What's the difference between a law and an apartment rule?
April 18, 2010 2:39 PM   Subscribe

My roommate sees no difference between Laws and Apartment Rules. I am flabbergasted and confused. Help set him (and myself) right!

I was talking to a friend (not the roommate in question) about individual vs public rights (that is, the right to do what you want vs. the right to not be bothered by other people doing what they want all up in your face), and as an example we talked about noise regulations.

At that, my roommate chimed in with "Well we have rules like that at our apartment and they work just fine." To which I said, "Yes, but that is not a law. We are talking about laws." And he said "Well, it's basically the same as a law. If you break it, you get in trouble. The only difference is how big your punishment is."

I could not find the words to explain to him how wrong he was, partially because I don't know myself. I am very upset at this gap in my knowledge. Please help me out!
posted by rebent to Law & Government (29 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
A law is enforced by a government agency, an apartment rule is enforced by a private agent.

Your roommate's correct, for the most part. Aside from obvious differences in the rules/laws and the folks who enforce/create them, the only real differnce between the two is that "apartment rules" must exist *under* the law. For example, there can't be an apartment rule against black people, which would break anti-discrimination laws.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:46 PM on April 18, 2010

Depending - greatly! - on the tenant laws where you live, a roommate (or even landlord) has no legal ability to kick/lock another roommate (or tenant) out of the apartment without facing charges themselves. So, for instance, if you play your stereo too loud and come back the next day to find that the locks are changed and your stuff is on the curb, your roommate will face fines and possible jail time for illegally evicting you. Outside of petty reprisal, he can't really get you in "trouble" unless you start committing crimes in the house. At which point it is the cops who get you in "trouble" and not him.
posted by griphus at 2:49 PM on April 18, 2010

These are two different domains.

Switching the domain of the discussion instead of admitting one is wrong is a common tactic of poor losers in an argument.

On the other hand, tacit disagreement about the domain one is discussing is pretty much how misunderstandings happen.

Your friend is talking about the domain of "how people in practice make decisions about how loud to be", while you are trying to talk about the stricter domain of the concerns in legislating privacy and noise.

You could retort that really we learn from our parents to use inside voices and that takes precedent over some leaflet a landlord puts up in practice anyway.
posted by idiopath at 2:52 PM on April 18, 2010

Governments have written down laws that state that they are allowed to employ people with firearms to ensure compliance. Seen abstractly, they are not really any different than rules lesser entities make up for themselves, but just are larger and and more final in scope.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:53 PM on April 18, 2010

Your roommate's mostly correct, yeah. Apartment rules and laws are certainly comparable. While there's nothing particularly romantic or reminiscent of Hammurabi's Code when it comes to "don't scratch my DVDs," rules and laws are still fundamentally the same "stuff."

Similarities between laws and apartment rules:
- They both proscribe or compel certain activities.
- They both work through punishment or denial of a privilege.
- These rules only have effect in certain "jurisdictions." Don't like your apartment noise rules or city's noise rules? Move somewhere else.
- Both apartment rules and the law may be either strictly construed/enforced or flexibly construed/enforced.

The differences between the two are numerous, but they don't take away from the fact that the two categories are still fundamentally similar.

Differences between laws and apartment rules:
- In American law and other common law systems, the legislature writes statutes and judges write common law, whereas with apartment rules, everyone agrees to whatever the rules are. Laws can take decades, if not centuries. to change. Changing apartment rules is in some ways much easier, but not always.
- The law can send you to prison or fine you. Your roommate can't really do this, although they could conceivable sue you or press charges if you really get out of hand.
- Apartment rules only really deal with how you relate to your fellow roommates. Society is only implicated indirectly, generally speaking, and when apartment rules do butt up against the law itself, it's mostly because you will or will not get in trouble for certain things, or because you approve of certain things even though the government doesn't. For example, your apartment rules may allow smoking pot, even though it's against the law, because you either like pot or don't care about pot being smoked around you, and you don't really care about the government's concern for pot. You may also have an unspoken rule against dealing heroin or bazookas out of your apartment, partially because you'd recognize these activities to be wrong on some level, but largely also because you don't want to have cops searching the place or you yourself going to prison because these things are happening in your house.
- On the other hand, the law is always about society at large.
- Laws are enforced, established, codified, etc. by various government and sometimes even private or semi-private agencies.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:56 PM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

I guess I was unclear about this... By apartment rules, I didn't mean between him and me, but rules the landlord makes, like where people can park, when the laundry room can be used, what can and cannot be on our balcony, etc.
posted by rebent at 3:03 PM on April 18, 2010

I'd say that the landlord's rules are even closer to The Law than mere roommate rules. There's also often a bit more interplay between The Law and your landlord's rules than the rules between you and your roommate.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:09 PM on April 18, 2010

By apartment rules, I didn't mean between him and me, but rules the landlord makes, like where people can park, when the laundry room can be used, what can and cannot be on our balcony, etc.

