Financial ruin thanks to (possibly dangerous) ex-roommate
July 16, 2011 10:01 PM   Subscribe

Renter's nightmare in LA: My friend went on vacation to Europe. Her roommate cashed the rent check and skipped town, friend is now getting evicted. Btw, deadbeat roommate still has the keys, collects guns, and has accused friend of being "out to get him." Advice?

More details:

While she was gone, roommate cashed her check but did not pay the rent, then apparently skipped town : all his stuff is gone, the leasing office claims that he tries to turn in his key and pay a portion of the rent (less than what was in her check), they wouldn't accept either. In the meantime, he sent her rambling emails accusing her of creating a hostile living environment and stating that he was keeping her share of the rent money to cover his 'moving costs' (among other things).

Leasing office is now enacting eviction proceedings against friend. They refuse to take deadbeat roommate off the lease, or let her out of the lease (this also means the locks can't be changed, since it would lock out a tenet "on the lease"). She's a teacher, and had exactly enough money in her bank account to last until her first paycheck in September. Between the stolen money, paying the delinquent rent + penalty fees this month (including roommate's unpaid pet deposit), and next month's two-person rent, she will be completely broke by the 2nd of August.

Also her best friend just died, funeral is Tuesday. So she's pretty distraught on top of all this.

She's attempted to file a report with the police -- money aside, she doesn't feel safe in the apartment due to the roommate's erratic behavior-- but though they were sympathetic, they say at this stage it's a civil matter until he actually makes a direct threat. Unfortunately, his rambling emails muddy the situation enough that at this point (legally speaking) it's a he-said-she-said regarding money. The detective did mention that the "two people on a lease" situation is extremely curious, and it's even odder than the rental company refused any sort of partial payment.

Does anyone know about LA renter's rights, and have any advice? From her contact with the leasing office, it seems like they're happy to hang this all on her: they don't want to "get involved" in a "personal dispute," and don't seem at all concerned that one of their tenets skipped out on rent and the other is trying to do what she can to make things right.

Current status: She's crashing at my place tonight in case the roommate shows up with any part of his gun collection, and we'll be trying to figure out the next step tomorrow. Sans advice, first priority will be looking up CA renters' law online, then going over her lease again, then figuring out the financials and re-documenting chain of events in a formal manner (mostly done now but kind of a mess).

I know this is likely a weird edge case in the very large "deadbeat roommate" category, but any advice or insights would be invaluable.
posted by ®@ to Law & Government (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know much about the legal rights, but it seems to me that engaging crazy is a bad move here. Unfortunately, the money can probably be counted as gone now.

Can your friend explain to the property management that their former roommate seems to have suffered some sort of break? If an intent to pay up can be shown, they would hopefully be compassionate to some degree. Perhaps set up a payment plan?
posted by Gilbert at 11:03 PM on July 16, 2011

If the apartment is rent controlled, then your friend has some leverage against her landlord. It can be expensive and time consuming to evict a tenant in Los Angeles even if the tenant is not paying rent. It's pretty easy to google for free services for tenants in Los Angeles. It's not at all odd that the landlord refused partial payment or refused to take a tenant off a lease. It really isn't their problem.
posted by rdr at 11:05 PM on July 16, 2011

Best answer: At the very least, I hope your friend has been in this lease for over a year, if so, no matter what additional contracts she has signed (as far as I know, and I negotiated a friend out of their additional lease time on these grounds, YMMV) your friend is now month-to-month under California State law, which trumps the lease.

This is going to be terrible advice. I worked in LA (within the past 5 years) in property management.

Your friend should not pay the rent where she is at for the moment, AT ALL, and not worry in the meantime too much (crash outside the apartment, remove her valuables in the meantime, etc. etc.) AND MOVE ASAP.

The rental company should be way more understanding. They aren't. They are putting her life in danger. Fuck 'em.


They should have taken the partial payment. They had NO right on behalf of the owner to not take it unless roommate's check notated, "paid in full." I don't understand that part. A lawyer could make more sense of it.

This is not a clear cut case. The worst thing that happens is your friend gets a ding in her credit and maybe has to pay the back rent in installments. A lawyer can help all this, but if she is ballsy, she can just proceed and get a lawyer later.


