Does a tenant in California have a right to have his closet unlocked?
April 8, 2014 7:58 PM   Subscribe

I rent an apartment with a strange closet situation. Right now the closet has locked. No key exists for the lock. Instead, the landlord urges me to keep it unlocked, even though it tends by its nature to lock, accidentally. The landlord will not make a key. Instead he charges me for stripping the door from its hinges each time it locks, grumbling "I told you there was no key!" Is this OK or is there some ideal under the law that I should be able to have access to my closet?
posted by johngoren to Law & Government (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have absolutely no idea if it's legal or not, but I *do* know that landlord/tenant issues are usually a bunch of drama that no one needs.

Find out how much it costs to have the damn lock removed, and barring that, duct tape whatever needs to be duct taped so it doesn't lock.
posted by colin_l at 8:03 PM on April 8, 2014 [12 favorites]

Yeah, I was gonna say, rather than argue about it the simplest answer is to tape over the... bolt? Whatever the thing that slides into the hole to make it lock is called. That thing.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:09 PM on April 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

Talk to your local rent board or tenants' union. As I understand it, if you can't use the closet because access is restricted, you can ask for a rent reduction due to a reduction of services. Basically, if you lost access to your parking space, you would be entitled to request a rent reduction equivalent to the cost of the parking space every month. Closet's basically the same deal -- you came to this apartment with the understanding that you had a certain amount of closets, and now it doesn't.

Now...this may incentivize your landlord to fix the &%$#! closet. Or you may wind up spending a lot of time fighting it. Up to you -- you could also hire a locksmith to change the lock (and deduct the cost from rent, but be prepared to fight for that) or just tape over the latch.
posted by blnkfrnk at 8:09 PM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Indoor locksets are cheap and easy to install. Put in a new one yourself and put the old one back when you vacate. (Better yet, improve your karma by leaving it in and reducing aggravation for the next tenant).
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 8:14 PM on April 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's your space You rented it. It should just be a simple maintenance request (fix the broken lock) but he is using it to force more money out of you because obviously you need your stuff and making a rule to charge you.
Very shady. Talk to tenants rights group.
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:15 PM on April 8, 2014

Inside the walls of what you rent are basically yours, spacewise. Hardball would be to have him replace the knob/lock/whatever and refund what you have paid so far, or, on the advice of an expert and after jumping through the requisite hoops, deducting that total from a future rent check(s). Talk to your rent board or tenant union, they'll know what you can do.
posted by rhizome at 8:18 PM on April 8, 2014

Before deducting rent to fix lock make sure your local laws allow you to do that and the exact procedure.
Here in Chicago it is legal for specific things BUT a very specific notice must be used and a certain time period passes. And the deduction needs to be itemized. Many people just deduct and don't follow through then are evicted for non payment of rent.
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:19 PM on April 8, 2014

Legal requirements change from state to state. Are you in California? If so, there are specific things that a landlord is responsible for. Here is a list of basic landlord and tenant responsibilities in California. Basically, in terms of landlord responsibilities, the place has to be habitable, and what that means is broken down very specifically. It might be helpful to review this information before planning to take any drastic action. Hopefully it can inform a good discussion between the two of you.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:26 PM on April 8, 2014

A closet doorknob that doesn't lock costs like $15 maybe? I know how renting works, but honestly, this is simpler to fix yourself.

And in case you think it's the principle of the matter, ask how much your time is worth and how long it takes you to get to $15 of time.
posted by GuyZero at 8:53 PM on April 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also, I see from your profile that you are in SF. The SF Tenant's Union is located in the Mission and has a walk-in clinic that will walk you through your options. In my opinion the handbook they give you is also worth the membership price if you choose to join.
posted by blnkfrnk at 9:30 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your door may be ridiculously easy to open with a shim. There's lots of instructions on how to make and use shims online, out of stuff like tin cans and credit cards.

I'd just replace the closet doorknob myself and save the aggravation for a more important conflict.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:44 PM on April 8, 2014

This is an actual keyed secure lockset for a closet? That's weird. Inside a home you generally find lockable privacy doorknobs of the bed/bath variety, with a push-button or twist-knob lock and a hole somewhere you can stick something through and unlock it in an emergency.

It's also ridiculous that you can't get your landlord to replace it -- I _am_ a landlord and I'd hate to get the call to remove the door! Much easier to just replace the door knob with what's traditionally called a "dummy" or (in the DIY market) hall/closet knob. Here's one for $8 from the HD place. It looks a lot more complex than it is, although replacing one your first time could be a little confusing. There are basically three parts -- the part with the latch* and associated mechanism, and the handles. You unscrew the handles, then unscrew the mechanism, then put in the new mechanism the same way, and attach the handles. Ideally, less than five minutes (which is why your landlord is being an ass).

* Technically, a latch has a curved face so it will close on contact, and a bolt does not so you have to manually close it.

(Best to take out the old one and bring the parts to your home center and get something that matches so you don't have fit issues. A place like Ace will have a much better return policy, BTW.)

And yes, I'm on the other side of the pointy stick here, but I don't see how this translates into a rent reduction, at least not one that's worth everyone's time. If you'd rather make him do it, just call the code department, and they'll waste some taxpayer dollars coming over and itemizing everything you think is wrong with the property and agreeing with some, giving him an order to correct. Maybe you've got a child or a friend has a child who could get potentially trapped in the closet, you know? The city won't like that. Of course, it would probably be easier to send him a letter saying he'd better fix the thing himself or you will have no choice but to follow through with the code guys. Trust me, there is nothing on God's green Earth that landlords hate having to deal with more than code guys.
posted by dhartung at 12:53 AM on April 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

I came in to, also, suggest just replacing the door knob/latch with a non-locking one (or a locking one with a key if that's what you want). You spent almost as much time typing this askme as it would take to fix this. You'll feel the pride of a job well done, have the karma of the appreciation of the next tenet, and will avoid any negative energy between you and the landlord you'll have to deal with about something in the future....

