Question 1:
Is there a new law that allows the tenant to post political signs in the window of the unit even if the lease prohibits signs?
Answer 1:
Yes. Effective January 1, 2012 tenants have the right to post political signs subject to certain limitations. A landlord can prohibit a tenant from displaying a sign that is more than six square feet in size or if the posting would violate local, state of federal law. The landlord may also establish a reasonable time limit for posting and removing political signs. A reasonable time can be at least 90 days prior to the date of the vote and end 15 days following the date of the vote or election.

Question 2:
Is small claims the best place to go to sue the tenant for damage to the unit?
Answer 2:
It depends on several factors, including the severity of the damage. Beginning in January of 2012, the small claims court jurisdiction for actions brought by “natural persons” was increased from $7,500 to $10,000. So, you now have that additional amount of  damages you can claim in small claims court, which may be the difference between bringing the claim for damages (and also for any back rent or breach of lease damages) in small claims versus regular superior court. Other factors include the likelihood of collecting a judgment from the tenant, since there almost nothing more aggravating that taking the time and incurring the expense of getting a money judgment only to be frustrated in trying to collect it because, for example, the tenant has moved to places unknown, or is unemployed etc. Another factor is whether your rental agreement includes an ‘attorney fee’ provision, which allows the court to award your legal costs as part of your judgment. If you have such a provision, and the damages are close to the small claims limit, and the former tenant can be located and is reasonably likely to satisfy a judgment, you may get a better result by bringing your case in superior court. Otherwise, small claims court is generally the most practical venue.

Question 3:
My tenant asked me to change the locks on her apartment after her boyfriend threatened her. She offered to pay the costs, and I had no objection. Is there anything else I should have done?
Answer 3:
I don’t think so. It should be noted going forward however that for leases or rental agreements executed on or after January 1, 2011, a landlord must change the locks of a protected tenant’s (a victim of domestic violence) dwelling unit upon a written request by that tenant no later than 24 hours after the protected tenant gives the landlord a copy of a court order that excludes the threatening person from the same dwelling unit as the protected tenant. If the person threatening or committing violence is not a tenant, the protected tenant may provide a court order or a police report to the landlord. The landlord must give the protected tenant a key to the new lock(s). If a landlord fails to change the locks within 24 hours, the protected tenant may change the locks without the landlord’s permission, notwithstanding any provision in the lease to the contrary. But if she does have the locks changed, it must be done professionally, and she must deliver a copy of the new key to the landlord.

Question 4:
I inherited an apartment building from a relative. The tenants in one unit have a Lease for 3 adults and 2 children. I am now getting complaints from neighbors that there are 15 people living there. Do I have any right to tell the tenants to limit the number of people living there?
Answer 4:
If the original lease has expired, and has become a month to month tenancy, you could serve a notice of termination (30 or 60 days depending how long the tenant has lived there), based on the complaints, and simply end the tenancy. However, if the unit is in a ‘rent control’ city such as Oakland or San Francisco, you would not have this option, in which case a different approach would be required. If the lease prohibits the number of tenants, which this one seems to, you should be able to enforce that provision by use of a three day notice to cure the lease breach (of the additional occupants). The lease also likely includes a provision prohibiting subtenants without the landlord’s prior written permission, which can also be enforced by use of a proper three day notice. However, it is possible the person you inherited from may have already ‘waived’ some of these possible remedies by agreeing to allow additional occupants, or by allowing the additional occupants to remain after knowledge of their presence, while still accepting rent.
In any case, however, there are absolute limits imposed by law on the number of people who may occupy any residential space, depending on size. Contact your local building or planning department for the specific limitations, and if the tenants are violating this limit, a three day notice to force compliance with the occupancy limitations is always available. Ultimately, if the conduct of the tenants, regardless of number, is so disturbing to the neighbors as to constitute a legal nuisance, you can notify the tenants by three day notice to quit whatever activity is causing the nuisance, or be evicted.

Question 5:
I am concerned that my building may not be appropriate for tenants with small children, and would prefer that only adult couples rent the units. Is there any problem with seeking only adult tenants?
Answer 5:
Yes, there is. Pursuant to various laws, a lessor may not condition the right to rent any unit on the family status of the tenant or prospective tenant. It is considered a form of discrimination, based on family status, and is prohibited by both state and federal law, and in some locations, by local ordinance. In one recently reported case, a Marin landlord warned applicants that the unit was close to a busy road and thus not suitable for tenants with children. The applicant believed that she was denied the equal opportunity to rent the unit based on having small children, and filed a formal complaint with the Fair Housing department. After investigating by sending ‘testers’ to apply for the unit, both with and without small children, the agency filed a formal complaint, and the landlord’s insurance company settled the claim by paying the claimant $45,000.00. While the landlord defending his actions by saying he was only advising the applicants that the property was not suitable for children, and thought he was doing such applicants a favor by letting them know this in advance, it was deemed an attempt to prevent tenants with children from renting in the building, which is against the law (unless the building is subject to the limited exception of housing designed for the elderly). Generally speaking, the lessor may not condition rental of a unit to any tenant or applicant on any ground other than ability to pay the rent and past employment and rental history.

Richard Beckman, of Beckman Blair, LLP has been practicing landlord-tenant law for over 19 years, primarily in rent-controlled jurisdictions such as San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley. He represents clients in a broad range of real estate-related disputes, including partition of co-ownership interests, purchase contract disputes, insurance coverage analysis and land use. Mr. Beckman also specializes in all aspects of landlord-tenant issues, representing landlords and tenants in residential and commercial matters. He can be reached at 415-495-8500; email rich@beckmanblairllp.com or by visiting the website www.beckmanblairllp.com.

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