Fall Real Estate 2006

Publication Date: Friday, October 13, 2006

The law forbids 'discrimination by association'

by Martin Eichner

Q I'm a white tenant living in a 10-unit apartment complex. The owner is also white, and lives on-site. I have some African American friends who visit sometimes. There have been a few occasions where the owner, upon seeing my friends enter the property, came out of his apartment and rudely asked them what they were doing and who they were visiting.

Then, I recently received a 30-day notice to vacate my apartment. When I asked the owner the reason, he said that I have too many visitors. However, the owner has never bothered any of my white guests. Do the fair housing laws apply to a situation like this?

A If your assessment of the situation is accurate, then what you have experienced is called "discrimination by association." The fair housing laws protect people against racial discrimination. These same laws not only protect tenants who are subject to discrimination because of their race, they also protect tenants who are experiencing discrimination due to the race of their guests, as well as to the guests themselves. This means that you or your guests could request a housing discrimination investigation, either through litigation, or by filing a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), or the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). Contact Project Sentinel, or your local fair housing agency, for more information about your options.


Q For a long time, ants were invading my apartment. Fortunately I've fixed the problem by paying for a pest spray service myself. I had to pay for the service because the manager said the property owner is only responsible for pests when a tenant first moves into a rental. I disagree. What is the correct rule?

A California Civil Code ß1941.1 says that a property owner is responsible for all building and grounds at the time of the commencement of the lease or rental agreement. All areas under control of the landlord must be kept clean, sanitary and free from all accumulations of debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents and vermin. In short, this means that at move-in time, if there are pests such as ants, spiders or rats, the property owner must remedy the problem.

However, since a property owner has no control over the housekeeping habits of his or her tenants, the ongoing responsibility for controlling pests after occupancy is that of each tenant. There is a potential exception if the infestation is due to the landlord's failure to maintain the common property such as the garbage can area or the land under the foundation. In some cases, property owners do have regular spray services, but this is not a requirement. Talk to your manager or property owner again and try to work out a solution that suits all of you, or contact your local mediation program for assistance.


Q The city in which I live in has an ordinance that allows three pets (of any combination) per household. I currently have two dogs and want to get a cat. The manager of my apartment building says I'm not allowed to have more than the limit of two pets stated in my rental agreement. I disagree and say the number allowed by the city ordinance should be honored. Am I right?

A The resident manager is within his or her right to restrict the number of pets to the number listed in your rental agreement. Except for service animals (such as seeing-eye dogs) or medically required companion animals, the number of animals permitted on either private or rental property is at the discretion of the property owner. Contact the local housing mediation program if more information is needed.


Q I own an apartment complex. There is a large park-like area between the four buildings with a laundry building in the middle. I have posted rules prohibiting bicycles, skates, skateboards, balls, etc., in an effort to keep the complex quiet and livable for everyone.

Recently, one of the tenants approached me saying that she believed the rules were too strict, because they basically prohibit children from playing in the complex. This is true. In fact, when my managers see children playing, we ask them to be quiet and to go to the city park down the street. My tenant suggested that this might violate fair housing laws. I don't want to discriminate against families with children, but I do want a quiet complex. What can I do?

A Your rules and the way your managers implement them may indeed violate fair housing laws. When people live in close quarters, some level of noise must be expected. When your tenants are doing laundry, it may be important for them to have their children playing nearby.

If your rules prohibit most activities that children would engage in, they might be overly restrictive, and discriminatory under the law. You may want to examine whether the rules are truly necessary for health and safety reasons. For example, riding bicycles and skateboards on narrow footpaths could be dangerous. Prohibiting bikes and skateboards on those paths may be quite reasonable.

But prohibiting any noise at all, even the regular noise children might make in normal play during daytime hours may be so restrictive that it discourages families from living there. Additionally, you should cease having your managers directing the children "down the street." This action could have liability consequences for you.

Please contact your local fair housing agency to discuss any questions you may have about overly restrictive rules regarding children's play.

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 and Mountain View. Call 650-856-4062 for dispute resolution or 650-321-6291 for fair housing.