Look. At the end of the day, your friend's safety is the above all else. She should move out immediately and worry about the rest, later. Perhaps a lawyer can draw up a nice threatening letter and get her out of the back rent by implying negligence or something. It's usually more expensive to pursue these things with former tenants than for the property management to just move on and re-rent. If they report the debt to her credit she can dispute.'

Your friend needs to at least give written 30 Days Notice to Terminate ASAP to shield herself from owing additional months of back rent past the next 30 days. Do NOT include a reason for termination of tenancy in the written statement.

If she's cool, she'll pay at least her half through the 30 day period (although technically, any one party on the lease is responsible for the whole nut.)

I say call chicken on the rental office and move out. A lawyer can help her navigate this, file any relevant police reports, and help shield her from the fall out - but she needs to vacate asap.

Come to think of it, I know a paralegal office that can handle this in LA even cheaper than a lawyer. Memail me.
posted by jbenben at 11:07 PM on July 16, 2011 [11 favorites]

rdr is mostly correct that dispute between roommates is not their problem. I also know they can not take a tenant off the lease without the exiting tenant's consent (IANAL.)

I'm pretty sure, tho, that owners only refuse to take partial payment if they plan to evict, and I'm not even sure about the legality of that move, I just know it is done.

What I do know is that this situation sounds as if your friend is dealing with a crappy rental office and her former roommate (with keys to her home) is a dangerous unstable nutjob.

She needs to move.
posted by jbenben at 11:12 PM on July 16, 2011

If your friend is a member of CTA, or one of the credit unions they endorse, and has signed a contract to teach beginning in September, and has good credit, she might be able to arrange a short term personal loan at one of these credit unions. If she has a car with some equity value, she might be able to get a loan against it, or re-finance it to extract cash from her equity value. If she has ties to a local church, perhaps contact the clergy there for help with temporary housing/money. If she has jewelry or other items of personal property with any value, now is the time to pawn/sell them.

IANAL, but given that your friend appears to at least have a stable job, I think she can expect that the property management is going to do everything they can to enforce the lease, and that they'll hold her individually responsible for the balance of the lease. They are unlikely to accept partial rent, offers of a voluntary payment plan, or petitions to sever your friend from the lease. Property management companies generally have attorneys/paralegals on retainer, and routinely take rent disputes under $5000 to small claims court, because costs there are low, and processing fairly speedy. If they win a judgement there, they're likely to pursue her for it, including garnishing her wages, and reporting her as deliquent to credit bureaus, until their judgement is paid. Probably her best strategy overall is to do whatever she can to raise the money to exit the lease under lease terms, and move as soon as possible.

Going forward, this experience should be a lesson to her to have a minimum 6 months savings on hand at all times, even if it means foregoing vacations in Europe. If renting housing with unrelated people, all parties agreeing to pay rent a full month in advance (pay August 1 for September rent due), over and above first month/last month/security deposit held by landlord/property management, is not entirely uncommon, and eliminates situations where any one party can unexpectedly cause immediate financial problems for everyone else.
posted by paulsc at 11:36 PM on July 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

If your friend does anything without first consulting a lawyer she is an idiot. Talk to a lawyer right away! Don't sign anything, don't pay any money to anyone, and don't make any kind of agreement, be it verbal or in writing.
posted by twblalock at 1:13 AM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

OP: To make sure we understand the situation precisely, your friend made the check out to her roommate and not the landlord or property manager or to whomever collects rent?
posted by Justinian at 2:05 AM on July 17, 2011

There's a tenant's right group listed in the phone book, or on the Attorney General's website. This is not an uncommon scenario, and they will be able to give competent advice.
posted by theora55 at 5:31 AM on July 17, 2011

You state that the landlord is enacting eviction proceedings against your friend. It doesn't make sense that they would be evicting her WITHOUT also evicting him. Your roommate should seek to be evicted ASAP! Eviction lets you out of a lease.

In addition to a lawyer, please suggest that your friend contact a Domestic Violence organization. While your friend was not involved romantically with unstable ex-roommate (that you've said), she did LIVE with ex-roommate, making it most assuredly domestic. With the threat of guns, the stealing, and the scary rambly emails, a DV organization will be able to advise her, and probably even make a recommendation to a specific lawyer who will take on this case pro-bono.

