Tenant Troubles: We’re Basically Paying Our Master Tenant’s Rent. That’s Wrong, Right?

I am a 26-year-old female and have been living in an old Victorian apartment in a six unit building in Nob Hill for the past 11 months, paying rent only my roommate, who is on the lease. There are a total of four of us living in the apartment (another roommate and I pay $924 for our smaller rooms and another pays $1190 for her larger room, a converted dining room).

The problem is that we know that our fourth roommate (the lease holder) pays next to nothing. Rent is $3200 a month (he does not know we know this). He pays for all utilities with the checks that we write, as well, but who knows how much utilities add up to since he discloses nothing.

I know that he is charging us “market rate” for our rooms and that he will have a ton of folks willing to pay even more than what we are now, so I don’t want him to kick me out for questioning him, but it just feels wrong! I should also mention that I have no written agreement with him. He has been unemployed for 10 months now and often travels. When he leaves he charges $1300 a month to random subleasers for his room (usually finding them on Airbnb or Craigslist). 

I love my apartment and would really like to become the master tenant or at least get added to the lease so I have some rights. Is there anyway to get him off the lease? Is there anything I can do here or should I just let it go and realize that this is what I get for living in a city with such insane housing prices?

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.

Tenants march and demonstrate in the Mission every week. They claim that soaring rents and “development” projects destroy community. Clearly, they’re wrong.

Yours is one of many micro-communities that have evolved in response to property owner greed. Your new community comes complete with a class system ruled by a lazy, greedy landlord.

You need to look at Rent Board Rules & Regulations §6.15C(3):

Partial Sublets. In the event a Master Tenant does not sublease the entire rental unit, as anticipated in Section 37.3 (c), then the Master Tenant may charge the subtenant(s) no more than the subtenant(s) proportional share of the total current rent paid to the landlord by the Master Tenant for the housing and housing services to which the subtenant is entitled under the sub-lease. A master tenant’s violation of this section shall not constitute a basis for eviction under Section 37.9.

If you can get a copy of the original lease or can obtain some other document proving the actual amount of rent, you can file a petition at the Rent Board alleging that you’re paying a disproportionate share of the rent.

So if you want to stop subsidizing “Mr. I-Haven’t-Worked-In-Ten-Months-But-You-Can-Catch-Me-In-Bali,” file a petition to even out the rent.

There are two problems with this approach. First, you could receive a ginormous award of back rent from the Rent Board, but you won’t be able to collect it. Mr. Leisure doesn’t work and besides, he spent all your dough smoking opium in Chiang Mai.

Second, when the real landlord gets word of the strife in your unit, the landlord will kick you all out.

Why? Because these “entrepreneur” master tenants never get consent from the landlord for subletting, which is usually a violation of the lease.

There is nothing you can do to get your master tenant off the lease, and yes, this is what you get for living in a city with such insane housing prices.

This is what you get when we allow a leisure class to drain our resources, to suck your life’s blood like the vampires they are. (Had to get Halloween in here.)

This is what you get when you naively allow greed to run rampant without standing against it. Perhaps you mistakenly think that someday you could be a landlord (but a good one). You think (like your master tenant) that it’s somehow justifiable to seize every opportunity to profit, despite the pain and suffering you may cause.

This is what you get when you don’t truly understand that rent is simply an outrageous tax you pay to a lord to live on his land–a tax, nothing more, that subsidizes a lazy, unproductive aristocracy.

Didn’t we already have a revolution about that?

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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  • cedichou

    I’m all for tenants’ right, and I understand that Dave is propping up his tenant’s cred, but this is a bit too much!

    “Your new community comes complete with a class system ruled by a lazy, greedy landlord”

    Except there is no lazy, greedy landlord in the case being discussed! There is a TENANT who is ILLEGALLY SUBLETTING and SCAMMING HIS CO-TENANTS.

    This case illustrates what’s wrong with rent control, namely abuse from tenants, not what’s wrong with bad landlord.

    I believe Dave is wrong with one point: “Second, when the real landlord gets word of the strife in your unit, the landlord will kick you all out.” Not really. If the sublet is illegal, the landlord will issue a notice. If the master tenant corrects the notice (i.e. kicks out the subtenants) then he’ll be un-evictable again. Because tenant rights protects scumbags. Yeah, they also protects against some scumbag landlords. But not in this case: you have a landlord getting below market rent so that some tenant gets an ill-deserved subsidy to travel the world.