There isn't a huge difference between those and *actual* laws, in my opinion. Both can have unpleasant consequences that can result in hardships. The main difference is that being punished by a landlord probably won't result in you being turned down for employment later (although a landlord can put marks on your credit and rental history).

It's not all that unwise to simply lump all of them together in one nebulous Rules We Have to Deal With pot. I think that where the frustration can come in is the emotional timbre associated with reacting to one set of rules versus actual government laws. Most of us naturally have a different reaction to the severity of lesser rules, even when we still make efforts to comply to them. Jails and police officers are usually subconscious or conscious factors for this.
posted by Burhanistan at 3:10 PM on April 18, 2010

Is it that you and your friend were actually discussing larger social or moral questions, and the laws you mentioned were just end results of those frameworks, but your roommate thought you were just talking about the rules?
posted by lucidium at 3:26 PM on April 18, 2010

Of course, if your landlord chooses to enforce the rules they have set up against you, they will likely do so by using Contract Law or Property Law. If you agreed not to have a pet, and then you got one, the landlord would likely need to utilize the "law" in order to get a remedy from you. They might do so by suing you in court to recover the costs of having the pet or the fine you agreed to in a contract with them. Or they might use property law to try to evict you. The landlords rules, if not backed up by "real" law, are not all that effective.
posted by JakeWalker at 3:26 PM on April 18, 2010

IANAL, but it seems pretty clear to me that any "rules" made by your apartment complex are only enforceable if they are spelled-out in your lease. The lease is a private contract between you and the landlord. If either you or the landlord violate one of the terms of that contract, the remedies are spelled-out in the lease. Usually, the most they can do is evict you. For noise violations they probably wouldn't even evict you, but they might not give you the option to renew your lease when the term expires.

Leases are a matter of contract law.

There are also local, state, and federal laws like the Fair Housing Act that create requirements which may not be spelled-out in the lease. You local community might have noise laws, but those laws would be enforced by the police and the courts, not your landlord.

The important distinction here is that your landlord can not send you to jail. Murder, burglary, and so forth are matters of criminal law.

In Victorian England if you owed me money and wouldn't or couldn't pay, I could have you thrown in debtor's prison. That doesn't happen anymore.

Contractual agreements are governed by civil law, but are not laws themselves. Disagreements between parties who sign a contract would be adjudicated by a civil court judge, not by one of the parties involved.
posted by paulg at 3:41 PM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

The central difference in these distinctions between public laws, apartment rules, and tenant-tenant agreements are the sources of their legitimacy.
  • The government (which creates and enforces public law) derives its authority from the constitution (and by extension the USC &c). These documents give the government an exclusive monopoly on the use of force, as well as the ability to compel you to remit payments &c.
  • Rules in your apartment building derive their legitimacy from your rental agreement, condo charter &c. Their punitive instruments are limited to monetary fines (late rent fees) and the granting/withholding of privileges (parking spaces, pool access, whatever).
  • Rules between you and your roommates derive their legitimacy from either a verbal or written compact (generally) or bullying. Enforcement is largely done through social pressure, but might also involve some structure of taking away privileges.
Dee Xtrovert is also right-- you can't have a rule amongst your roommates that violates an apartment rule, and your apartment rules can't violate public law. So in addition to there being a distinct source of legitimacy and system of punishment for each tier, there's also a hierarchy.
posted by The White Hat at 3:56 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, one important difference is that the law overrides building rules. For example there was an askme a while ago about having a Cat and renting in some Canadian city. All the fliers said "no cats" but in fact the law said you could have a pet. Lots of people just said to ignore the rule, sign the lease and bring the cat. Because the law says you can do it, and it overrides the rules of the lease.

There are a lot of laws that govern the relationship between apartment owners and renters, and apartment owners do try to do illegal stuff. So that's an important difference.