Also, since it's in writing that ex-roommate kept her money to "pay for his moving costs," money that was supposed to go towards rent, that's stealing. Ex-roommate admitted, in writing, that he took her money and used it in a way for which it was not intended. File a police report to recover it.
posted by juniperesque at 9:05 AM on July 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: @jbenben- Have memailed, thanks!

@Justinian- yup, although she was reluctant to because he was already acting erratic at that point, but she had the trip coming up. The leasing office's policy was to only accept one check per rent cycle, so she was giving him her share early that month, and then he was to pay the rent in full. There's no debate over where the money went: he sent a rambling email to both her and the leasing office that amounted to 'I'm moving out and keeping her share of the rent money.

@juniperesque- re: theft, she did visit the police, but they said at this point it's a matter for small claims court. Obviously friend is reluctant to file legal action against unhinged guy, but that's another matter. The domestic violence lawyer suggestion sounds good, I'll recommend that. Re: eviction, she's seeking out a lawyer ASAP, but the fear is that even if she gets evicted, she's still on the hook for rent until the lease is up (at least, that's what the legal language in her lease says). For better or worse, the eviction procedure is pretty far down the line: there was a 14 day deadline to pay the (stolen) rent + fees, she didn't hear about the situation until just before it ended, and finally arrived back in the states on day 15. No sheriff's note on the door yet, though.

Also @ jbenben: yup, I think she has been there over a year. Do you (or does anyone else) have a link to the part if CA law that would supersede the lease? My google-fu failed.
posted by ®@ at 9:22 AM on July 17, 2011

Do you (or does anyone else) have a link to the part if CA law that would supersede the lease? My google-fu failed.

From Overview of California Residential Landlord/Tenant Law, Section 7:

"Fixed term leases end automatically at the end of the term specified unless stated otherwise in the lease agreement. A one year lease ends on the one year anniversary of its effective date {Civil Code Secs. 789, 1945}. The lease will automatically renew for a period equal to the period for which rent is paid, where the tenant remains in occupancy and the landlord accepts a rent payment. So if the tenant pays a one month rental installment, the lease is renewed for one month, in effect becoming a month to month lease on the old terms. If no rent payment is accepted by the landlord, and the tenant fails to vacate, the landlord may proceed directly to an unlawful detainer proceeding filed in the appropriate court {Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 1161}."

Also: California Tenants: A Guide to Residential Tenants' and Landlords' Rights and Responsibilities. (It includes links to tenant information and assistance resources.)
posted by virago at 2:38 PM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

P.S. A month-to-month tenant is also known as an "at-will" tenant.
posted by virago at 2:40 PM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

See, this is why people always say to talk to a lawyer. Because I don't think jbenben and virago's interpretation of that law is completely accurate. It's true that at the end of a year-long lease you automatically go month-to-month for so long as the landlord is accepting rent from you, but I do not believe (as they might imply) that this means you can't extend the lease for longer than month-to-month by signing a new one. The month-to-month thing is only if no new lease has been signed if my understanding is correct. Which it may not be. But I'd bet on that more than the "you're on month to month no matter what your lease says!" thing.
posted by Justinian at 2:52 PM on July 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

I stated I successfully negotiated a friend out of their extended signed lease in LA on the basis it was illegal for them to enforce the renewal - this was only 3 years ago.

I personally never signed new leases with tenants after one year via my property management company, just filed the rent increases with the city and sent the appropriate legal forms to the tenant. My firm understanding was it was unnecessary to draw up renewal leases and likely not enforceable. I believe I got this from the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles' legal department. At any rate, I am SURE that I consulted them before negotiating the termination of my friend's lease, so I know there is at least some basis for my statements.

I also wrote IANAL and YMMV. Wish I could remember more, but I am certain the OP in this question has some footing on any number of points.

I agree an attorney is in order and I am helping the OP find someone appropriate.

That's the update in case someone reads this down the road in the same situation in LA.
posted by jbenben at 4:48 PM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Data point: I've never rented from a property management company that would accept partial payments in any form at any time.

Second data point: Lawyer up.
posted by outlaw of averages at 2:24 AM on July 18, 2011

Response by poster: Update on situation: Friend is at a new place & scummy ex-roommate coughed up the stolen funds after a visit from the cops. Thanks for all the advice! It was extremely useful and much appreciated.
posted by ®@ at 7:11 PM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

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