How should we best work with our landlords?
November 23, 2010 10:38 PM   Subscribe

I live with 4 other people (all of whom happen to be very good friends) in a 5-bedroom house in San Francisco, the Mission district specifically. Our house was built in 1923 and is generally in disrepair. Our landlords have been dragging their feet in regards to fixing some issues with our house that are very serious, in our eyes. The breaking point for us is that currently we have no working stove. Special snowflake details inside!

About a month and a half ago the residents of the house had a meeting with our landlord, and also her son and niece, who are the two people we deal with the most on house and rent issues. In this meeting we detailed for them all of our issues with the house and together agreed on a time-frame in which to fix everything. At this same meeting, they informed us that they wanted to raise our rent $500 dollars and we talked them down to $200. The plan was for them to fix all, or most of the things before the first of November, which was when the rent increase was planned to take effect. When the first came around and we had heard absolutely nothing from any of them, we sent them a very concise letter via certified mail detailing exactly what needed to be fixed in the house, within 30 days. It is now almost the end of November and thus far this is what has happened:

The electricity in one of the rooms did not work for many years (don’t ask) and that room now has working electricity and has been re-painted. This is currently the only thing that has been fixed since our original meeting.

The bathroom (main bathroom in the house, 4 of us share it) does not have working power in one of the electrical sockets and some of us are afraid that socket is not grounded. This has not been fixed and now there is a missing strip of wall running from the electrical socket up to the overhead light. This has been like this for over a week.

The stove had issues with gas burners lighting so we requested that they either repair our stove or (preferably) buy us a new one. A couple days ago the landlord’s son called us up to tell us that we were getting a new stove today. I get home from work today and find out that not only did he take away our old stove, he had brought over a “new” stove that in fact looks to be about 20-30 years old and has melted wires inside. This stove currently is not hooked up because when he tried to connect it, it became apparent that it DID NOT WORK.

So here we are two days before Thanksgiving, a house of people in their late-twenties whom all cook dinner at home nearly every night, without a working stove. We got a call within the last hour with a promise of a new stove tomorrow, but given what we have experienced thus far, we are expecting pigs to be flying before that actually happens.

The question is what we can do from here and what are our options as tenants in San Francisco. We have done some research on the tenant’s rights website, but are looking for people who have had experiences with something similar to this in San Francisco. How helpful was the city? We are already planning on calling a building inspector after December 1st, in order to gain support for our complaints, but what should we really expect from an inspection of a building as old and dilapidated as ours? If they don’t get us a working stove in the next few days, how risky will it be to withhold rent?

Also: yes we can move, but unfortunately our house, as crappy as it seems, is in a central location and is slightly cheaper than houses in the neighborhood. At this point we would rather try to work with them to fix all of these things than just move out. Plus, we have a kickin’ backyard and a giant meyer lemon tree.

(I am posting this question for a friend)
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand to Human Relations (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
if you call the city there's a decent chance they're going to tag the place and you'll be out anyway. Personally if it's that dilapidated and they're cheaping out on the repairs I'd start looking for another place. It sounds like a house fire waiting to happen.
posted by fshgrl at 11:17 PM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Moving out is not at option at this time.
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 11:29 PM on November 23, 2010

Maybe I didn't explain that well. If the city inspector deems it unsafe or unfit to inhabit you will have to move out. Your landlord would have to put you up somewhere but since a large part of the houses appeal is the location that might be an acceptable solution. OTOH withholding rent puts you automatically in the wrong, legally.

btw, I don't think you're being special snowflakes, I think you're being more than patient and the landlord is acting inexcusably.
posted by fshgrl at 12:01 AM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you should call the city and get an inspector out there.

The electrical isn't worth living with (hello, danger!) and likely can easily be repaired. Plus, you're better off having oversight on that job considering your landlord sounds cheap and unknowledgeable.

It doesn't seem like you will have to move out if an inspector comes. Most assuredly there could be fines and the repairs will be required by the city, but a move-out is unlikely given your description thus far. You MIGHT want to give the landlord a very polite 3 day heads-up before you make the call to the city - a "please fix or else" sorta thing.

Call the city.

PS - Call your gas company and have them come out and check your new stove for leaks after the install. Gas companies do this for free, and I seriously don't trust the landlord's son to do the job correctly. It's a common enough request for the gas company to receive. Again, better to have professionals double check the situation than to risk death!
posted by jbenben at 12:53 AM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I feel your pain. I spent 5 months this year living in a severely storm damaged house. Electricity and gas on and off, leaking roof, missing windows, etc. I rent it cheap from friends, so moving was not an option that would have suited anyone.

For you, if the house is ready to be condemned, I'd think you have a reasonably strong negotiating position, but you may wish to consult a lawyer about exactly what is and isn't blackmail in these circumstances.

That said, if you don't want to go down the road of threatening your landlord with handing it over to the authorities, and if moving is not an option, maybe you need to look at fixing things yourself or coming up with workarounds.

Do you have a porch or some kind of covered area? Are you willing to cook on a barbecue running off bottled gas? Can you get one (or more) cheap off Craigslist (or borrow from friends).

Basically, treat it as a squat and improvise in whatever way you need to.
posted by Ahab at 1:01 AM on November 24, 2010

Maybe there's much more wrong than you mentioned, but a bad electrical socket, a strip of opened drywall and a broken stove don't sound sufficiently problematic to get the place condemned. What's more, they should be fairly cheap and easy to fix.

