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Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - October 25, 2013

Rent Watch

Do fair-housing laws apply to summer rentals?

edited by Martin Eichner

Q I own a second house where my son lives while he attends college during the school year. During summer school breaks, he usually goes to live someplace else for an internship or he travels, so I like to rent out rooms in the house to teachers who are in town for continuing education classes. Generally the teachers stay anywhere from a week to the whole summer. I don't know much about being a landlord. Would any fair-housing laws apply to these summer "rental" arrangements?

A Fair-housing protections exist under both federal and state law. The scope of protection differs between the two. Both statutes cover "dwellings," but under the federal statute, a dwelling is exempted from the fair-housing laws if a homeowner-landlord is renting a single-family house and owns three or fewer single-family houses, or if a homeowner is renting out a dwelling room or unit that contains living quarters, and if he/she lives at the site and shares these living quarters with the tenant(s).

Based on your description, these exemptions would exclude your summer rental home, since you own fewer than three rental homes, and you would not be living in the second house and sharing living quarters with the summer tenants. However, the only exemption under the California statute applies to the rental of a single-family dwelling where the owner of the dwelling lives there and rents a portion of the house to no more than one person. Your second house would not qualify for the exemption under state law, so the only question left would be whether the temporary rental arrangements you describe qualify as rental of a "dwelling." For purposes of fair-housing laws, a "dwelling" can be a temporary or seasonal rental, as well as a timeshare, cooperative, shelter and other non-traditional housing. Any structure can be a "dwelling," in fact, if the occupants intend to remain for a "significant period" of time, and they view the structure as a "place to return to."

For example, a person living in a motel for three months while his house is being renovated is protected under the fair-housing laws, but another person staying in the same motel for a week while they attend a conference is not. In your case, a teacher renting a room for only a week to attend a short course is probably not protected under the fair-housing laws, but a teacher renting a room for the entire summer may well be.

Your question presents another potential issue. If you meant to tell us that you follow a practice of renting only to teachers, or having a preference for teachers, that practice might constitute a form of arbitrary discrimination in housing that runs afoul of California's Unruh Civil Rights Act. This law prohibits discrimination in housing based on personal traits or characteristics, such as refusing to rent to students, or people with long hair. Discriminating in favor of teachers is, in effect, discriminating against anyone who isn't a teacher. A much better approach is to choose tenants based on ability to pay and rental history.

Q I signed a one-year lease a month ago at the community's rental office. At the time, the local property manager took the lease agreement with him, saying he would put a copy in the mail to me right away. I still haven't seen that copy. I have called him and emailed him to ask for a copy, but he just dodges me. The lease was many pages long and had a great many clauses. A friend told me I need to have a copy to make sure both of us live up to its terms. What can I do?

A California law specifically guarantees your right to a copy of the lease agreement you signed. Specifically, California Civil Code Sections 1961 through 1962.7 place several important responsibilities on any agent negotiating rental agreements on behalf of a landlord. These mandatory requirements include the name, address and telephone number of the person or entity to whom rent must be paid, or details describing the name and location of a financial institution where rent is to be electronically deposited.

Section 1962(4) specifically states that the agent must provide a copy of the written rental agreement or lease to the tenant within 15 days of its execution by the tenant. Once each calendar year thereafter, upon request by the tenant, the owner or owner's agent shall provide an additional copy to the tenant within 15 days of the request. Your property manager's failure to comply with this requirement does not relieve you of your obligation to pay rent, but that failure is a defense in an eviction action filed by the landlord. The statute does not require that you request the initial rental agreement in order to be protected, but you definitely want to continue to document, through emails or letters, that you have not received a copy of the agreement.

Martin Eichner edits RentWatch for Project Sentinel, an organization that provides landlord-tenant dispute resolution and fair-housing services in Northern California, including rental-housing mediation programs in Palo Alto, Los Altos and Mountain View. Contact Project Sentinel at 888-324-7468 or at info@housing.org; visit the website at www.housing.org and www.facebook.com/PSProjectSentinel.

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