Help me and my new family sign a lease in SF
March 14, 2011 11:59 AM   Subscribe

San Francisco RentFilter: Just had a kid and now me and wifey want to upgrade to a 2 bedroom. I'm worried a little about housing discrimination - it seems there's a financial incentive for landlords to avoid renting to new families. Is it legal for a landlord to ask a prospective tenant about kids? If so, how bad is it if the prospective tenant lied about it? Baby is a couple months old fyi.
posted by mcgordonliddy to Law & Government (8 answers total)
No, discriminating against families is not legal in the state of CA, with some caveats about zoned max occupancy, seniors-only buildings, etc. that probably do not apply to you and most of the buildings you would be looking at.

That said, I'm not sure why you're expecting to face discrimination outright without having done alot of apartment hunting yet. The "financial incentive" part doesn't make sense to me, unless you mean that your wife (or you) stopped working when kiddo arrived, hence you have less income. It IS absolutely legal to discriminate on the basis of ability to pay, and if you used to be able to show two incomes on a rental application and now you only have one, you might encounter some difficulty there if you are competing with higher income prospective tenants for the same desirable apartments.

The only real discriminatory reason a landlord might not pick you over a similar childless couple is noise; I can't tell you how many times I've seen an AskMe that starts "my neighbors have a new baby that cries at all hours of the day and night, HELP!" Even though it would be illegal to deny prospective tenants for a theoretically noisy baby, it would be better for all involved to be upfront and ask about thin walls, and not get into a building where noise is going to travel easily.
posted by slow graffiti at 12:27 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Just an FYI to slow graffiti and future posters, the potential for discrimination may be because SF has strict rent control rules, and long-term tenants (such as parents) in a city chock-full of short-term tenants (such as students and young professionals) are not money-makers.

OP, check out the SF Rent Board for advice; they are your advocates.
posted by samthemander at 12:32 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is also likely not an issue where you are looking but it's also legal to not rent to people with children in some unusual cases where there is a lead paint issue. You usually find this with older homes in the Northeast. My mom lives in a two-family house that she owns and she's legally allowed to not rent to people with children under four because the place is dangerous [and she's not obligated to fix it since the place is owner occupied - amusingly, I live in an apartment with a similar provision, though it's simple for me since I don't have kids]. This is a bummer for her because she loves renting to young families. Anyhow, likely not applicable but just wanted to toss this out there.
posted by jessamyn at 12:32 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

It is a violation of federal law to discriminate against anyone in the housing context based on family status.

That being said, landlords are generally permitted to ask who is going to be living with you. So if you've got kids, they can ask about that. This only makes sense, as they do have an interest in knowing who is living in their properties for a variety of entirely justifiable reasons. Lying about that can be construed as a material breach of your lease depending on how serious it is, but kids are frequently less of an issue there than adults. I.e. you probably don't have to tell your landlord if you have a new baby during your lease term, but adding extra roommates is a problem.

However, if you believe you have been the victim of discrimination, you can file a complaint with Housing and Urban Development here. This isn't likely to get you into a place for which you've been turned down, as even if you prevail it can take months or even years to resolve such complaints. But it can be used as a kind of weapon to ensure that it doesn't happen in the first place.
posted by valkyryn at 12:36 PM on March 14, 2011

I wouldn't worry about it. My partner and I, childless, younger, living in a metropolitan area have a generous two bedroom, and our last apartment was a two bedroom as well. We never explained why we wanted the second bedroom, the people showing the apartment to us never asked.

I wouldn't lie about it. It starts the new relationship off to a bad start (e.g., new landlord has positive proof that you are dishonest, no matter what the reason). Instead, since everyone (everyone) knows they can't ask about questions like that, I would just graciously ignore questions that you don't want to answer.

If they're otherwise just being nice and chatty, like: "Oh, this is a great neighborhood for families, too. And this apartment is great for families with the kitchen nook. Do you folks have kids?" You could gently redirect like, "Wow, that is a great kitchen nook. I can see why people have really liked it in the past. Are we close to public transit?"

If they're being more pointed and nosy, like: "Do you people have children? How long are you planning on staying?" I might either simply ignore the question, "Oh, what a lovely nook!" or say lightly, "Hmm, I don't think we're supposed to be having that conversation."

But definitely don't lie about it.
posted by arnicae at 2:08 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Having done a bit of rental hunting around the Bay Area (Oakland, which is rent controlled, and environs) with kids in tow - yes, it is legal for landlords to ask how many people will be inhabiting the unit (babies count as people, for this purpose). You do need to accurately state the number of people in your household on a rental application. No, it is not legal to discriminate on the basis of family size - if they will rent a two bedroom apartment to three adults, they must also rent it to a family of three. However, we certainly encountered a couple of prospective landlords who immediately seemed uninterested in renting to us once they found out that we had kids. On the other hand, some landlords seemed to consider the fact that we were a family unit a positive attribute (more stability, perhaps?). So, although you probably will encounter some discrimination, it would be difficult to prove, and probably not worth dwelling on; and, reverse discrimination in your favor also exists.
posted by Wavelet at 6:47 PM on March 14, 2011

- The california apartment apps ask you to list all perspective occupants. I don't know if you can legally leave off a child that is a few months old.

- Nthing that you REALLY want to check out the soundproofing, possibility of lead paint, and any possible mold issues. While older structures are more visually appealing (SF is full of beautiful older buildings!), there are sometimes issues there. It's worth it to pass on anything that isn't safe and comfortable for your family and your neighbors.

This brings up a very interesting issue I've been thinking about, and I'd love to give you perspective from the other side if I may.

A while back, I lived in a beautiful historic apartment building in LA. 1930's wood and plaster construction. Super charming and desirable to everyone who saw it. BUT. It was nasty (rat feces) in the crawl spaces and behind certain walls, for sure lead paint under the years of paint layers, water damaged areas so probably mold in spots, plumbing issues galore, old electrical, etc. etc.
The owner did a great job of maintaining the property generally, but old is old. Did I mention the entire building was insulation free and had poor soundproofing between units? How about the old school asbestos covering some of the pipes in the basement? (OK as long as the asbestos sheathing is never disturbed, but still!)

Basically, I wouldn't live there with kids. It was great for me when I was single. Most of the bad stuff I detailed I discovered over time and only because I worked for a design company and had an interest in the architectural elements of this unique building.

People with children move successfully all the time. Try to pick buildings suited to your needs. If you worry someone didn't rent to you based on your family status, consider they did you a favor. You really don't know. You are relying on the person connected with any particular property to tell you what you are getting into before you make that commitment.

Even if it isn't entirely legal, I'd love for someone to save me and my family trouble. I'd rather live somewhere free of hassle, disruption, and harm.

like you right now, my family will be moving about 6 months after our first son is born. I decided I wasn't worried about discrimination because it's worth it to be someplace I am welcome. I am worried about the structural issues I just discussed above and will be compromising a bit whether we move to a house or another apartment. Love cool old buildings, won't move into one for the time being. If a landlord seems not to want us, I'll assume they know something about the structure or the neighbors that wouldn't bode well for my family. Or they are pricks, and I wouldn't want to pay rent to them anyway!
posted by jbenben at 6:51 PM on March 14, 2011

Random piece of anecdata: My previous landlords explicitly stated, during our interview, that they had in the past engaged in this sort of discrimination. They once interviewed a couple where the woman was obviously pregnant, and were prepared to rent the place to them, until they found out, while interviewing the woman's friend, that she was going to have *two* kids. But this was in NYC.
posted by novalis_dt at 9:31 PM on March 14, 2011

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