant's personal financial information. However, California Civil Code Section 1950.6 creates an exception to this privacy right in order to allow a landlord to conduct credit checks to screen rental applicants. The purpose of this exception is to provide a fair opportunity to screen potential tenants.

In your case, the landlord has already signed a lease, so the policy of encouraging adequate screening no longer applies. The landlord now has a binding contract with you and with your wife, which means there is no longer a valid reason to violate your wife's right to privacy. Even if the lease has a clause specifically permitting follow-up credit checks, the validity of that clause would be questionable in light of the right to privacy, especially since every credit check results in a "hard hit," which damages the person's credit score.

If the clause has any validity, it could only be invoked if there were a relevant financial responsibility issue, such as your request to renegotiate your rent or some other lease terms. Otherwise, you and your wife currently have a binding agreement to provide you with a rental premises for the term of the lease. If the landlord now tries to back out because your wife refuses to provide her financial information, you cannot force her to allow you to occupy the property. However, you would have a right to seek your damages for losing this rental opportunity, particularly since you have lost your current tenancy.

Q Last month, a young couple moved into the apartment next to mine. When I met them, I learned they had recently moved here from India for a job opportunity. I thought I would be neighborly and invited them over for a home-cooked meal while they were in the process of getting settled in.

A week or so later, they invited me to dinner at their apartment. I had never eaten Indian food before, and although I enjoyed some of the dishes, I couldn't help but notice the very pungent smell that came from their cooking. Even though I like them, I am now worried that the odors from their kitchen will start to leak into my apartment and affect my health. How can I protect myself against their cooking?

A The fair housing statutes protect every tenant's right to live in a rental property without interference or discrimination, regardless of their national origin. In our diverse society, these protections require housing providers to tolerate differences in culture and practices arising from the different national backgrounds of their residents. Given these protections, your landlord could not curtail the activities of one tenant in response to a general complaint from another tenant about the unpleasant or irritating aspects of the first tenant's culture. Nor can a landlord isolate or "steer" tenants of one culture to certain areas of the property to avoid offending the other residents from different cultures.

The only exception might be if the cooking activities constituted a nuisance, meaning that the odors or fumes were so invasive or irritating that they were unreasonably interfering with your ability to utilize your rental unit. If the activities truly create a nuisance, you could ask your landlord to intervene. The difficult question for your landlord would be deciding how to distinguish an odor that is unpleasant for you from one that makes it impossible for you to live in your rental unit.

You could also contact your local mediation program to bring you together with your new neighbors in a non-threatening environment where you could learn more about their practices and talk about some ground rules that would minimize the impact on you.

Martin Eichner edits RentWatch for Project Sentinel, an organization founded in 1974 that provides landlord tenant dispute resolution and fair housing services in Northern California and administers rental-housing mediation programs in Palo Alto, Los Altos and Mountain View. Call 650-856-4062 for dispute resolution or 650-321-6291 for fair housing or email mediate4us@housing.org.

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