'Disabled' problem tenant has special rights

Rent it Right

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 27, 2012

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Rent it Right

Janet Portman
Inman News®

Q: I've received complaints from several tenants about a resident who they say is bothering them. Specifically, the resident threatens to dump their laundry if he finds it in a washer or dryer; and he is consistently unpleasant and aggressive when people encounter him in the lobby or grounds. He is on SSI or SSDI and I suspect he has serious mental or emotional problems, but he's also causing tension here, and I fear that some tenants are considering leaving. Can I legally terminate this tenant's lease? --Elli G.

A: People with serious mental illnesses may qualify for government assistance in the form of SSI (Supplemental Security Income) or SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance program), or both. If this describes your tenant, he qualifies as a "disabled person" for purposes of the federal Fair Housing Act.

As you no doubt know, the federal law prohibits discrimination against disabled applicants and tenants. You could not, for example, categorically decide to terminate a tenant who is disabled. But when the individual behaves in a way that poses a "direct threat" to the safety and well-being of other residents, or causes substantial physical damage to others' belongings, your options are more varied.

You'll need to evaluate your tenant's behavior against these admittedly inexact standards. Just how aggressive has his behavior been? Are your residents' reactions reasonable -- or are you hearing from hypersensitive folks who would take umbrage at even slightly anti-social behavior? Would dumping someone's laundry on the floor constitute "substantial damage"?

Before taking action, you'd be wise to talk directly with your tenant. Or you may want to enlist the help of a local community board (a mediation group for landlords) or contact a group that advocates for mental health patients. He may be aware of his actions yet not be able to control them, and it's possible that his behavior could improve with counseling and/or medications.

In fact, consistent with your duties under the Fair Housing Act, you're legally obliged to work with the tenant if he proposes ways in which he can modify his behavior to meet your reasonable expectations of peaceful behavior. For example, if he promises to seek treatment and follow doctors' orders concerning medications and therapy, you'll need to give this plan a try.

Q: Our landlord has asked us, first-time renters, to supply a co-signer. My parents are willing, but they don't want to be responsible for mistakes that my roommate might make. How can I convince them to sign up? --Terry T.

A: Your parents are expressing a valid concern. It's altogether possible that they could, in fact, end up covering for your roommate's shortfall. Here's why: As you no doubt know, the landlord expects the full rent every month, and doesn't care how you and your co-tenant split it. If tenants can't pay the whole amount, the landlord can serve a "pay or quit" notice, or turn to the co-signer (sometimes called a guarantor) for payment.

If it's your roommate who can't come up with his share, and you can't cover it, your only chance of saving your tenancy will be to hope that the landlord turns to the co-signer. That's how your parents will end up paying for your roommate's share of the rent.

Short of bringing in another co-signer, there's no way around this problem. With a second co-signer (like your roommate's parents), you could ask the landlord to tap them for the rent shortfall when it's their tenant who has come up short.

Many landlords, however, will not be interested in dealing with multiple co-signers, for the same reason that they don't care about who pays what portion of the rent. They just want one sturdy bank account that will stand behind the rent, and if that account ends up covering for the roommate's inability to pay, that's not their problem. If you run into this response, the best you can do is to ask your roommate for someone whom your parents can turn to for reimbursement, if they end up paying on his account.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord's Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant's Legal Guide." She can be reached at janet@inman.com.

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