Can we break the lease if our neighbors blocked our view?
March 19, 2009 7:32 PM   Subscribe

My roommate just signed a 12-month lease on our place in January. When she did that, our bedrooms had this view. As of this week, they have this view. Grounds to break the lease?

I went downstairs to knock on the neighbors' door. They were half-assedly apologetic ("Sorry, we just really wanted solar; we thought about telling you guys, but the city didn't require it, so we decided to just do it and face the consequences.") -- so our landlord may not have known about it either until construction started earlier this week.

In any case. The apartment we live in is small and kind of dark except for the two previously gorgeous, sunny windows looking South over San Francisco (they were sort of the only thing going for it). Now it's just small and dark. Obviously we never would have moved in if this was the case.

We don't want to leave the landlord holding the bag here, but this is not the apartment my roommate signed up for for the next 10 months. Is this enough to break the lease without big penalties or legal hassles?
posted by rafter to Law & Government (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
IANYL. I know nothing about CA landlord/tenant law, but I would be pretty shocked if this is grounds for you to avoid the lease, unless the LL knowingly misrepresented to you that you would have that view while aware that the solar panels were in the works (which seems unlikely, given that the neighbor said he intentionally did not notify you). You might contact these guys, but I'd say you either learn to love your new "view" or break the lease and face legal consequences. Again, IANYL.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:40 PM on March 19, 2009

So, the people who put up the window-blocking stuff live in the same building as you and have the same landlord? If your landlord didn't know about the construction beforehand, can't you talk to him about this? It seems like he should be able to make your neighbors take it down. Sorry if this is a non-answer, but since you mention not wanting to leave the landlord "holding the bag," I wondered if you might team up with him against the window-obstructing neighbors.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:45 PM on March 19, 2009

You know who is more upset about this than you? Your landlord. See, you are worried about the next 10 months, but he needs to rent that apartment out for many years. I would talk with the landlord, to see if there is anything he can do about the new solar panels.
posted by Houstonian at 7:47 PM on March 19, 2009 [6 favorites]

Yeah, you should probably talk to the Tenant's Union as Admiral Haddock suggests. They know all. Sheesh, I'd be shocked if they could do that in SF without notifying neighbors for blocks around. This is San Francisco we're talking about: neighbor notification and several months of community meetings seem to be required for *anything* to change.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 7:47 PM on March 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

I have no legal advice, but my common-sense first step would be to Verify the neighbor's assertion concerning notification. This change has financial implications for your landlord that he should be aware of. You certainly feel the rental has lost value.
The landlord does know about this, right?
In SF, people violating various code have been forced to remove structures much more elaborate and weighty than a rooftop solar setup.
posted by TDIpod at 7:49 PM on March 19, 2009

You've got options here.

First, your neighbors, who are renting in your building, made a material modification to the property, apparently without your landlord's permission. If he tells them to take it down, they have to do so. The property isn't theirs. If they won't, and he won't make them, you still have options.

Unobstructed light and views have been recognized as legitimate property interests time and again. If nothing else, what may formerly have been an egress window is no longer usable. If your landlord doesn't do anything about this, you should contact a property lawyer in San Francisco, as this is materially interfering with your use of the property and could conceivably be grounds for walking away from the lease.

In addition, I'd be shocked if this thing was up to code. You might consider contacting San Fransisco Planning Department, which is responsible for code enforcement. You can file a complaint, which they should investigate. Your neighbors could be fined for doing this. That'll change their tune.
posted by valkyryn at 7:53 PM on March 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Wow, I'm really surprised the city doesn't require notification for this kind of thing. Maybe check out if that is the case, because they might be lying to you. Of course, your landlord might have known - but again, it's probably in his best interests not to have that apartment lose its view since people are less likely to rent there if it's gone.
posted by crossoverman at 7:53 PM on March 19, 2009

Response by poster: I'll maybe drop in at the walk-in hours at the Tenants Union (though I'll feel kind of guilty because I realize there are tenants out there who are victims of stuff that is actually, you know, harmful), thanks.