I think the problem here is that you're not thinking about this in terms of sets. Building rules and laws are both independent sets with no overlap. But they are both inside the set of rules. So are rules when you play a game, but there's no punishment.

So you could easily talk about "rules you have to follow, or there will be real world consequences", while game rules would be in the "rules" set, they would not be in the smaller set with apartment rules and laws.

So I think the argument only exists because of some confusion with respect to logic.

Think about cars and trucks. Cars and Trucks are both vehicles, but no one would say that cars and trucks are "The Same". Then you could say a bicycle is a vehicle too, but clearly it's more different then cars and trucks are from eachother.

So you could divide things into sets like this:
Vehicles: All cars, all trucks, bicycles
Motor Vehicles: all cars, all trucks
Cars: (Corolla, Subaru WRX STI, Ford GT, Veyron...)
Trucks: (F150, Silverado, Tacoma, Semi, etc...)
Does that make sense?

Another difference is that in a democracy, laws are agreed upon by everyone (in theory) whereas apartment rules are just chosen by management.
posted by delmoi at 3:59 PM on April 18, 2010

I'm not sure how you think they are different, so it is hard to answer.

You have to follow apartment rules because you signed a contract saying you would. You have to follow laws because of the social contract, ie, we elect our legislators to make laws on behalf of society.

Violating either is violating a contract.
posted by gjc at 4:06 PM on April 18, 2010

it seems pretty clear to me that any "rules" made by your apartment complex are only enforceable if they are spelled-out in your lease.

I think that's the heart of this question: I suspect that these rules the OP is referring to are not spelled out in any lease or contract (and if they are then you can short-circuit the entire discussion) but are just things that the landlord states as rules. But even if there are no legally binding contracts involved you can still get in trouble for breaking rules; just ask any parent. The landlord can still call the tow truck if you park somewhere forbidden, as it's their property and they can dictate the rules. Moreover, a landlord who has a tenant that consistently violates their wishes will probably start looking for cause to evict on any grounds. This means that minor things that might not have mattered otherwise (e.g. consistently being a few days late paying rent, screwing shelving into the wall without asking permission, etc.) suddenly can matter. Or he might try to increase the rent at a steeper rate than he otherwise would have.

In any case, the point is that breaking rules that don't necessarily have the backing of any specific law still has consequences and thus it's fundamentally no different.
posted by Rhomboid at 4:11 PM on April 18, 2010

Just ask your friend what do people learn in Law School, and what do they do after they graduate?
posted by polymodus at 4:39 PM on April 18, 2010

The main difference between private and public rights is your ability to have some formal say in it. Namely, through voting. Laws are made expressly for society's benefit. Rules are made for your apartment company's benefit, and only indirectly the tenants' benefit.
posted by polymodus at 4:44 PM on April 18, 2010

To me the difference becomes more clear when you are talking about bad rules and laws. There seems a huge difference to me between a landlord making a bad rule, and the government making a bad law.
posted by rebent at 5:18 PM on April 18, 2010

The primary difference being that if you disagree with your landlord's rules, you can easily move to a different apartment. If you disagree with your nation's laws, it's not always possible to expatriate, and even if it is, it's much more difficult / burdensome to do so so. So the consequences of, as you put it, a "bad law" is much greater at the national level than at the apartment-complex level.
posted by ook at 6:14 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm so glad I'm not the only person who has a pet peeve about this. I'm not sure how philosophical you would like this answer to be, but really, the distinction between laws, rules, norms, and so on is not as clear cut as you may think. I found classroom discussions of these ideas to be pretty frustrating and generally come down on the side of people upthread who have been saying that a law is a normative statement that is passed by a government body whose legitimate authority you accept and uphold as a citizen--the whole social contract concept--and a rule something made by any other type of authority that you choose to submit to (the apartment management, a university when you're a student, your parents when you're a child, etc.).

