Dave’s here to answer your questions every Wednesday, so send them to him at tenant@sfappeal.com, here’s what to make sure to include in your letter.

cat-and-mouse.jpgI moved to SF a couple of years ago, so there are things about the rental laws that I am just finding out. My particular lease doesn’t easily fit into the info I’m finding online so I plan to join the Tenants Union. Since other people might have the same thing happening, I figured I’d email you as well.

Here are the specifics:

I live in a rent controlled building. I moved in on October 1, 2010 and paid a security deposit of $950.00 (my rent is $975 plus water, garbage, and other utilities; the water and garbage bills are in our names and are split with the unit downstairs).

The landlord used to live in the first level unit but no longer does.

There are commercial units on the ground level; the first level is rented out as one unit; my level (the top level) is rented out to 3 people and we all have separate leases for our unfurnished rooms with access to the furnished common areas. This is great in terms of not having to cover for rent when one of the rooms is empty but makes it confusing in terms of applying the laws.

The landlord allows pets. We’re having a mouse issue right now (to be expected when living about restaurants, I suppose) so I’m considering getting a cat. When I asked about how much a pet deposit would be, I was told it’s usually one month’s rent but of the whole apartment, not just of my room, which the landlord said would be $2800.

I know that all deposits can’t be more than 2x the rent for an unfurnished unit and 3x for a furnished unit…but I could see that the landlord would argue that the place is furnished since the common areas are furnished.

So, my questions are these:

1. What is the legal amount of deposit he can ask for in this situation? Would the “unit” be considered to be furnished or unfurnished?

2. When I calculate my interest on security deposit, how much do I subtract for my portion of the rent board fees? Do the 3 of us split our half of the fee if we all have separate leases?

3. Is it even legal to rent out the rooms this way? Is it legal to make us pay the water and garbage?

Ah, life in the city. Always an adventure.

Yes, life is always an adventure when you have to put up with unscrupulous, greedy landlords, but somebody’s got to do it, right?

In this case, the landlord wants to have his cake and eat it too. How? First he rents the rooms in the unit separately, with separate leases and, I’m guessing here, his choice of your roommates.

Then he wants to treat the unit as a single unit with three bedrooms for deposit purposes. It’s a scam to collect $2,800.00 to deal with a problem that it is his responsibility to fix in the first place.

Carefully review your “lease.” When you say the landlord allows pets, do you mean that he just doesn’t enforce a “no pets” clause or is your lease silent on the matter?

If the only reason you want a cat is to deal with the mice, just call the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

Get an inspector to violate the unit and the landlord can deal with it accordingly. I’d do that anyway. Mice and rats are health hazards. They carry all sorts of diseases. Maybe you’ve read about the bubonic plague? A continuing mouse infestation is a per se violation of many housing and health codes, a per se breach of the implied warranty of habitability.

You are correct about deposit law, but Ca. Civil Code ยง1950.5(c) speaks to deposits “paid on or before initial occupancy.” So the furnished/unfurnished argument is irrelevant.

Because you unit is rent-controlled, any demand for extra money by the landlord will be treated as an illegal increase in rent. If you really want a cat and you need the landlord’s permission, you can point out to him that a $2,800.00 deposit constitutes an illegal rent increase and that you’d be happy to take the issue to the Rent Board.

Rent Board fees are assessed on a per unit basis. You are only liable for your portion of the fee.

If your lease provides for payment of water and garbage and the sharing arrangement is clear, it is legal for the landlord to charge for those utilities and services.

Is it even legal to rent out the rooms this way?
That’s a complex question. San Francisco Housing Code ยง401 defines lodging house “as any building or portion thereof, containing not more than five guest rooms where rent is paid in money, goods, labor or otherwise.” The San Francisco Building Inspection Department will not violate a boarding house (that’s what your landlord is running) that comprises five rooms or less.

Yet, if the landlord attempted to evict you, he would also have to evict your roommates because the unit is a single apartment. In an unlawful detainer (eviction) lawsuit, the landlord must seek possession of the entire unit, not just a room in the unit.

Interestingly, the Rent Board will consider your room as a separate unit for purposes of deciding a petition you may file without adding your roommates. However, I always think it’s better for the tenants in these arrangement to maintain a united front.

As you might imagine these arrangements are frought with problems–problems between tenants who don’t know each other; problems with understanding ones rights and obligations (like yours); but mostly problems with greedy landlords trying to maximize their dough and control. Of course, this type of landlord doesn’t give a rat’s ass if you have mice.

Readers: If you think that living with roommates is a pain in the ass, try living in a boarding house.

Your decision to join the Tenants Union is a good one. Actually, yours is a very common issue. You can go over your lease and any communications between you and the landlord and develop a strategy to “educate” him.

Remember, landlords who rent to tenants in this manner are often psychotic control freaks. They rarely back down. You may also want to consider an exit strategy.

Dave Crow is an attorney who specializes in San Francisco landlord tenant law. However, the opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author, do not constitute legal advice, and the information is general in nature. Consult the advice of an attorney for any specific problem. You understand that no attorney-client relationship will exist with Dave Crow or his firm, Crow & Rose unless they have agreed to represent you. You should not respond to this site with any information that you believe is highly confidential.

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the author

Dave Crow is an attorney who specializes in San Francisco landlord tenant law. However, the opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author, do not constitute legal advice, and the information is general in nature. Consult the advice of an attorney for any specific problem. You understand that no attorney-client relationship will exist with Dave Crow or his firm, Crow & Rose unless they have agreed to represent you. You should not respond to this site with any information that you believe is highly confidential.

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  • Greg Dewar

    I had a mouse problem a few months ago. Fortuantely my live in apt manager was happy to help out. one thing he and I did was to look for any holes and plug them with steel wool. He also offered to loan me his cat and suggested the best traps. After a day or two, the mouse seemed to disappear and the tenant upstairs caught it.

  • Greg Dewar

    I had a mouse problem a few months ago. Fortuantely my live in apt manager was happy to help out. one thing he and I did was to look for any holes and plug them with steel wool. He also offered to loan me his cat and suggested the best traps. After a day or two, the mouse seemed to disappear and the tenant upstairs caught it.