Now, get yourself to the hardware store!!!
posted by HuronBob at 3:20 AM on April 9, 2014

Replace the doorknob with one that does not lock, as suggested above. But keep the old one, and put it back on before you go. Landlords can be incredibly weird and pissy about having changes made to their units.

If he sees the new doorknob and comments on it before you move, you'll be able to reassure him that you have the old one and didn't make any permanent modifications to his unit without asking. Rest assured he may still be a dick, but he has less of a leg to stand on.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:53 AM on April 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Replace the doorknob, keep the old one.

You'll make no permanant changes to the fixtures and you'll save yourself and your landlord a shit-ton of headaches.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:15 AM on April 9, 2014

You can certainly opt to go down the adversarial route you've marked as Best Answer, but I am joining the chorus suggesting you simply change the door knob. This is a task that requires a screwdriver and an $8 door handle from Home Depot or your local hardware store.

I think there's a degree to which this is a "Do you want to be right (win against your landlord) or do you want to be happy (just have a working closet)?" question.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:13 AM on April 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

If you're feeling cheap, there's no real need for a doorknob at all. You could just remove the old hardware and pull open the door with the hole left by the removal, if you've got no cash to flash.
posted by Trifling at 6:44 AM on April 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

If it was me I would take the closet door off the hinges - super amazingly easy, really, basically you just lift it - stash it somewhere (in the back of the closet, maybe) for the duration of my life in that apartment and put it back when I left. Problem solved in five minutes, no cost, no fuss, no mess and open closets are better anyway because that way you don't allow yourself to let them get trashed.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:24 AM on April 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Try a couple of strips of duct tape over the latch and/or mortise to allow you to close but not lock it. Or stick a wedge of tape to the jamb to stop the door from fully closing.

(I do not have shares in tape.)
posted by danteGideon at 7:54 AM on April 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

The answer you marked as best is great if you want to destroy your relationship with your landlord and ultimately have to move because things have gotten so frosty.

Just replace the knob/lock/latch/whatever it is and keep the old one.

Dragging this through some sort of "process" is absurd. If you go through a formal process to get "justice" here you'll be throwing away hours and hours of your time, the landlord's time and the time of any mediators on an issue which, in the scheme of things, is really trivial. And you'll create a black hole that sucks any good will out of your relationship with your landlord and will not stop sucking until you move.

If you take care of it yourself you'll spend a few bucks and an hour of time and then everyone's happy. Save the campaign for a more important battle, like if your heat goes out in the middle of winter and he won't fix it.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 8:19 AM on April 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

The best solution is probably to just tape over the latch. What I'd like to do in your situation, though, is to ask the landlord to remove the door again, pay his fee, and then refuse to let him put the door back on and insist he take it with him. "I don't want it anymore. It's yours now."
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:27 AM on April 9, 2014

I would request that the landlord replace the broken lock, as a standard maintenance request. Sounds like he may not play ball, though. In that case, have it replaced yourself (either DIY or hire a locksmith). I wouldn't bother asking for a rental deduction.
posted by tckma at 12:11 PM on April 9, 2014

I wasn't going to answer until I saw what you chose as best answer. It's terrible advice -- though there's nothing in there that's false.

Location matters.

Taking this to the Tenants Union/Rent Board in San Francisco might get the doorknob changed, but it will burn every last piece of goodwill you have with your landlord. That's the kind of thing you do when your landlord refuses to fix your heat, or eliminates your access to the parking space you thought you were paying for, or uses his master key to come in and steal your underwear, or raises your rent beyond the allowable limits, or threatens an eviction under dubious circumstances.

For a $10 doorknob replacement? Please.

Disassemble the thing, take the parts to one of the local hardware stores, and buy a new knob of similar looks and quality that does not lock (or one that you have the key for). Go home and put it on. Yes, keep the old one on the top shelf of the closet (though I wouldn't bother putting it back on unless the landlord makes an issue of it).

Alternately, disassemble the thing and take it to a locksmith, who will be able to make a key to fit it (or rekey it). This may be more expensive than replacing it, but will be much cheaper than having the locksmith come to you.

You live in a town with a minimal vacancy rate, strong rent control/tenant protection laws, and extremely high rents fueled mostly by demand. Getting that adversarial with your landlord over a minor issue is not going to end well for you.

At some point in the future, you're going to want to move. If the rental market is still tight (which it almost always is around here), your future landlord is going to want to see a rental history and references. It would not be unusual for your new landlord to call your references, including old landlords before offering you a lease.

If your potential new landlord hears: "Johngoren sent a tenant's union lawyer after me because he kept locking himself out of his closet", you're going to find that your shiny new place has been rented to someone else. Is that worth trading $10 for?

SFTU is usually used a resource against landlords who are egregiously screwing their tenants -- they deal mostly with evictions, illegal rent increases and unsafe conditions, not inconvenient maintenance disputes. They are tenacious, very nasty to be on the wrong side of, and serve a very useful purpose. They are overkill for your current situation.

If you change the closet knob, and he immediately kicks you out and changes the locks on the unit, while not allowing you to go back in to feed your cat and get your wallet? That's a matter for SFTU.
posted by toxic at 4:00 PM on April 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

You should be able to remove the lock with a screwdriver. After that unscrew the plate on the edge of the door and pull the latch out. If you don't have a screwdriver and can't afford one ask a few friends, someone probably has one and might even unscrew the thing for you.

Now you can use the handy hole in the door as a stylish doorpull, or install one of those $8 closet locks in it.
posted by yohko at 5:22 PM on April 10, 2014

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