To be clear, the neighbors are the homeowners of the building next door (3 units). We're in a bigger building (6 units, maybe?) and our landlord lives off-site.

otherwordlyglow, I know, I was shocked! My ex worked in an architecture office, and the hoops they had to jump through just to add a weathervane or redo the facade are ridiculous! But when I spoke the the neighbor he claimed there was no notification requirement (and they had the appropriate permits and had it inspected by the fire department and everything).
posted by rafter at 7:54 PM on March 19, 2009

It may be different in SF, but the County where I work in California, notification is only needed for certain projects, and solar panels are usually considered minor improvements. At the same time, blocking light might be something you could ask building officials about. Building officials will only catch so much from their offices, and I doubt they do site visits before approving permits for solar panels. Also, there is a state mandate or decree that says certain alternative energy projects are exempt from some normal review, not including health and safety issues (you could ask building officials about this). I agree with talking to your landlord about this, because it will be harder to rent the unit if it's a cave (though some like caves).
posted by filthy light thief at 8:00 PM on March 19, 2009

Having the view blocked like that lowers the value of the property. Your landlord will probably be very surprised and interested to learn his neighbour lowered his property values like that. It's in his interest to protect his property value anyway, but you threatening to break the lease would certainly spur it along.
posted by Nelson at 8:06 PM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Check your state &/or local law. I know in MO. that a tenant can break a lease, and be okay. Mainly because for the Landlord to retrieve penalty/back rent, he has to advertise extensively that the apartment is empty, have a sign posted on it, really put in an effort.
If he does none of those things, he can't collect. This way, he has to prove he is really out of pocket some sort of hurt & be able to prove it in court. There is also a minimum time limit of 3 months before he can try to collect from you.

After this you may not be able to use him as a reference, but there is always a chance, that if you just talk to him & be honest, he'll be understanding. Go into it with the already made decision that you are going to break the lease, and hope for the best...but don't back down.

I went through something like this in 01, and got out fine, & my Landlord tried to dick me.
Good Luck.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 8:14 PM on March 19, 2009

At the very least, maybe you could negotiate your monthly rent down some.
posted by blenderfish at 8:53 PM on March 19, 2009

I would contact the city building inspector's office and ask for advice about whether the neighbor's construction can stand given that it completely blocks your windows.
posted by zippy at 9:04 PM on March 19, 2009

Serious dick move by your neigbours but... you took the two photos from different angles*.

Is the view obstruction really that serious?

Yes, the solar panels get in your view. But depending on the angle, could you ask your neighbours to raise the solar panel array higher so you can still get a view (unless there's another unit above you).

*Solar panels are above some wooden siding of a building, in the first photo, there's no building siding present. Also, the second photo has an upwards shot of some roofs, which are not present in the first photo, which has a slight downwards shooting angle
posted by porpoise at 9:44 PM on March 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

valkyryn linked to the Planning Department, but you want the Dept of Building Inspections, more likely. They administer the Electrical Code, including Solar Photovoltaic Panel Installation. It looks like in a lot of cases, you don't need a permit but in cases, where there is a vertical addition, extending beyond the existing building, you do. That's not to say that you'd need to notify the neighbors in that case but I'd still give those guys a call to see what the process is. Note: the building inspectors are not always the most ethical guys in the room.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:54 PM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just chiming in to say that the SF Tenants Union rocks (they were an invaluable help to my roommates and me when we sued our landlord way back in the day). Unless you're totally destitute you should just go ahead and join. If they can help you they will, and they do good work. Good luck.
posted by smartyboots at 10:40 PM on March 19, 2009

Ditto the question about how much the view changed. Did it go from 1/3 obstructed to 2/3 obstructed, or what?
posted by salvia at 10:59 PM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Serious dick move by your neigbours but... you took the two photos from different angles*.