    The other subtenants believe THEY subsidize this travel. But that’s not true. They pay market rate. It’s the landlord who is, by way of rent control and tenant’s right activists.

    • Lisa

      Actually making a profit on rent as a master tenant should be violation of his lease — “Illegal activities” is one of those Just Cause things — and would then make him evictable. As a landlord in this rental climate, any chance to evict someone — you are going to take it. They would all be out.

      I think I would tell her instead to confront the master tenant and tell him of the law about proportion of the rent, etc. If he’s such a creep, he probably won’t become creepier because he was confronted — he’s already there.

      • cedichou

        He is evictable, but ONLY if he does not correct the violation. So what happens will be: assume landlord tries to evict. First step is to issue a 30 day notice. Tenant then will lay low for a while, ask the subtenants to vacate (he’s master tenant, does not need just cause), and he’ll be back in conformance with his lease. At this point: he can’t be evicted. There’s no cause any longer. Landlord could try litigation to evict, but most likely would lose.

  • BushyHyde

    I am all for ragging on landlords and city policy in the right situation, but it seems like in this story the only bad actor is the Master Tenant. Evil people come in all shapes and sizes and exist on both sides of the tenant/landlord fence.

    The hyperbole would be best saved for an article where the landlord is actually doing something wrong.

    A point of confusion: the law quoted suggested that master tenants who violate the rules of proportional rent are not liable for eviction based solely on that violation (or am I reading that wrong?). I think it’s like that in a 4-bedroom apartment the landlord is aware of subtenants as it’s unlikely the original tenant was one person without roommates. So I don’t see a scenario where the master tenant gets evicted, but I definitely could see him kicking out the person who posed the original question. Now it would be interesting to know what a sub tenants rights are in this situation.

    Seems like it would have been better use of this article to address the persons question in more depth and left the soapbox stuff for another time.
    Dave you are awesome, but get a grip.

  • Lester Moore

    In an effort to lump master tenants in with landlords, Dave gives totally bogus advice. You can sue the master tenant because he’s clearly in violation of the law. You may or may not be able to collect, but there’s also a thing called a lien where the court takes money right out of his bank account and his paycheck. And, second, to say the master tenants “never” get permission from the landlord is just a stereotype, not a fact in this case. Finally, Dave assumes the landlord will evict. But landlords constantly complain about how difficult it is to evict, so would the landlord really do that?

    I’m a master tenant. I’m not a greedy landlord. I’m the person who has to exert the landlord’s will for zero money, as required by the law that Dave cites. I’m the person who gets sued when subtenants get mad that after they’ve made messes and never cleaned up, I charge them a couple hundred bucks for a maid service when they move out. They were entitled to every penny plus interest with zero responsibility, right. Right? Wrong. I lose money every time a tenant moves in or out and I’m legally forbidden from making it up in add-on rent.

    I’m tired of tenants rights people painting me as the problem. I never asked to be master tenant. The only thing I get from it is risk.

    • Lisa

      No… Actually, you do get something big — as master tenant, you CAN evict your roommates without having to satisfy Just Cause, or simply give them 30 day notice to vacate. Your landlord cannot do that. If you had Co-Tenancy, then if you had a crazy roommate who still had it together enough to pay their rent, it would be you moving, not them.

      • Lester Moore

        Right Lisa, that’s true. But you have to give them 30 days and they can make your life a living hell for 30 days and you have to sit by and do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Your landlord does not have to live with the nut cases/losers that he evicts.

  • Hector P

    With so many people writing in, I believe this points to another real problem, the shortage of affordable legal representation. Lazy, greedy attorneys that do no pro bono work are depriving the middle class of their legal rights. I have an idea I think you’ll love – The Attorney Fee Ordinance (AFO) of 2013:

    • The attorney fee ordinance would be patterned after the rent control ordinance.

    • After establishing a relationship with an attorney, AFO would require the attorney provide representation, unless the attorney could document fraud on the part of his client.

    • If the attorney desired to end the provision of services to the client, the attorney would have to pay the client $5,000 in client relocation expenses. This would not prevent the client from negotiating a higher amount.

