Weighing religious freedom vs. rental alterations

Rent it Right

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 24, 2010

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Rent it Right

Janet Portman
Inman News

Q: My tenants have asked for permission to place a large, conventional religious symbol on their front door. They'd need to screw it into the wood. My leases prohibit alterations without my consent, and I don't want the door disfigured like this. But they say I have to agree because saying "no" will interfere with their right to practice their religion. What do you think? --Maureen B.

A: Your question highlights the tension between a landlord's legal right to prevent physical modifications or alterations to her property and a tenant's desire to exercise her religious beliefs, which may include placing symbols on the landlord's property.

Landlords everywhere have the right to prevent even the slightest physical change to their property, including painting and even nail holes for artwork. Few are so unreasonable to prohibit picture-hanging, but they are within their rights to charge the tenant at the end of the rental term for the cost to cover and paint the holes.

This is just a fact of rental life: Unless a tenant's request to alter the physical structure involves a modification needed by a person with disabilities, the tenant needs to get the landlord's permission. Without it, the landlord has grounds to evict, especially if the alteration is significant.

But does the situation change if the alteration has religious significance to the tenant? Landlords may not adopt policies that are aimed at specific religions, either encouraging or discouraging their practice.

For example, an owner who forbade the wearing of religious symbols or clothing would be a prime candidate for a discrimination complaint (as would a landlord who required such garb); and one who did not allow gatherings of reasonable numbers for prayers would also risk a lawsuit.

But your policy of preventing unauthorized alterations is not aimed at any particular religion, or even at religious practices in general. It's "neutral," in that it applies as much to the tenant who wants to affix a cross or mezuzah as one who wants to hang a self-portrait or a "No Solicitors" sign.

Because the policy is not aimed at religious practices, and assuming you haven't enforced it only when tenants want to install religious items, you are within your rights to apply it evenly to deny every request to alter the physical premises.

This is theory -- now let's get real. You might think about treating this request as you would any that involves alterations. Does the tenant understand that she runs the risk of a deduction from her security deposit if she doesn't repair the door to your satisfaction when she leaves? If the door is high-end and it will be impossible to repair the damage adequately, is she prepared to replace the door?

You might have this conversation and put your understandings in writing. That way, if you need to use the deposit for a new door, the tenant will have very little to argue about.

Q: My husband and I have lived in our apartment for 20 years. When he became disabled, we applied for Section 8 assistance. After two years' wait, we were accepted and got a voucher. But our landlord doesn't want to participate in the Section 8 program. We can't afford the rent without help. Is there any way to force the landlord to accept Section 8 money? --Marissa and Bill

A: Your options will depend on which state you live in. But first, a little background on the Section 8 federal rent subsidy program: When a family becomes eligible for Section 8 assistance, the local public housing authority (PHA) issues them a voucher, which is simply a document describing the program and the steps the housing authority will take to approve a rental selected by the family.

When the family selects a rental, with an owner willing to lease under the program, the family asks the PHA to approve the tenancy. If the rental passes a physical inspection, and the landlord attaches the "Section 8 Addendum" to the lease, the tenancy is created. Tenants pay 30 percent of their income toward the rent; the federal government, through the local housing authority, pays the rest directly to the landlord.

The federal law that established Section 8 does not require landlords to participate in the program. But some states do. In Connecticut, Maryland and Massachusetts, for example, landlords may not refuse to rent to current or new tenants who become or are eligible for Section 8 help.

And in New Jersey, when an existing tenant becomes eligible for Section 8 help, the landlord may not refuse to accept Section 8 money. If you live in one of these states, your landlord's refusal is against the law.

Alas, you may not live in one of these four states. Tenants in positions like yours have used creative arguments to support their theory that the landlord must participate in the program. One such argument is based on the state's ban (if there is one) on discrimination on the basis of "source of income."

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