Used gas stoves in decent condition are inexpensive if you're not looking for high-powered burners, convection oven and stainless steel exterior. You have Craigslist. Do you know anyone with a pickup truck, minivan or station wagon? Do you have a friend who's handy? Because installing a stove, while it must be done right because you're playing with gas, is dead simple. If your landlords aren't going to help (and it sounds like they won't unless doing so is basically free), then you're on your own. What are your resources?

Is the old stove still around? Because its "issues" might've been easily fixable.
posted by jon1270 at 3:26 AM on November 24, 2010

It sounds like you're new to renting. Don't worry - these are standard things. Yes, the landlord must fix the outlets and the stove issue.

Aside from the stove, these issues sound pretty standard issue. Common and easy to fix, and common for landlords to fail to do so.

I think the landlord must fix the stove thing ASAP. No stove = not habitable. Call the city and get an inspector to come and note the lack of stove. They'll put the heat on the landlord to fix this properly.

At the same time point out the outlets. These are easy to fix, the landlord's just being lazy or cheap (again, common).
posted by zippy at 3:40 AM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

It might be a good idea to consult with a California landlord-tenant attorney. You may have more/fewer rights than you've been able to figure out on your own, and there may be some unthought-of countermoves/proposals that a person with 20 years' experience might know about off the top of his/her head.
posted by facetious at 4:30 AM on November 24, 2010

Have you contacted the San Francisco Tenants' Union?
posted by Carol Anne at 5:38 AM on November 24, 2010

If you're not willing to move, your landlords will not be willing to make repairs.

You might as well be wearing a big sign saying "Ignore Me Please". They've known about these issues for at least 2 months now, and they've done almost nothing despite your requests. They successfully raised your rent despite the issues you've complained about, in fact. And you gave them a 30-days ultimatum that they're not meeting, doesn't sound like it has any consequence, and you're telling us (and them, through your lack of promised consequences), that it's likely an empty deadline in any case.

Your landlords are people trying to put the minimum amount of time, effort, and money into that place. If you're not willing to make it clear to them that they'll have to go through the greater effort of finding new tenants and dealing with city inspectors you'll call about the place, they aren't going to do jack.

Remind them of the pending end of the within-30-days deadline. Tell them that if you don't have a working new stove by tomorrow morning for Thanksgiving cooking, you're calling the city inspector and looking for a new place.
posted by ElfWord at 6:06 AM on November 24, 2010 [9 favorites]

Landlord, we really want to work out a resolution. How about if we come up with a plan and budget for bringing things into repair? We'll do the phone calls and arranging, and deduct documented and agreed-on expenses from our rent. In return, no rent increase for the 3 months it will take to resolve the problems. We will use proper electricians and workers to do the work, and you can have it inspected to be sure it's correctly done.

I used to be a landlord. I always loved it when tenants arranged proper repairs, and paid for them cheerfully. The key is to get proper repairs done. Get a good electrician. Have a stove installed properly. It's kind of a pain for you, but the reward seems worthwhile.
posted by theora55 at 7:09 AM on November 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you really like the place (and want your lease to be renewed!) sometimes you just have to take a hit. There's a reason your place is both cool and below market rent and in a great neighborhood: your landlords don't want to be bothered with maintaining it. So I say either go Theora55's route, or just bite the bullet and get a new stove installed on your own dime. Stoves only cost around $400. Divided by 5, that's pretty cheap.
posted by yarly at 8:12 AM on November 24, 2010

No stove and non-GFCI sockets in the bathroom do equal uninhabitable in CA.
posted by fshgrl at 9:19 AM on November 24, 2010

I used to share a big house in a fairly poor state of repair with ten other people. The location was great and the rent was cheap and we scarcely ever saw the landlord.

Then the agent informed us that the rent was going up. In retrospect, it was a reasonable increase - but we were all very pov, and it looked like a lot to most of us. So some of us decided that we'd respond by pressing for some long overdue repairs (laundry floor had some holes where people's feet had fallen through, rusted gutters and downpipes, some really crappy interior paint). And we started seeing a lot more of the landlord and the landlord's yuppie nephew. And nothing really got repaired properly, and they started regularly jacking up the rent as fast and hard as they were legally entitled to do.

I left that place not long after this cycle had started, for unrelated reasons. But I can't imagine the rest of them ended up having it anywhere near as good as they did before they pissed off the landlord.

Yes, the law definitely says that there are certain things landlords must do, and certain things tenants must do, and certain things neither party is allowed to do to the other. But if you press your landlord to work to rule, don't be surprised when they respond with aggressive assertion of their rights.
posted by flabdablet at 9:22 AM on November 24, 2010

Response by poster: Hi all, thank you guys so much for the responses. I just wanted to clarify real quick before heading off to work, that in fact we have refused to pay our landlords the rent increase until all repairs are made. We have not contacted the SF Tenant's Union yet, but if the new stove does not arrive today, I plan on contacting them asap.
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 9:24 AM on November 24, 2010

When you talk to the Tenants Union ask them about SF rent control and how it applies to your place. $200/mo (if that's what you meant) sounds like a huge rent increase for SF.
posted by yarrow at 10:43 AM on November 24, 2010

Witholding rent is definitely not a good idea. Contact the Tenants Union ASAP.
posted by fshgrl at 11:09 AM on November 24, 2010

nthing contacting the SFTU, don't pass Go, don't collect $200, call them NOW. They're awesome and will save you a ton of time WRT who to contact, your rights, and so on.

RE: yarrow's comment about rent control, it's my understanding (and experience) that landlords in SF can save up their legal rent increases year-over-year and then hit you with them all at once.
posted by dolface at 1:53 PM on November 24, 2010

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