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The Ins and Outs of Landlord-Tenant Disputes: An Interview with Richard L. Beckman of Beckman Blair LLP

By Richard L. Beckman

Please tell us a little bit about your company and the services you offer.

I have been practicing landlord-tenant and real estate law since 1990. My practice includes all types of real estate problems, such as title disputes, neighbor disputes, property use issues, and contract disputes involving the purchase and sale of property. I also assist borrowers and lenders with issues related to that transaction area. I represent commercial and residential landlords and tenants in all aspects of that relationship. I have been practicing in the local rent control jurisdictions of San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland since 1990, and consider it one of the more challenging areas of practice. I am also a trained mediator, which I think helps me in my daily practice with my clients and the other side. I also serve as an occasional volunteer judge pro tem in the San Francisco and Marin Superior Courts. I have a law partner, David Blair, who focuses on criminal law, and wills and trusts, so we have a wide range of areas covered.

Is there a common misconception that people have about landlord-tenant law?

Interesting question. I don't know that I have heard from clients or the public about common misperceptions, but one misperception among practitioners (other lawyers) might be that the legal field of landlord-tenant law is not very challenging or complicated. However, and particularly in areas that have a local residential rent control law such as San Francisco or Oakland, landlord-tenant legal issues can be extremely challenging. Primarily, this is because there is not a lot of appellate law that provides guidance to the trial judges as to how to rule on various factual issues.

Basically, local laws - like state laws - are often written to cover a broad spectrum of activity, and the more general the language of the law, the more room there is for creative interpretation by attorneys that are arguing both sides of the factual dispute (whatever it might be). If there is appellate case law on the issue, then the attorneys, or the trial judge, can apply that law and render a reasonably anticipated decision. But if there is not such appellate guidance, the trial judge decides what the law means on the given set of facts, and that decision (sometimes appealed so that the eventual ruling becomes the law and provides guidance for future disputes) is many times not the one that at least one attorney would have anticipated.

What are some of the most common types of landlord-tenant disputes that you've seen arise in Northern California?

Since the issues between commercial landlords and tenants are significantly different from those faced by residential landlords and tenants, you have to break the question into those two categories. For residential, you then have to further break the cases and issues down between rent controlled tenancies (not including the Section 8 government assisted tenancies however) and non-rent controlled tenancies.

As to the non-rent controlled tenancies, the most common issues are typically security deposit related. As to rent control, subletting is one of the most complicated issue areas, since tenants want to be able to spread the cost of the rent between as many persons as they choose, but landlords want to maintain control of the number and identify of the occupants of the unit, and those two goals often clash. But perhaps the most contentious issue in rent controlled cities is the one involving non-permitted units, often referred to as illegal units or illegal in-law units. Where a landlord has added a small unit (typically on the ground floor behind the garage) without having a permit of occupancy issued by the local planning of building department, the rental of such units engenders multiple issues that can become the subject of expensive litigation.

Can you briefly explain the basic rights that tenants have when it comes to disputes with their landlord?

There is a significant distinction between commercial and residential tendencies. The rights of commercial tenants are almost exclusively contained within the lease agreement between the parties. In contrast, residential tenancies have many rights that are either not contained in that rental agreement, or, sometimes, even operate to supersede provisions in the rental agreement that would otherwise be to the detriment of the tenant. Tenants rights are the subject of federal, state and local law. They primarily involve the right to habitable premises, and freedom from discrimination in renting and occupying residential property.

In cities with rent and eviction control ordinances, such as San Francisco, tenants have additional rights regarding rent increases and the right to remain in possession without having their tenancy terminated unless the landlord has just cause to do so.

What obligation does a landlord have in California state have after being notified about a tenant's rental problem?

Once a landlord is on notice - either from its own investigation or by notification from the tenant - that there is a habitability (or some other) problem with the unit, the landlord has an obligation to take reasonably prompt efforts to cure the problem. The nature of the problem often impacts the length of time that is considered reasonably prompt. Generally, the landlord's duty is to fix whatever problem that renders the premises uninhabitable, unless the problem was created by the tenant. In such case, the tenant cannot complain that it is the landlord's responsibility and must either repair the problem him or herself, or compel the landlord to do the work (for by example, seeking a notice of building code violation). But in that case, the landlord could seek to hold the tenant responsible for the cost of the repair.

What is one of the biggest challenges in the San Francisco area when it comes to rent control?

Probably the biggest challenge in control cities such as San Francisco is the inherent conflict between the tenant who occupies a unit and pays less rent than that unit can otherwise command on the open market, and the landlord whose motivation is typically to maximize his or her investment. Sometimes this conflict plays out in wrongful eviction efforts by the landlord who seeks to recover possession of the under-market rate units, or in affirmative lawsuits brought by the tenant seeking to compel the landlord to honor his or her maintenance obligations even though the tenant's rent is significantly below market rates.

One of the landlord's biggest challenges is simply complying with the rent control laws that limit rent increases to one per year, in an amount based on the consumer price index for that year. Landlords who fail to properly calculate or apply this calculation, or simply are unaware of it and impose market rate increases, are often subject to claims by the tenant in later years seeking a refund of rent paid that was over and above the amount legally allowed. Not surprisingly, this can create significant tension between the parties.

Do you have any tips to help tenants/renters successfully resolve an issue with their landlord?

Whenever a landlord and tenant have a problem, I believe it is absolutely in their mutual best interest to try to work together to resolve the problem without the necessity of third-party involvement. As long as both sides are aware of their rights and responsibilities, and interact with respect and understanding, most, if not all, such issues - from habitability and repair issues to rent increases and security deposits - can be resolved by the parties. Involving a third-party, whether it be the rent board, attorneys or the court system, can often leave both sides worse off, and the parties in a relationship much less harmonious than might otherwise have been the case. Of course, there are always going to be occasions where one side or the other is simply unreasonable, or unwilling to compromise, in which case third-party intervention is absolutely necessary and appropriate.

What's the best way for people to contact your company?

Richard Beckman can be reached by contacting him directly at 415-871-0070 extension 301, or Rich@Beckmanblairllp.com.

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