However, things can get complicated. If you're really curious about the issue or have a hard time getting to sleep at night, pick up Kavanaugh's Arguing about the Law for some commentary on the subject. In essence, though, more liberal thinkers consider "law" to come in many forms, and our interpretation of what we consider to be law says a lot about us as people and us as society. On the most liberal (liberal meaning inclusive, not a statement of political ideology) end of the scale, any enforceable rule can be considered law. On the least liberal end of the scale are those of us who think law is only something that a duly appointed governing body can determine.

some types of legal perspectives:
-positivist: the law is whatever is written down as law
-natural law: the law depends on universally true principles about right and wrong
-formalist: the law is whatever regulatory statement arises from the proper legal process

and I'll refer you to Rawls and many other legal scholars because there are about a thousand definitions of what the law is, and none of them are very definite. And once you make it past all the definitional problems, consider the difference between written and practiced law, between law applied to and within different social, ethnic, and religious groups, between law shaped by groups who are constantly involved in litigation and law experienced by those who only go through the system once. And what if you don't think that the government is a legitimate source of authority for passing law? Then it's all a bunch of words to you, and a lot of annoying people who keep trying to put you in jail.

What is the law? Whatever we socially construe to be a set of rules for regulating our activity, according to the professor who taught my Law and Society class. Or whatever you'd like it to be, as long as you're socially functional and don't do anything too abnormal. MeMail me, and I can send you a further list of resources on this if you're really interested.
posted by _cave at 7:40 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

There seems a huge difference to me between a landlord making a bad rule, and the government making a bad law.

I think this may be the first time I've ever seen the law-of-physics vs law-of-the-land conflation go the other way!

Your roommate is, as others have said, essentially correct. Allowing for questions of scale, laws of the land really are about as malleable, and have about as much ultimate justification, as apartment rules. Ultimately, both are simply codifications of the ways we agree to treat each other.
posted by flabdablet at 8:15 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

There seems a huge difference to me between a landlord making a bad rule, and the government making a bad law.

Not if you signed the contract to obey it. The law/rule still exists and is enforceable, it doesn't matter if it's 'bad'. Or good. Or purple. As everyone has said above, if the apartment contract is valid under contract law and doesn't violate any of the laws of the state (city, etc) then it's 'good'.

The reason you can't find the words to fully express your point of view is because it's largely not supported by evidence.
posted by Ookseer at 9:30 PM on April 18, 2010

Laws are not merely rules backed by sanctions. This is easily seen when you consider that it's possible to have a law without a punishment (in fact, in general, our laws have separate sections for punishments). They're rules made by entities whose authority to make rules is rooted in some set of primary laws -- in many cases, a constitution, either written or unwritten.

I'd say that the best argument for your side is that your apartment rules were specifically agreed to by you, rather than being handed down by an entity with authority derived from primary laws.

But for more, you might just have to read one of the most awesome books ever written in the history of the world: H.L.A. Hart's The Concept of Law.
posted by palliser at 9:36 PM on April 18, 2010

Sorry, should have said, "laws are not merely demands backed by sanctions," to avoid begging the question.
posted by palliser at 9:38 PM on April 18, 2010

My god you guys. The answer is simple. Laws are created by the state. Rules, not so much. The set of laws is a subset of the set of rules. All of the distinctions that other replies are pointing out follow from this definition.

posted by polymodus at 10:54 PM on April 18, 2010

Another clarification: when we're talking about "the law", we're referring those social rules as formalized by the government of the country we live in. Rules, on the other hand, is a more general concept. You can think of classroom rules, transactional agreements, apartment contracts, etc.

So your friend is wrong. The distinction is not the severity of the consequences of breaking said rule; that's a symptom of the distinction, not the reason for it.
posted by polymodus at 10:58 PM on April 18, 2010

Also one other point. Your roommate is believes the scale of punishment is the difference. A lot of the responses are generalizing his view to the scale of complexity (social impact, number of people involved in making the law). The generalization is more accurate, but your roommate is still wrong. He's looking at it backwards.
posted by polymodus at 11:03 PM on April 18, 2010

A law is created by someone with a bigger stick than your landlord.

Laws are considered legitimate as they are backed by the monopoly on legitimate coercive force maintained by the state. Your landlord's rules are often, but not always, backed up by the large stick owned by the state.
posted by knapah at 1:24 PM on April 19, 2010

Another clarification: when we're talking about "the law", we're referring those social rules as formalized by the government of the country we live in. Rules, on the other hand, is a more general concept. You can think of classroom rules, transactional agreements, apartment contracts, etc.

For me, this analysis gets more interesting when you consider the latticework of capital-L Laws which underpin how classrooms are run, how contracts are enforced, and what rights and responsibilities landlords and tenants have towards one another.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:13 PM on April 19, 2010

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