Tenant Troubles: My Neighborhood’s Too Dangerous, Can I Break My Lease?

In July, my wife and I moved out of a great roommate situation in San Francisco into our first apartment as a couple in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood. At the time the move made perfect sense and for the first few weeks things were excellent. We finally had our own place, we discovered that we have the best neighbors, and being 4 blocks from BART for under $2,000.00 is something we could only dream about in the city.

On the evening of August 16th all of our good feelings changed. We were robbed at gunpoint about 50 yards from our front door. We soon found out that other robberies had happened on our street during the month of August. The robberies have continued in Rockridge within a mile from our home. Most of them at night, but two committed this weekend happened during broad daylight, Saturday 4:15pm on a residential street like ours and Sunday at 2:15pm in front of a busy cafe on College Avenue.

Last Thursday at the library in Rockridge, Captain Trobiano from the Oakland Police Department met with concerned neighbors to talk about the recent spate of robberies. His advice was to hire private security for the neighborhood. The Oakland Police Department doesn’t seem to have the resources to keep the neighborhood safe.

One of the reasons my wife and I moved to Rockridge was to take advantage of the many shops, restaurants, and watering holes that dot College Avenue. Now we are terrified to go out in our own neighborhood. I often work late at night and am fearful that I will be mugged while walking from my car to my front door. I hate leaving my wife home alone at night while I work.

We are wondering whether you know if we can get out of our lease? What will the financial penalties be?

Tenant Troubles Archives

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.

I’m sorry to hear about your experience and glad to assume by your email that neither of you were hurt.

Certainly, you have the right to move, to break your lease. Often tenants don’t quite understand that they can always terminate a lease before it expires. Despite what you may have been told, landlords cannot force tenants to live in a unit.

If you terminate a lease early you will be in breach of the lease unless your move can be blamed on the landlord–the roof caves in or or the landlord’s direct action forces you to move. As you know, however, there is nothing the landlord can do to prevent this type of crime, so you may incur some financial liability for breach of the lease.

When a tenant breaches a lease, in this case by moving out before the end of the term, a landlord suffers damages. These damages are called “expectation damages.” If you promised to pay $1,900.00/month for 12 months, then the landlord has the right to expect that amount of income for a year. That’s why one hears that tenants can be charged for the rent for the rest of the term of the lease if they move early. That could be true if the law allowed the landlord to sit on his ass and do nothing to rent the unit.

The law requires that the landlord “mitigate” or minimize his damages. He must attempt to rent the unit at the same rate. Because you recently rented the unit, I assume the rent is priced close to market rate. The landlord shouldn’t have any trouble re-renting it for the same price, more or less.

The law is also clear that the landlord cannot be “unjustly enriched.” That means that he cannot collect damages (rent) from you for any time he rents the unit to new tenants.

How do you calculate your potential damages?

Read your lease. If there is a clause that defines a preset fee as damages you may be liable to pay the fee. You should check with a lawyer regarding such a clause. In some cases they may not be legal or may allow the landlord to be “unjustly enriched.”

You should try to give the landlord thirty-days notice of your intent to vacate–in writing, always in writing. Your correspondence during this period should be in writing, email will suffice.

Let’s say you give the landlord notice that you will move out on September 15. If the landlord rents the unit to new tenants for the same price you are paying and their tenancy begins on September 16, the landlord won’t have any damages beyond incidental costs like advertising the unit. Assuming you leave the place in the same condition that you received it, the landlord should also return your full security deposit.

If the rental market has softened in Rockridge and the landlord can only rent the unit for $1,800.00, you may be liable for additional rent of $100.00 per month until expiration of the lease–approximately $900.00. The landlord should be able to deduct that from the security deposit.

Practically, you should make it as easy as possible for the landlord to exhibit the unit to prospective tenants. Work with the landlord to make sure any other issues that arise during the rental process are resolved smoothly.

You should not, however, agree to assume responsibility for the entire rental process, like maintaining the advertising and arranging the showings yourself. I’ve heard too many stories in which tenants have done all the work to rent a unit only to find that the landlord refuses each and every one of the applicants and demands rent for another month.

Some landlords will see this as an opportunity to collect rent without putting up with pesky tenants. If you give notice to vacate, that’s exactly what you should do. Despite any threats from the landlord, do not cave into the suggestion that you continue to pay rent after you’ve moved.

If you give a landlord a chance to sit on his ass, nine times out of ten, that’s exactly what he will do.

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.

Please make sure your comment adheres to our comment policy. If it doesn't, it may be deleted. Repeat violations may cause us to revoke your commenting privileges. No one wants that!
  • Justizin

    “His advice was to hire private security for the neighborhood.
    The Oakland Police Department doesn’t seem to have the resources to keep
    the neighborhood safe.”

    Just to be clear, what’s actually happening here is that the Oakland Police Department has spent ten times as much as SFPD settling police misconduct lawsuits in the past decade, despite having around 1/3 as many officers. Much like SF, almost no OPD officers live in Oakland.

    Oakland’s “progressive” mayor and city council have closed schools while expanding funding for a police department that is actively in Federal Receivership, operating under the oversight of a judge. A rising star mayoral candidate is running on the platform of expanding the police department’s budget.

