Landlord, the beehive's in your court

Rent it Right

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 14, 2010

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Rent it Right

Janet Portman
Inman News

Q: I rent a single-family home. A beehive under the eaves has grown quite large and active, and it makes me nervous every time I pass by. Who is responsible for removing it: me or the owner? --Cynthia C.

A: Your question presents two thorny issues. First, is the presence of a busy beehive a situation that makes your home unfit and unlivable? You have to get beyond that one before thinking about who must remove it.

Landlords in every state except Arkansas must offer and maintain fit and habitable housing. This includes the obligation to rid the home of infestations by vermin and ants, but only when the problem has not been caused by the tenant (in those cases, the landlord must still deal with the problem, but may bill the tenant for the extermination costs). The issue for you is whether a beehive falls within your state's definition of the term "infestation." You'd have to check the code section that describes the landlord's duty to maintain the premises to find out if the term is specifically defined. If it's not, you'd want to find out whether courts in your state have considered the question and ruled on it.

I'll bet that you won't find beehives listed in the code as a type of infestation that renders the premises unfit for habitation -- and that there won't be any cases on the issue, either. This doesn't mean you're out of luck, but you'll need to get creative.

For example, if the code simply mentions infestations of vermin and "other pests," you'd want to check Webster's. You'll find a little help there -- a pest is defined as an epidemic disease associated with high mortality; or something resembling a pest in destructiveness, like a plant or animal detrimental to humans or human concerns. Perhaps your unwelcome subtenants are potentially harmful enough to be "detrimental" to you and others entering the home.

Let's assume for now that you can confidently conclude that the appearance of an active beehive renders the rental unfit. So who should get rid of it? This question would be simple to answer if you lived in a multifamily rental property. When many tenants live in a property, responsibility for keeping the structure habitable unquestionably rests with the owner. And that's how it should be: Most tenants lack the skills and knowledge to assess and perform major repairs, and most owners don't want tenants working on their buildings, especially when it comes to important systems or structural aspects.

Now and then, in states that give tenants the right to "repair and deduct," tenants might roll up their sleeves and do some work on the property. But because such remedies usually limit the amount of money a tenant can spend, the practical result is that only relatively minor repairs are covered. Removing a beehive would probably fit within many states' repair-and-deduct laws, however.

These rules may change a bit when a single-family residence is involved. The owners of these rentals have the same obligation to maintain sound buildings, but often the landlord and tenant agree ahead of time that the tenant will perform the actual maintenance. Landlords need to have a large degree of confidence in their tenants when they delegate responsibility for potentially expensive repairs; it's wise to ask for notice (and a copy of the plans and the expected cost) before the tenant goes ahead with any work. These arrangements should be spelled out in the lease, but if they aren't, oral understandings (though risky) can be legally enforceable, too.

When you rented your home, did you or the landlord talk about who would perform repairs? If not, the responsibility defaults to the landlord. You could reasonably ask the owner to deal with the beehive, but only, as explained above, if the presence of an active beehive falls within the definition of a habitability problem.

Q: My daughter is a freshman at a university. Her dormitory has a policy of unannounced inspections that's designed to find out if students are keeping alcohol and drugs in their rooms. The resident assistant (RA) will knock on the door, demand to be let in, and look around as much as he pleases. If students refuse to let the RA in, that's grounds for terminating the student's right to live in the dorm. My daughter didn't let him in because she was in bed -- in her nightgown! -- and by the time she had dressed, he had left -- to write her up! Isn't this illegal? --Yanick Z.

A: Your suspicions are understandable. If your daughter were renting from a private landlord, she would enjoy the protections of your state's landlord-tenant laws. Most states regulate when and how landlords may enter tenants' rental units (emergency situations excepted). Typically, these statutes specify allowable reasons to enter, permissible days and times for entry, the manner in which a landlord must communicate his intent to enter, and the number of days' notice tenants must be given.

In states that provide protections like this, unannounced visits that aren't occasioned by a true emergency, but come with a threat to terminate the tenancy unless the tenant lets the landlord come in and "look around," would violate the law.

In practice, if the tenants refused entry and the landlord filed for eviction, the tenants could successfully defeat the eviction action by showing that the landlord's insistence on unannounced entry violated state law. Tenants can also go to court and sue for damages, to compensate them for the consequences of the landlord's forced intrusion.

The RA's conduct seems like it should be illegal under these principles -- but there's a catch. Many states exempt school housing from their landlord-tenant laws in general. They've taken the lead from the Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act, a model set of laws that's been adopted (and sometimes modified) by almost half the states. In many of these states (and in others that have similar laws), their usual landlord-tenant laws don't apply to housing that's incidental to the provision of "medical, geriatric, educational, counseling, religious or similar services." (URLTA § 1.202.)

Although state landlord-tenant law may not help your daughter, she may find some support in her state's laws or court decisions regarding a person's right to privacy. Especially if she's in California, where a person's right to privacy is part of the state constitution, she may have a shot. In that state, private as well as governmental actors may not deprive Californians of their reasonable expectations of privacy. If the school tries to kick her out of student housing for refusing to let the RA enter, she may be able to prevail by showing:

  • First, that the law protects the kind of privacy she's claiming. That's simple -- the law surely acknowledges your daughter's right not to have to interact with someone when she's not dressed.
  • Second, that her expectation that she shouldn't have to instantly open the door to an RA's knock was reasonable under the circumstances. Again, she has a good argument: Even if the search policy is widely known, explained and made a part of the housing contract, it may be unreasonable if applied in an unreasonable way. Unless the RA could point to some extenuating circumstance that required that he be let in right away, it seems his hurry was needless.
  • Finally, your daughter would have to show that this invasion of her privacy would have been serious, had she met the fellow at the door in her nightie. Here again, I doubt you'd have much trouble. You'd need point no further than to a recent U.S. Supreme Court case, striking down a strip search of a teenage girl suspected (wrongly, it turned out) of bringing drugs to school. Although your daughter didn't face a strip search, she would have endured something uncomfortably close.

You might also invoke the federal Constitution's prohibition, in the Fourth Amendment, of unreasonable searches and seizures. That amendment prohibits the government, but not private actors, from entering a home without a warrant unless special circumstances exist, such as the need to stop an ongoing crime or to secure evidence of a significant crime when that evidence is about to be disposed of.

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