Landlord forced me out; do I have any recourse?
July 6, 2017 9:41 AM   Subscribe

Last year, after the original tenant gave notice for our two-bedroom apartment, I signed a lease with my (previously civil) landlord so I could stay on. The apartment was in need of serious repairs with a visibly cracked deck. (I have photos; there was a half-foot crack in the cement.) He said he didn't want "replacement roommates" and I didn't understand that it meant that I would have to be the sole tenant for the apartment, since, frankly, I had never heard of a landlord suggesting such a thing. After I realized this was the case, I made plans to leave; before I gave notice, I got a number of text threats from him, with zero provocation, saying he would evict me if I found a roommate, and that the neighbors "would be watching me" if I tried. During this time he made no move toward repairing the deck. After I moved out, he kept a fraction of the deposit, destroyed property left behind (this is against California law), and immediately set about repairing and remodeling the unit. Since then, I've found housing ads from other tenants in the same building who are replacing their departing roommates, seemingly with his blessing. Is it worth pursuing any recourse with HUD or another agency?

I am in Berkeley, California. The local rent board said it was legal for him to insist on a single tenant for a 2-bedroom apartment in spite of the housing crisis. Obviously, he was trying to force me out by effectively doubling my rent. The people I have spoken to at the rent board discouraged me from pursuing a retroactive rent reduction, though they did not address constructive eviction remedies (it sounds like the landlord would be unable to raise the rent to market levels if it were proven that he constructively evicted me.) Also, it became apparent that he may have been paying his primary maintenance man under the table at below-market rates, and given his other behavior, I wouldn't be surprised if he were completing construction without obtaining city permits, which I understand normally take months to obtain in Berkeley.

Other issues I had there: the windowsills were impossible to keep free of mold; I had sinus trouble for the first and last time in my life the entire time I was living there that I didn't recognize as such, as it cleared up completely as soon as I moved out. It took the landlord months to replace aging heaters that triggered carbon monoxide monitors. I have lived in the SF Bay Area for decades and have never encountered such negligence, hostility and erratic behavior from a landlord.

Do I bother with contacting HUD about possible discrimination? Though he made threats and some nonsensical accusations, he stopped short of slurs, so I am not sure that his weird vendetta would be considered a violation. Or some other remedy? Or do I resign myself to writing up some angry Yelp reviews and moving on? If I do report to HUD, will it be immediately obvious that I did the reporting and that he would be able to retaliate somehow?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Here is the link for the Berkeley Tenants' Union. They can advise you better than we can.

The only thing that jumps out at me is that he kept some of the deposit, potentially illegally, and that there was possibly a constructive eviction. The rest of it is seems like stuff you probably can't substantiate in the exact way that HUD or the courts will care about, but it's good you have notes and logical progression of events in mind.

Should you pursue it? Ask yourself what you want to get from this interaction. Revenge? Does he owe you money? Consider that in light of what the tenants' union tells you are your options.
posted by blnkfrnk at 9:51 AM on July 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

Well, HUD is not some sort of national landlord-tenant dispute referee, so, unless you can allege a civil rights violation or the landlord receives federal funding via a program like Section 8, I'm not sure what recourse you are thinking you would have there? It sounds like you have already spoken to the local regulator; did they explain to you that landlord-tenant relations are primarily regulated by states and them?
posted by praemunire at 9:53 AM on July 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would be relieved I'd only lost a fraction of my deposit and would put the whole thing behind me. You've dodged a bullet with minimal fallout.
posted by shesbenevolent at 10:19 AM on July 6, 2017 [14 favorites]

It sounds like harms to you (that could be addressed legally) are minimal -- if that's not true, it could be considered -- and revenge isn't really going to make your life better, so, for me, that leaves helping other people by preventing his doing worse things in the future.

You might want to leave carefully-worded reviews in the appropriate places (stay with objectively verifiable things, like "he did X exactly 23 days after Y" or "I called 2 times and wrote a letter including this information", rather than "he is semi-crazy and petty").
posted by amtho at 11:00 AM on July 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Berkeley tenant laws are MUCH stronger than other parts of the country (which I'm sure you know!), so I would at a minimum pursue getting your deposit back plus compensation for your property that he destroyed (if I'm reading that right?), assuming you can document that in some way. It does not sound like you particularly want to move back into a place with an insane landlord that is physically making you sick, so I'm not sure what else you would benefit from other than that. The Berkeley Tenant's Union is definitely the way to go in terms of a good place to seek assistance/guidance.

If you are really interested in going scorched earth, I suppose you can report him to the city planning board over suspected non-permitted work, but I'm not sure this is really worth your time/energy to pursue vs. putting that time/energy into finding a new place and mentally moving on. I don't know how you would begin to prove how much he pays his handyman (or even if this is sub-minimum wage vs. just it annoys you because you think this person could get a better deal elsewhere?)
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:17 AM on July 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

That sounds awful. Is it rent controlled? Why did they discourage you from pursuing rent reduction? It's not clear to me from this if rules about replacement tenants only apply to the original person on the lease, and you may not want to waste energy on this, but I would be tempted to try to get the city/rent board/whoever to enforce the rules so he can't raise rents for the next tenant(s). Landlords shouldn't get away with this kind of thing.
posted by pinochiette at 4:01 PM on July 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

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