    And frankly, dear neighbor, it’s because of assholes like you who believe that crime is a simple problem that gets out of hand because people aren’t paying attention, rather than the actual truth which is that too many of our fellow neighbors have nowhere to work and when we came to town, well, we are a source of income. So let’s go to town hall and wave our hands at the police and say, “Please do something! Shoot someone! BLAST YOUR VOICE IN THE STREETS AND DECLARE THAT CRIME WILL NOT BE ACCEPTED! And please, when you throw an innocent black man to the ground and smash his face because he fits the common description of ‘african american, blue jeans, five six to five ten’, take a couple million dollars of my tax money and hand it to him, and rightfully so, and then let’s have another hand-wringing conversation about crime’.


    • You are upset about the city’s approach to crime and poverty — perhaps quite rightly — but so much so that you blame robbery victims for the problem. Yikes.

      Since you seem informed about the politics of the situation, I’d love to hear your ideas on how Oakland citizens can positively contribute to crime reduction.

    • 94103er

      Yeah, exactly. All bluster and no solutions. Sounds very Occupy-ish of you.

  • Sooneridver

    How about arming the fine citizens… put them on equal footing with most ‘gang bangers’ or those poor individuals referenced by ‘Justizin”, who have no where to work! Respond with legal force and I can assure you that the unemployed will find somewhere else to live! Oh yeah… this is California… you should just buy them a coffee and doughnut and see if you can work with them to find employment! All that good, warm and fuzzies…

    • Quelkin

      Yeah, more Zimmerman-Martin-style incidents: Stand your (imagined) ground!

      • FreedomFromIgnorance

        You have obviously never lived in dangerous neighborhood

        • Quelkin

          Mission, Sunset, North Beach, Polk Gulch, Potrero Hill…you’re right, it was fun. (forgot the weeks on 3rd st.,before the hotels went upscale.)

          • FreedomFromIgnorance

            OK then, you are just a fool. If someone were to threaten my life I would go Zimmerman without a second thought.

  • Tim Bracken

    Dave, what about a situation where the tenant breaks the lease and the landlord reaps a windfall? In other words, the tenant leaves, the apartment is vacant for 2 weeks, and then the landlord rents it out to new tenants for $200/month more than the prior lease. Would that windfall be an offset against the money the departing tenant owes for the time the apartment was vacant?

    • imaginary person

      If he does that and he collects damages from the former tenant it’s in violation of contract law regarding unjust enrichment.

  • Brian

    Let me get this right. The tenant’s complaint is about crime in the neighborhood, and the landlord has not said or done anything to indicate that he or she would put up a fight if the tenant moved out early. So why does the article end with an insult toward landlords? In Dave’s world, landlords are guilty even if they’ve done nothing wrong!

  • disqus_LS7OklLyra

    Hey Dave, your advice was great. A lot of landlords including me does not knew that we can break our lease before it expires. Thanks a lot for this clarification.

  • Laurel

    I’d like to add my two cents. I’m a landlord in the Mission District of SF, and this exact situation happened to me about fifteen years ago. A nice young blond haired blue eyed gal rented form me, and as always, I was explicit about what the Mission was like (I lived around the corner for 20+ years and I loves the Mish!). She was a trust fund kid, and for some reason, I picked her over the dozen or so others who wanted the place. Anyway, three months in to the lease, she claimed she felt harassed and terrified walking home at night, that the locals were whistling and making her feel violated, etc etc etc and so she moved out and broke her lease. Fine. I gave her the deposit back the same day, lent her my truck, and re-rented quickly.

    I thought it was a total load of bunk, and that she just wanted to break the lease. Whatevs.

    But then, THEN, I got a lawsuit threat, with letters from a lawyer who’d taken her case. She wanted money from me for not properly disclosing what a crappy neighborhood it was. I couldn’t stop from laughing. Such a frivolous threat! I was aghast and thought, wow, this chick is really greedy. I blew it off, then got served with the actual lawsuit. OMG.

    Because of course I’d been very realistic with the neighbored. This story is quite funny now, when you think that every vacancy I get, I have 106 people lined up on the street begging to move in. Ha! Those were the days!

    Anyway, I turned it over to my insurance company. They said, Yep, this is a load of junk. We’ll take care of it.

    So they paid her $20,000 to go away. Now I was REALLY aghast. She didn’t have a case, why would they do that? They explained that it’s cheaper to do that than to fight.

    The rub was, I had to pay triple the premiums for several years till it dropped off my insurance record.

    I cannot believe she got away with it, but here is my two cents: If you feel like being evil and suing your landlord over this, go ahead. There is money there.

    • Janice Kim

      I’m sorry to hear what happened to you. However, I’d like to put in my own two cents as well.

      I rented a beautiful house in Albuquerque, relocating from Virginia, to take care of my ill mother. The landlady lives in Hawaii and had “friends”, all with keys, handle the rental process, and do “maintenance”. The keys to the house were left in the mailbox for me to pick up when I moved in.

      Over the past eight months, the house has been broken into several times. The last time, involving a brick through the window, involved a S.W.A.T. team because at least one robber was still in the house when I called 911. The robbers took everything of value that could be carried, well in excess of $20K. Both the police and I believe that the robbers on different occasions had the keys, and just destroyed windows and property to look like random thugs.

      I just spoke with the landlady. She’s simultaneously suggesting that I leave immediately, and also that I owe her for the remaining year on the lease, and that she keep my deposits, and, to top it all off, that’s she’s a mensch.

      I’m willing to just go quietly and lose my enormous deposit, but there’s no doubt in my mind that if I were to later file a suit, even just to recover some of my damages from her insurance company, she’s going to feel exactly about me as you did about your tenant.