DennisBeaverDecember 29, 2012 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Landlord/tenant law impacts everyone.  Not just landlords or tenants, but all of us — especially when domestic violence hurls itself into the worlds of law enforcement, lawyers and the courts.

Being the victim of domestic violence is bad enough if you are a homeowner, have a permanent roof over your head and can obtain a restraining order. But things become much more complicated for renters.

What happens when John, who had just signed a year’s lease and moved into an apartment by himself, now fears for his life, and fully understands that the longer he remains there, the greater the danger of really being again hurt by Bonnie, his recently former girlfriend, who went off the deep end and is now stalking and threatening him?

If he moves out, is he still on the hook for the balance of the rental term?

“Recent amendments to California laws first going into effect in 2010 should prove to be life-savers — literally and financially — for the many tenants and their landlords who both can easily become victims of domestic violence, physically, emotionally and financially. The elderly and dependent adults are now included in the definition of victims of domestic violence,” Attorney Heidi Palutke of the Sacramento-based California Apartment Association tells You and the Law.

Opportunity to get out of the lease

“Using your example, John has been beaten up by a former girlfriend who does not live on the property. The only way to be safe — even with a restraining order —is to move. However, John is two months into a one-year lease. Before the law changed, if he moved out, he could still be responsible for the balance of the lease if the landlord could not rent the place.

“Now,” Palutke continued, “he can terminate the lease by giving the owner a 30-day notice, and include one of the following:

• A temporary restraining order, emergency protective order, or protective order issued within the last 180 days.

• A copy of a report written within the last 180 days, by a state or local peace officer acting in an official capacity, stating that the tenant or household member has filed a report alleging that he or she or the household member is a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.

Attorney Palutke notes that, “While tenants do not need to remain in the rental for the full 30 days, they are responsible for the rent.”

You want to let them back in?  Really bad idea!

But the law places an important obligation on tenants as well, based on common sense and fairness, as Palutke was quick to stress:

“The landlord can’t terminate a tenancy or fail to renew only because of domestic violence when the perpetrator doesn’t live in the same dwelling.

“But when a tenant obtains a protective order or has made a police report and still allows that person to return, then the landlord absolutely may evict,” adding:

“From the largest property management company to retired couples who own rentals, they all have important legal obligations to their tenants. Of course, rental units must be habitable and properly maintained, but their duty goes much further and requires being mindful of things which are a risk to other tenants.”

She said that “a tenant who asks help from law enforcement or the courts and then invites the troublemaker back in often exposes other tenants to a risk of harm as well.

“These laws provide that when the landlord reasonably believes that even if they do not return, the risk that their presence could threaten physical harm or would interfere with other tenants just going about their lives — then the tenant could still be evicted, under certain conditions,” she said.

Change the locks

Another measure these laws address is changing locks, and is something all landlords and tenants need to be aware of, Palutke  said:

“When a tenant receives a court order that excludes a co-tenant (let’s say, a spouse) from the same dwelling unit as the protected tenant, a landlord is required to change the locks within 24 hours of receiving a copy of that court order.

If the perpetrator does not live in the unit, that order or police report justifies the landlord changing the locks In either case, the tenant may have the locks changed — without permission — and provide a key to the landlord.”

Roommate? Security deposit?

“And what if John has a couple of roommates?” I asked

“Unless they are also protected persons under the court order,” explained Palutke, “they are not off the hook and are still subject to terms of the lease.”

Finally, the California Apartment Association’s attorney addressed the issue of security deposits.

“The owner’s obligation of returning the security deposit is only triggered when the unit is vacant.”

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.