Fall Real Estate 2007

Publication Date: Friday, October 12, 2007

All rules must be equally applied to all tenants

by Martin Eichner

Q: I live in a four-bedroom house in which the individual rooms are rented out to different tenants. The tenants, including myself, sometimes have overnight guests, some of whom are friends or family, and some of whom are known as "significant others."

However, I am gay, and when my boyfriend occasionally stays the night, my landlord has told me "this is not a whore house and my boyfriend can't stay the night." He doesn't say this to any of the other tenants about their guests. Isn't this discrimination?

A: Yes, it is considered discrimination when the landlord applies different terms and conditions to the tenants based on sexual orientation. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act and the Unruh Act prohibit discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation. The landlord cannot deny you overnight guests, boyfriend or otherwise, if he allows overnight guests to other tenants. All rules must be applied equally to all tenants, regardless of a person's sexual orientation. For further information, you can contact your local fair housing agency.

Q: My 15-year-old son is a typical teenager. He is into sports and a lot of outdoor activities.The only difference between him and his friends is that he has to use a wheelchair. For the last year we have been washing off the chair with soap and water in the drive area. The last time we did this, the new manager told us we were not allowed to use any area of the grounds to clean the wheelchair. There is no other place for us. What can we do?

A: Federal and state fair housing laws prohibit discrimination based on disability. Discrimination against persons with disabilities is specifically defined to include "a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices or services when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling" (42 U.S.C. 3604(f)(B)).Under this law, not allowing you to clean your son's wheelchair on the property could be considered discrimination based on disability, if you request the right to use the driveway as a reasonable accommodation and the landlord does not have an excellent reason for disallowing this activity.

If reasonable, based on the needs of your son's disability, your manager should make an exception to his policy and allow you to clean the wheelchair on the property once you make a proper request for this reasonable accommodation. Alternatively, the manager can work with you to provide an alternative method to meet this need. You should contact Project Sentinel at 888-FAIR-HOUSING, or your local fair housing agency for more information about reasonable accommodations.

Q: I plan to move when my lease ends in two months. The manager and I have had a somewhat rocky relationship and I don't want to give out my new address. She says I am required to give her the address if I want my deposit settlement. What can I do?

A: It may be convenient for the manager or there may be an internal business policy to have your new address, but there is no legal requirement for you to reveal it in order to receive the deposit settlement statement. Civil Code § 1950.5 states only ... "that within 21 days after a tenant vacates, the landlord must furnish the tenant, by personal delivery or by first-class mail, postage prepaid, a copy of an itemized statement indicating the basis for, and the amount of, any security received and the disposition of the security and shall return any remaining portion of the security to the tenant."

If a vacating tenant does not provide a new address, a landlord or their agent can mail the deposit settlement to the tenant's last known address. Once a departing tenant sets up a "mail forwarding" request at the post office, the deposit settlement, as well as other personal mail, will find its way to the tenant's new residence.

But, be aware, there may be a time delay in getting the settlement to you since the post office has to handle the letter a number of times. As a result, the landlord will probably not be responsible if the deposit settlement statement does not physically reach you within the 21-day requirement. Contact your housing mediation program if more information is needed.

Q: After two years of sharing an apartment my roommate has moved. The rental agreement is now solely in my name. My roommate has moved all his belongings but will not return his keys. The landlord says this is my problem and will not replace the locks. Doesn't the landlord have to give me a new lock?

A: It would be unusual for a landlord not to require the return of keys when a tenant vacates, but there is no requirement for them to do so. Not requiring the keys could lead to a safety issue for the next tenant, or you in this case.

You can present your safety concerns to the landlord. Most rental agreements require return of all keys, including mail box, laundry or pool, if any. If he or she still refuses to replace the locks, you can do so yourself making sure you save the original lock and give a copy of the new key to the landlord. When you vacate, you can replace the current lock with the original lock.

Q: My mother requires 24-hour nursing care. The caregiver who stays overnight also delivers medical supplies to shut-ins and has always parked her truck in the apartment's visitor lot. My mother received a notice saying the truck can no longer be parked in the lot because it is a commercial vehicle.

Since the vehicle belongs to a caregiver, does it really matter if it is a car or a commercial truck? Isn't my mother entitled to have her caregivers use the visitor's parking lot?

A: In order to give a person with a disability equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling unit or a common space, landlords are required to make reasonable accommodations to a property's rules, practices and procedures. In your mother's case, the accommodation would be an adjustment to the rules that prohibit commercial vehicles from parking in the visitor lot, assuming there is a clear need to park there in order to provide effective care to your mother.

Although a landlord is not obligated to bend every rule, he or she is expected to accommodate requests that do not pose an undue financial or administrative burden, and that do not fundamentally alter the way in which the business is run. Since the commercial truck is for a caregiver that your mother needs for her disability, it would be reasonable to request that the caregiver be allowed to use the visitor's parking lot. If the manager still denies the request even after you have made it clear that you are requesting a reasonable accommodation, contact your local fair housing agency for further assistance.

Q: When I received my security deposit settlement, I was surprised to see that I was charged $200 for not attending the final move-out inspection with the manager. The statement explained that the charge was for the landlord taking still pictures and a video of the unit since I was not present. Is this a valid charge?

A: The procedure for addressing security deposits is spelled out in great detail in California Civil Code Section 1950.5. This procedure includes the right of a tenant to participate in a pre-departure walk-through inspection with the landlord, but the section also allows the tenant to decline to participate.

There is no legal requirement for a follow-up inspection after the tenant vacates, although it is good practice to do so. Since there is no requirement for you to participate in a move-out inspection, and since Section 1950.5 does not authorize the landlord to charge a fee for an inspection, we regard this $200 charge as improper and unenforceable.

Since the $200 charge here has already been deducted, you will need to initiate mediation or a small-claims court action to dispute the charge. We do recommend that tenants participate in joint walk-through inspections at the beginning and at the end of a tenancy, as a method to document the condition of the rental unit and avoid later disagreements about the condition. For the same reason, both sides should take photographs at the time of the joint inspection to help avoid "he-said, she-said" disputes later.

--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 e-mail mediate4us@projsen.org.