Rent it Right

Janet Portman
Inman News

Q: Im considering breaking my lease because of bed bugs — not in my unit, but next door. The building owner made the tenant leave, and called in exterminators, but didnt test any adjoining units, and the tenant is right back in there now, with all her original things. Ive read that these pests are extremely hard to eradicate, and travel easily. Is this a legal basis for breaking my lease? —Andrew D.

A: Bed bugs are indeed very difficult to control. Unless your landlord called a pest control company that’s well versed in how to deal with them, you could indeed be facing a situation where the bugs are still in residence, and possibly ready to move next door (they travel easily through cracks in floors and through openings created for wires and pipes). If you were to find bed bugs in your unit, that would probably justify breaking your lease (assuming your landlord didn’t try to argue that you introduced them independently), but you hardly want to wait for that event. The question is, given the situation, do you have a reasonable fear that infestation is imminent? The stronger your evidence that it is, the greater your chances that a judge would uphold your lease-breaking, should your landlord take you to court (or keep your deposit) to cover the rent for the balance of your lease.

In order to answer that question, you’ll need to learn more about how the landlord has dealt with the neighbor’s problem. Begin educating yourself by learning how these bugs live and thrive, which methods a reputable pest control company will take to eradicate them, and what steps enlightened owners take when there’s an outbreak in their buildings. The Harvard School of Public Health, at www.hsph.harvard.edu/bedbugs, has written the definitive word on bed bugs (since the school isn’t in the pest control business, you don’t have to worry about hype). A commercial site, www.techletter.com, has lots of very practical information for multifamily units in particular. The more you can argue that your owner’s response was inadequate when measured by industry standards and likely to result in a re-infestation (and spread), the greater your chances that your lease-breaking will survive a challenge.

Q: In the face of mounting debt, Ive reluctantly decided to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Im not behind in rent and I think I can continue to pay, but Im worried about the effect of my bankruptcy on my lease. Can my landlord kick me out? –name withheld

A: Your landlord cannot kick you out simply because you’ve filed for bankruptcy. Here’s what will happen after you file: The bankruptcy judge will appoint someone, called a “bankruptcy trustee,” to oversee your case. That person will look at your bankruptcy petition, see that you have a lease, and decide whether to carry on with it or terminate it. If you’re paying big bucks to rent a lavish penthouse, the trustee will want to end the lease, channel that extra cash towards your creditors, and have you live more modestly. Most of the time, the trustee leaves the lease in place, as it rarely makes sense to force the debtor to look for another rental.

Even if you keep the lease, your landlord has the right to ask the judge to make you prove that you’ll be able to continue to pay the rent. If you convince the judge, that’s the end of it. Now, suppose you fail to pay the rent while your bankruptcy petition is still ongoing? The landlord can’t give you a “pay or quit” notice, let alone evict you, without the judge’s OK. The landlord will have to ask the judge to allow him to terminate your lease and, if needed, evict.

Q: I live in a resort area where some landowners are trying to limit rentals to monthly or yearly only (no weekly rentals). This idea comes from folks who dont rent out their homes, and theyre hoping that by requiring renters to commit to a minimum of a months rental, there will be fewer groups of large, rowdy renters. I dont think this is the right approach, and that individual owners should be held accountable for misbehavior of their renters. I rent to many weeklong tenants who arent troublemakers, and my business will take a real hit if this goes through. How can I stop this? —Ian C.

A: I suppose that your fellow property owners are thinking that with a required month’s stay, they’ll eliminate groups of college kids who come for a week and make a lot of noise. That’s probably true — the Spring Break renters won’t be able to afford a month’s rent. But you’re also going to rule out lots of other perfectly law-abiding tenants who simply can’t afford to (or don’t want to) stay for a month. That will hurt landlords like you a lot.

If you want to stop this idea, here are some suggestions. One argument against this proposal might be that it legislates in an area (how dwellings are rented) that may be reserved exclusively for the state legislature. In other words, you may be able to argue that your municipality has no power to prevent landlords from renting on a weekly basis, because only the state legislature can regulate how dwellings are rented. Another argument would concern the interference this rule would create in a rental owner’s ability to use his or her land. When the state gets involved in how you use your land to the point that it makes it illegal to rent your property by the week, instead of by the month, the government ought to have a very good reason, and there should be no other way that’s less onerous to accomplish this goal. But as you suggest, noise ordinances, citations (aimed at both owners and renters) and good police presence can take care of those weekly noise-makers, while leaving sedate tenants happily alone in their weekslong stay.

I’d suggest getting together with like-minded owners and finding a lawyer well versed in municipal law to talk to. Make sure you’ve got someone who’s not beholden to local politicos or real estate interests, and who will represent you (or just coach you) in a way that you’re comfortable with.

Copyright 2008 Janet Portman

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