    • Any attorney admitted to the bar in 2013 or later would be exempt from the AFO.

    • AFO would only allow attorneys to increase their fees up to, but not exceed, 60 percent of the CPI increase (chain linked All Urban Consumers).

    • An attorney board would be established to resolve attorney-client disputes.

    There would, of course, be other provisions, but you get the idea.

    Is what’s good for the goose good enough for the gander?

  • chebby

    The real solution to this problem is do your due diligence up front before selecting a place to live. Ask questions. When I was looking at shared space, I would always squeeze the breakdown by room and “what’s the total rent?” into the conversation. This served a couple of purposes: One, I wanted to know, and it helped me to gauge the other places I was looking at. Two, how did the master tenant treat the question? If they got offended or refused to answer, I passed. I don’t want to live with people who aren’t straight up with me. Surprisingly, some will simply admit that the new kid will be paying the lion’s share. I wouldn’t live with those people either. I even looked at an SF apartment where the leaseholder had moved to Seattle years prior and everyone in the place was paying their rent to her…..

    Yes, you will pass on a lot of apartments but the most important thing is to find roommates with values compatible with your own. That’s way more important to get right than the amenities and the location. Eventually I couldn’t stand roommates and lived SRO for 2 years before finding a nice studio, where I am now well under market rate after 8 years. There’s a lot to be said for being your own master tenant with no other people to deal with. And after a few years rent control will put you in the same dilemma about subletting for more than you pay the landlord. It sure is tempting but personally, I just don’t feel right about it.

  • Judy B

    Hi 26-year-old-female,

    It’s been years since I’ve been a renter, and I’m not a landlord.
    (FWIW, I took my last landlord to the Rent Board and won.)

    Some questions:
    1.) Your rent is $3200/month… are you sure?
    Did you see the original lease? Because rent can be raised on rent-controlled units each year. True, it cannot be raised much, but if the Master Tenant (MT) has been there for donkey’s years, then the total rent may be appreciably higher than the amount on the original lease by now.
    Example: March 1, 2012-February 28, 2013– it can be raised 1.9%. http://www.sftu.org/rentcontrol.html

    I don’t think the MT can impose these increases on you, but check with the other tenants who’ve been there longer.

    2.) The MT pays all the bills.
    That’d be PG&E, Recology and any possible cleaning/maintaining the stairwell and other common areas. Window cleaning? Gardening?

    Is the ISP/cable shared, or does each tenant have his own provider and bill?

    Also, it may be that the water is paid by the landlord. (Seems to be common in SF.) But maybe the MT pays the water bill as well.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but utilities for four people can be astronomical even without water and ISP/cable!

    If the bills come in paper, you can always sneakily check the amounts. And if not and it’s all electronic, take a stab at guessing the MT’s password. or phone the utility co and say you’ve forgotten your Account Number.

    The MT could very well be shelling out in excess of $1000/month in utilities…

    Lastly, Dave Crow; you wrote:
    “[Tenants] claim that … ‘development’ projects destroy community. Clearly, they’re wrong.”

    I beg to differ. The development that the Mission is seeing is luxury condos, not affordable rental or condos.

    • Lester Moore

      Of course the MT can impose the increases on you! Otherwise they get stuck paying a greater and greater share of the rent. Again, another crazypants idea propagated by people who are convinced that being the master TENANT is the same as being the landLORD. Think about it. I agree with previous commenters that the original questioner had a responsibility to do her homework before moving in. If she didn’t, shame on her. It also sounds like she never even tried *asking* reasonably for the MT to obey the law. You still have to be human even when you’ve got the law on your side, otherwise everybody hates each other and the courts are clogged and people like Dave make a living writing inaccurate advice.

  • Tim Bracken

    More to Mr. Crow’s point, Section 6.15(C)(3) also says that it’s unlawful for the subtenant(s) to pay more to the master tenant than the master tenant pays to the landlord. Translated: you can’t use your rent-controlled 3-bedroom apartment as an ATM machine, gouging your subtenants to make a profit off your lease, all the while reminding them that they’re getting a better rate than the hordes of other desperate people on Craigslist.

    Incidentally, I agree with the other commenters in criticizing Mr. Crow’s tirade. This tale isn’t about landlord greed. It’s about the greed of tenants exploiting the rent-control system and ripping off their subtenants.

