Dave’s here to answer your questions every Wednesday, so send them to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, here’s what to make sure to include in your letter.
My husband and I moved into our apartment about 6 months ago. It is rent controlled. There are 6 units. My husband also has a very visible disability, which we fully disclosed diagnosis when signing the lease even though we weren’t required. The past 5 months have been hell.
I have a letter from a previous tenant who lived here saying that he and his girlfriend were finally forced out and gave up most of his deposit because he didn’t want to go to court. People are afraid of the landlord. Other tenants in the building are as petrified of him as am I.
The landlord suddenly moved a pot smoker into the basement under our apartment and our place is continually filled with weed and cigarette smoke. I think our cats are getting high and we’ve had to close our vents, which prevents us from turning on the heat. We’ve told the landlord about all of this and have many many insane letters from him.
In fact, he was so bold as to say that the downstairs tenant accused us of harassment. I should also add that this tenant is an obvious friend of the landlord, whom I suspect he moved in just to make our lives hell so we’d leave and lose our deposit. The landlord is also currently living on the property.
The landlord had his lawyer send us a “I’ll evict you or else” letter if we didn’t carpet the majority of our hardwood floor apartment in even though we had medical letters stating that carpeting could cause my husband to trip and fall – which is why we rented a wood floored unit in the first place. He lied and said he had no knowledge of my husband’s disability.
He has also just locked the utility room with the washer/dryer stating that if we want to use it we will need to pay $150 a month. We rented the apartment knowing we had the rights to the washer dryer, but in the lease, there is a statement that says he can take it away, as well as request we carpet apartment. The lease was 14 pages, which we didn’t fully read because we believed we were entering a contract with a reasonable human being.
I could go on and on but I fear this is already too long. Here’s my question:
We found another apartment and will be signing a lease and receiving keys on Thursday. Our lease is until May 2012. But we can’t stay here. Is there a legal way to break our lease quickly? Is there any way to be compensated for the moving fees we will be incurring?
No matter what, I feel content that we will be out of this hell hole in a week – even if it means we’ll have to live on Ramen noodles and water for the next year. The landlord doesn’t know we’re leaving yet and I know if he thinks I wrote this letter he will find a way to hurt me. Seriously.
As I was reading your email, I was thinking, I hope to hell she doesn’t want to ask about a strategy to stay in the unit. If the landlord is truly crazy as you paint him, I think you’ve made the right decision on a personal level to walk away from the lease. On a legal level, however, you should be aware that there may be some pitfalls.
As you anticipated, the landlord will not refund your security deposit. He will claim that you breached your lease for no reason and that he must apply the security deposit to rent he lost while trying to re-rent the unit. He will also claim that you set off a nuclear bomb in the place before you left.
Before you leave you must gather all of the evidence you can to show that you were forced out of the unit–either wrongfully evicted or “constructively evicted.”
First, reread my SF Appeal columns dealing with security deposits.
You should also take a look at my blog post, “Grand Theft Security Deposit.” Take lots of pictures of the unit before you leave.
Second, I’m guessing that the landlord brought up the issue about the carpeting provision in your lease because the downstairs tenant allegedly complained about your noise.
Even if the landlord lied about knowing about your husband’s disability, he was still on notice of it when you responded to the lawyer with the doctors’ letters.
You can likely show that the landlord discriminated against your husband, based on his disability, if the landlord continued to insist that you comply with the carpeting clause.
You mentioned that the tenant lives in the basement. Check the “Parcel Information” link at the Assessor-Recorder’s Office website to see if the unit is illegal.
You may also need to get a “Certificate of Occupancy” or a “Certificate of Final Completion” from the Department of Building Inspection to understand how many legal units are in the building. If the unit in the basement is illegal, the landlord should not be protecting the rights of a tenant who should not be living there in the first place.
Third, you also need to prove that the landlord’s removal of the utility room a) is more evidence of harassment and b) that the lack of use was more than just a decrease in services, rather a necessary part of the tenancy and another reason you had to move.
Finally, gather all the crazy letters he’s sent you and see if you can get the neighbors to agree to testify against the landlord regarding his ongoing harassment.
The only way you will obtain any compensation other than the return of your security deposit is to claim: 1. Constructive eviction; 2. Wrongful eviction; 3. Disability discrimination; 4. Harassment; and several other causes of action in a lawsuit that you will have to file to get your security deposit.
If your allegations are true (believe me I’ve seen worse) and you do not sue the landlord because you fear him, he wins. In his mind , his actions are justifiable, economically sound and right.
Now, a little admonishment: Not reading a lease because you believe the landlord to be reasonable is, simply, suicidal. We have entered the era of Trust No One. These days anybody who pushes a piece of paper in your face and asks you to sign it without reading it is probably a crook trying to steal your money. The least you can do before you sign is understand what you’re signing.
As an attorney, about the only thing I’ll sign willingly is an endorsement on the back of a check that I’m depositing in my own account.
Take all of your documents, including the lease to the San Francisco Tenants Union to develop a firm strategy going forward. You may also want to call some attorneys to determine if this is a case that is worth bringing in a court other than small claims. Ask the Tenants Union counselor for the list of TU approved attorneys.
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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