I didn't know there would be solar panels so I didn't plan a "before" shot. The "after" shot from the same angle as the first would be nothing but the underside of the panels (the first shot was taken through the open window and angled kind of downward). The sill of the window is maybe two feet lower than the roofline of the neighboring house, which wasn't enough to get in the way (regardless of whether you're standing or seated). I'd say the window went from not-at-all obstructed (or like, 1/8?) to 2/3 or so. The lighting difference is is noticable (used to be a super sun-drenched room all day), but the more drastic difference is that the view is completely blotted out (it's almost comedic how the top edge of the panels matches the horizon line exactly when you're standing; if you're seated, all you can see is a sliver of sky).

Raising the panels would restore the view but I feel like would create an "awning" type effect that would block the sun even more.

I'll maybe give the Dept of Building Inspections a call but the panels arguably don't "extend beyond the existing building" (there's an attic space to the left you can see in the picture, which is taller than the panels). And I'll see what the landlord and/or the tenants union has to say (lower rent would be great, but honestly it's not feeling like a happy place to live anymore, you know? The view was a big deal; all the other windows in the place look directly at walls of the taller building behind us, there are no street-facing windows or anything).

Thanks so much for all your thoughts/advice, everyone.
posted by rafter at 11:51 PM on March 19, 2009

You have no grounds to break the lease. The view is not part of the lease.
posted by mattoxic at 12:33 AM on March 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't try to get the neighbors in trouble with the building inspectors, myself. I don't want to discourage people from installing solar panels. Plus, I'm sure there's an easier way to solve this than getting your neighbors busted for putting screws in every 1" instead of every 3/4". And what if they just added an extra six screws and suddenly met the code?

I'd just talk to your landlord. A lease exists, sure, and they could get greedy or legalistic on you, but they might just be human about it, or they might not think it's worth a fight. Come up with some jargon about a material change in conditions of the property or something, but say you don't want them to lose money, you just want to be allowed to go without losing money yourself. Offer to stay several months or until they find a new tenant (so that they don't lose money by having the unit sit vacant), or ask if you can do the footwork yourself to find someone to sublease the place. In fact, in some cities, they have to let you sublease, and since San Fran has a Just Cause Eviction policy, it's somewhat likely they'll have that rule.

I know this sucks, and I'd be annoyed, too, but in the big picture, there are a lot bigger issues at stake for everyone involved here -- the city planning department, the building inspectors, a tenants' rights group, everyone has better things to worry about. If you were the owner of the property, maybe it'd be worth fighting these solar panels, but as a renter? I wouldn't. It could take six months just to get a hearing, or the neighbors could get 90 days to correct their screw placement violation or whatever. Meanwhile, the neighbors are trying to save the planet, your landlord is trying to stay in business, and all you want is a sunny place, which is totally understandable, and I think the easiest way to get a sunny place is by negotiating to move out as you suggest, instead of, say, starting a "take down the solar panels" campaign. It's not ideal, but I'd personally try to just leave on good terms with everyone.
posted by salvia at 12:59 AM on March 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

You very likely have options as valkyryn & otherwordlyglow say.

I'm not surprised that solar panels don't require notification if affixed directly to the roof. Otoh, I strongly suspect any significant structure supporting those panels does require notification, permits, etc. So you've good odds that your neighbors have broken the law.

I think your best move is maximizing the legal trouble for the neighbors, without putting yourselves through too much effort, maybe with your landlords help. If the fines rack up, your neighbors can easily fix your problem by setting the panels flat against their roof, but they likely won't unless the fines seem significant.

I've no idea about just breaking the lease, but you can negotiate with the landlord and try if that fails.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:55 AM on March 20, 2009

You might check over California's Solar Shade Control Act[pdf] and California's Solar Rights Act[pdf], to see if they cover your situation.
posted by nomisxid at 8:39 AM on March 20, 2009

You didn't lease the view.
posted by Liver at 8:44 AM on March 20, 2009

If it were me, I'd pursue all options with the landlord. Get your rent lowered at least (no way they'll be able to rent it at the same price if the apartment sucks AND has no light AND has no view - tell your landlord this if they baulk at reducing the rent). Look into the costs of breaking your lease and possibly move on.

Also, don't worry about the tenants rights group having better things to do -- they'll give you an appropriate amount of their resources which may just be a quick conversation.
posted by amanda at 10:38 AM on March 20, 2009

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