  • theHitman

    So… the property owner is the greedy one? Crow is out of touch with reality.
    This is happening all day everyday in SF and the reason rents are so high. Why move when you can let others pay your capped rents.

  • Bryan Kruchten

    The author and writer of the initial ‘complaint’ are both clearly left leaning in their logic. To be expected in SF. Running off emotion alone, in my opinion. Let logic set in for a moment. You the Roommate by legal definition do NOT have to keep living where you are. You are not forced to live where you are, so move. This is a mostly free society in which you may choose where you spend your hard earned cash. Don’t put the Master Tenant down as evil and greedy. Instead look at yourself and realize, again, you are not forced to reside in a residence that makes you ‘feel’ wronged.

  • Elisabet Eriksson

    I totally agree with everything that you’re saying. Except one thing: we didn’t yet have that revolution against the aristocracy. France did during the French revolution, and all states that are today socialist did too. But the US has always been and is still an open capitalist state. Btw, you can take your master tenant to small claims court and sue him there. However, it’s going to be challenging to then live together after having sued him. So, the best thing to do is to first move out and then sue. If everyone did that things might change some. I am personally against a violent revolution. I would much prefer that things changed on a legal level instead. I think it’s also hard to see a real revolution in the US today because people are too comfortable and sedated with TV and other drugs. But sooner or later, when enough people don’t have money to put food on their tables, we’ll see violence and riots and revolution. So it’s best to start working for changing the laws now instead to avoid any violence. And taking all greedy master tenants to small claims court is a good start. Also, one reason people live in the Bay area is because there are a lot of jobs here. So, the solutions are not easy for sure. But we all need to take action and make things better and more fair.

  • Eugenia Togiai

    hi, in a nutshell and the motto , “it is what , it is”…my 2 cents, i take care of this house..i do the repairs, and maintain its habbitiability…clean and safe..when you answer my room for rent ad..i give you options…at flat rate…i let you know off top..the house rules…and upon agreement you sign …by your signature you are stating that you are in compliance with all the house rules aside from the lease…when people are looking for a room at a great price…they dont care where its located, or who i am, they beg you to let them have the room and even offer me a non refundable $300 to hold room for them. AND THATS ASIDE FROM THE SECURITY DEPOSIT..if I accept it or initiate it, your in, and i take the post down draw up the paper work and have you sign on move in date. This usually happens when they are not able to move in right away.., i dont run back ground checks or speak with prior landlords…etc..and guess what , they dont either…cable and wifi, common areas are a house courtesy..my rooms are 750 a month..with a security deposit of $500 totally refundable at the end of your stay…one of my house rules are THE PRIVACY OF OTHERS ..RESOPECT OtHERS PRIVACY..you pay for a private room..a private space.. and it should not be violated…and im serious about it…It wasnt a concern of yours about me and my career when you moved in , and you still shouldnt be concerned about it now…i hold my end of the agreement and some..you obviously are in violation of the number one house rule…PRIVACY..I WOULD NOT ONLY BE PISSED OFF, & UNCOMFORTABLE WITH YOU…i WOULD USE THAT RULE AND VIOLATION TO PROPERLY SERVE YOU AN IMMEDIATE EVICTION NOTICE.. if this were my situation ,your plotting ,snooping and sneaking around behind his back, in his home.. if not physically, then mentally,.that is not RIGHT.why dont you try asking him how would he like sharing the master tenant responsibiliy? instead of seeking away to do it behind his back,it wouldnt hurt.. .REGAURDLESS HOW MANY TIMES HE TRAVELS OUT THE COUNTRY…OR WHATEVER HE DOES PRIVATELY..AS LONG AS HE PAYS THE RENT.and its not endangering you..or invading your private paid space..YOU SHOULD not FEEL LIKE , he doesnt deserve to be master tenant,then if your not woman enough to ask or accept rejection, WHAT YOU NEED TO BE DOING IS SAVING UP YOUR MONEY TO MOVE OUT ON YOUR OWN…AND YOU WONT HAVE TO SIT WITH THOUGHTS OF HOW TO JACK THE MASTER TENANT OUT OF HIS PLACE..SO YOU CAN BE THE MASTER TENANT.