Property crime can be as conspicuous as graffiti or vandalism or it can manifest as behavior that is more difficult to ascertain such as drug trafficking or terrorist activities.  Owners and managers can educate themselves to prevent or reduce crime.   Everyone wins in this scenario because a property that is crime free has a higher market value, lower liability and a better quality of living for all tenants. 

Proper Tenant Screening

The first step to having a crime free property is the proper screening of tenants.  As a landlord, you have a duty to make sure that there are no known criminals residing in the property. When taking an application, make sure that you have all of the adults who are planning to reside in the unit fill out an application.  This means everyone over 18. You can run not only a financial check but a criminal check should be done also. You can run both of these screening checks by AOA for a nominal charge. The fee is well worth it, as you can never have too much tenant screening. You may deny any applicant that has a criminal background; however, you cannot deny renting to a known registered sex offender.  There is a public policy issue with making sure that sex offenders register and the law provides them protection for complying with registering.  However, that does not mean that you cannot deny a registered sex offender if they fail to meet your other rental criteria.  Gone are the days that you can trust your instincts and go with your first impression of the tenant.  Now, by using extra time and resources, you can save yourself thousands of dollars later.

Be extra careful and request that each person who intends to occupy the property over the age of 18 show you their ID such as a driver’s license or a Social Security number.  If they don’t have some form of picture identification, you don’t want this person. Identity theft has become a common way for people to qualify. Local law enforcement will not remove a tenant from your property if you later find out they stole someone’s ID.  You will have to evict them.  Remember to never ever give the keys to the property to a prospective tenant until the rental agreement is signed and the first month’s rent and security has cleared your bank.   

Security Measures

What can I do about protecting the perimeter of the property? You can protect your property from crime by having security gates, cameras, proper lighting, minimum trees and shrubbery and of course, no trespass and loitering signs.  Contact your local police departments as they can be of great help.  Cities in Ventura County, Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino have adopted a neighborhood method of policing particular to the apartment dwelling community.  This program is called the Crime Fee Multi-Housing Program and its goal is to keep illegal activity off rental property.

Many areas such as Los Angeles have instituted a neighborhood watch program which is similar in context to crime-free housing. Property managers are individually trained and can become certified after successful completion of all three phases of instruction at no cost to the landlord. Training is divided into three sessions with each dedicated to a different aspect of crime control.

The first session is to train the management.  The participant receives resource manuals and several handouts along with instruction.  Most importantly, you receive a crime-free lease addendum.  This addendum is an important tool in eliciting good behavior from your tenant.  It also serves a basis for a breach of covenant action in order to evict your tenant for non –compliance with the crime free rules. 

The second phase of the program is to have an actual survey of the property by the police or local law enforcement. You need to call your local police and request the officer that is on call for your area.   The police will then come and survey your property.  You will learn the minimum required compliance for doors, windows and lock standards.  Lighting will also be assessed for minimum exterior lighting standards.  Outside landscaping and key control procedures will also be assessed in order to determine if any corrections are necessary.

The third phase requires management to engage the tenants in a social event attended by the tenants, management and police.  Full certification allows the property to publish itself as a crime free property and or a member of neighborhood watch.  Most localities allow a property owner or manager to request their officer by name and also have that officer have continued meeting with owners, managers, and tenants to resolve any problems occurring at the subject property.

One thing you might consider having is a “Trespass Letter” signed with your local law enforcement agency.  This allows police to go onto your property, common areas, parking lots and alleyways without requesting permission.  You must sign this yearly with the police.  You also can reduce crime by making sure the design of your property does not invite criminals or criminal behavior.  People can use shrubbery or trees to hide, so make sure that your property is adequately groomed.  If you have a pool area, make use of it and have a mixer or potluck for tenants.  This is to ensure that the area is used for socialization and not criminal activities.

Police will tell you that you want to make sure that your property is well lit and that there is a directory in front in the event that they are called.  They need to be able to immediately identify where they should go if a call occurs.

All of these precautions and proactive steps of managing a property can greatly enhance both the quality of living in your property and can additionally increase the financial value of your rentals. Keeping a property crime free should be as great a priority as collecting rent and performing needed maintenance.  Crime decreases your property values and can add much expense to daily management costs and legal fees.  Landlords should do their best to maintain crime-free, healthy and desirable housing.  

Attorney Helen Grayce Long is an attorney at Fast Eviction Service. She attended UC Berkeley and graduated with a bachelor of arts.  She then attended the University of San Francisco School of Law.  Grayce has been an attorney for 25 years and specializes in Real Estate Law.  She’s done landlord/tenant work throughout the state of California with an emphasis on Rent Control law.  For more information, call (800) 686-8686, email hglongatty@fastevict.com or visit www.fastevictionservice.com