When did we as a society start criminalizing landlords?
Like so many other creeping, insidious changes in our society, it didn’t happen overnight. An early example took place in Kentucky, when a 69-year-old landlord was charged criminally because he leased to illegal immigrants.
Then states started charging landlords as criminals when their properties burned down. Not for arson, mind you – but because the smoke detectors weren’t working properly. A Portland landlord was convicted and sentenced with jail time when his property burned to the ground.
Now Florida lawmakers are trying to pass a bill imposing criminal penalties if landlords fail to perfectly maintain their rental properties.
Jailed for a leaky toilet?
Florida politicians have introduced HB 1287, which will make landlords criminally liable for a slew of housing responsibilities. We are not just talking fines, either: “Any person who violates this section commits a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable as provided in s.775.082 or s 775.083. A second or subsequent offense constitutes a felony of the third degree…” you get the picture.
You could be charged with a felony for not getting to that leaky faucet quickly enough, or hopping on pest extermination fast enough for lawmakers’ liking.
Why would anyone want to provide housing if they will be treated like criminals for doing so?
In what other industry are businesspeople subject to criminal charges if they don’t provide perfect customer service?
And liability doesn’t end with a misbegotten Florida law, either.
Tenant crimes, landlord liability
In some states, if the landlord does not report a tenant’s crime, the landlord is liable.
You find the perfect tenant. It is a nice quiet woman with a cat perhaps; excellent credit, employment and rental history. Then she gets a boyfriend! Wedding bells and hearts, right?
Except the boyfriend is a drug dealer. Unbeknownst to you as the landlord, he has moved in and using the premises for his illicit business. If you stumble on any clues, and fail to report the tenant, you might just find yourself charged as an accomplice or with obstruction of justice.
And even if you don’t know about the crimes, landlord can face fines for criminal activity that stems from their property.
Criminals, a “protected class” in Fair Housing?
Well, this is confusing. The landlord can be held responsible for renters’ illegal activities yet, HUD has forbidden landlords from “discriminating” based on renters’ criminal records.
Plus, Fair Housing Lawsuits are on the rise, including cases against landlords who use criminal history to make a rental decision. Are you confused yet? Are dog owners with dangerous dogs next on the list of protected classes?
Don’t laugh just yet.
Tenants’ dogs are sometimes the landlord’s responsibility too
As a landlord, you may be responsible for your tenant’s pet. Did you know there is a list of “blacklisted breeds” used by insurance companies? Here is the list:
- Pit Bull Terriers
- Staffordshire Terriers
- German Shepherds
- Presa Canarios
- Chows Chows
- Doberman Pinschers
- Cane Corsos
- Great Danes
- Alaskan Malamutes
- Siberian Huskies
We have nothing against any of those dogs. But you still shouldn’t accept tenants who have one, for insurance and liability reasons.
Baltimore City passed a law making landlords liable if their tenant’s pit bull attacks someone. Why? Because the City of Baltimore was too cowardly to outlaw pit bulls directly, so by making landlords the “bad guy” who don’t allow pit bulls, they can still reduce the number of pit bulls while neatly avoiding accusations of “hating dogs.”
In a Massachusetts lawsuit, the young son of one tenant who was injured badly by another tenant’s pit bull, and the boy’s father named the landlord as one of the parties in the lawsuit. This case bounced around through different courts, including an appellate court. The appellate court did not feel that there was enough evidence as whether the landlord “knew or reasonably should have known” that the dog was dangerous. It was bounced back to a lower court so a jury could make determination.
Even if the landlord wins, the legal costs alone and wasted time for that landlord could sink him. And the kicker? That landlord did not permit pets. It was an unauthorized dog that a renter had snuck in!
Tip: Inspect your rental properties twice/year, and drive by occasionally without notice. If you see a dog, don’t just call the tenant, send a written notice. This one needs a paper trail!
Everyone loves to sue landlords
Lawsuits and landlords go together like peanut butter and jelly nowadays. I have heard the term “deep pockets” from many a bottom-feeding attorney. Here’s an ugly story from my own past.
Snowstorms are tough on everyone, but no one more so than property managers. Not only do you have to cajole, beg and bribe your staff to come out at all hours to clear walkways, de-ice and the like, but you also need to arrange a snow removal contractor and somehow convince him to come to you before the 13,593 other people blowing up his phone.
To the tenant ambulance chaser, a snowstorm is pay dirt. One of my tenants filed a slip-and-fall lawsuit during one. Fortunately we had insurance, and when we filed a claim, the insurance company’s investigators discovered that the very spot our tenant “slipped” had a car parked over it during the time she alleged.
But we got lucky that we could prove it was a bogus claim. What are the odds? How many other bogus lawsuits against landlords go through every year? Too many.
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Forced to keep a tenant?
Portland, Oregon approved a bill forcing landlords to pay for some tenants to move. Fallen off your chair yet?
Here is the short version. If you haven’t raised rents in a while and need to catch up with market rates, be careful. If you raise rents by more than 10%, guess who’s footing the bill if your tenant moves?
The landlord, by some contortion of logic. It doesn’t matter if you are facing increased costs, higher property taxes, higher insurance rates, or are charging 25% under the market rent and need to catch up.
And that moving bill is suspiciously expensive, too. Portland allows renters to bill their landlord anywhere from $2,900 to $4,500. What happened to a U-Haul and some able-bodied movers?
If the Portland law passes, it could very well become precedent for other towns, cities and perhaps even states to adopt.
The slow death of accountability
When I owned a bar, there was a heavy legal burden on the owner to protect the VIP’s (Very Intoxicated Persons) in my state of Pennsylvania. Imagine Drew Drunk drives from bar to bar to bar, and ends the night at my place. After serving him one drink, I noticed that he was severely intoxicated and cut him off.
Well, Drew Drunk became very angry! Before I could call him a cab, he stomps out of the bar and into his car. Then he promptly wraps his car around a pole. When the police find him with a high blood alcohol level, what do you think they ask Drew first? The last place he had a drink, of course.
And the responsibility falls on the bar owner for the patrons drinking themselves to oblivion.
Is “accountability” an extinct notion, like “chivalry” and “affordable tuition”?
The trend toward criminalizing landlords and making them liable for renters’ crimes would indicate yes. So what’s a landlord to do?
First, learn and understand your local and state rentals laws! Of course, make sure that you aggressively screen all rental applicants. Check them out on social media. The nice quiet cat-lady who appeared before you and looks wonderful on paper can cause a pause when you see her whooping it up in every single picture on her Instagram account.
Get involved! Go to the local apartment association meetings. When you see these dangerous bills criminalizing landlords, speak up. Sign petitions.
This is your business! Don’t let the politicians and talking heads make you a criminal.
What liability do you think landlords should have? How does landlord liability compare to other businesses? Will other states follow Florida’s example? Bring on the controversy!