Q: Our family recently applied for a two-bedroom flat. Seeing that we have a teenage boy and girl, the landlord told my husband and me that the place was too small for us, since the kids would each need a bedroom. We can’t afford a three-bedroom place, and the second bedroom was plenty big for two beds. Can he legally turn us away for this reason? –Helen H.
A: No, he can’t. The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from discriminating against applicants and tenants on the basis of their “familial status.” Among other things, this means that the landlord cannot make decisions about how families should allocate bedrooms (not only are family sleeping arrangements none of their business, but all too often, landlords make this issue a pretext for turning families away). As long as the space meets minimum size requirements for a sleeping room, as established by your state building codes, it’s none of the landlord’s business who bunks with whom.
If you’re still interested in this rental, consider going back to the landlord and setting him straight — nicely, of course, since it’s possible he’s just clueless. If he sticks to his guns, consider calling your local HUD (Housing and Urban Development) office. You can file a complaint with them, and even do it online. HUD will investigate the matter (or have an equivalent state agency do it for them), and if there’s a basis for your complaint, they’ll attempt to settle the case. If that goes nowhere, it will go before a judge, who has the ability to compensate you; order the landlord to offer the rental; order the landlord to attend fair housing education classes; and more.
Q: The manager at our apartment building just moved, and the landlord asked me if I’d like the job. She’s offering to knock a couple of hundred dollars off the rent, but she’s pretty vague about the details. What should I ask about before taking this job? –Cindy T.
A: You’re wise to be thinking about the details now. First, make sure you’re clear about the responsibilities, and be sure you have the skills and desire to do the work. For example will you be collecting rents, showing apartments, screening applicants, performing janitorial or other maintenance work? Based on what you learn, determine how much time you think the job will take — and compare your estimate with your landlord’s (talk to the former manager, too). If the landlord’s estimate is way below yours and the former manager’s, beware.
The natural next step is to consider the compensation. Using a realistic estimate of how much time the job will take, calculate your hourly pay, and think carefully whether this added responsibility is worth it. A rate that barely tops the minimum wage is not a good deal — and if it’s below the minimum wage, it’s not legal.
If you decide to take the job, ask your landlord for pay, rather than a reduction in rent. If you pay full rent and get an hourly wage, you can stop being the manager without involving your tenancy. And if you spend increasing amounts of time on the job, you can simply bill more hours, rather than asking for a rent reduction (which involves changing your lease).
Make sure your landlord understands that whether she pays you with a rent reduction or direct pay, she must still treat you like an employee. You’ll have to give her a W-4 form (Employee Withholding Allowance Certificate), and you’ll need a W-2 (Wage and Tax Statement) at the end of the calendar year. In most situations, the landlord must withhold a “payroll tax” of 7.65 percent of your gross pay (or rent reduction), and contribute an equal amount from her own pocket, paying it all to the IRS quarterly. You’ll both be spared the payroll tax only if the manager’s unit is on the rental property, the unit is there for the landlord’s convenience (or is required by state law, as some states require on-site managers for properties of a certain size), and living in that unit is required by the landlord as a condition of taking the job. Finally, the landlord must pay unemployment taxes, and may have to contribute to a state unemployment insurance fund.
Q: At the beginning of the school year, my husband and I agreed to be cosigners on the lease that our daughter and her two friends signed with her college-town landlord. Things didn’t work out with the roommates, and our daughter found someone to take her place and moved. We just got a letter from the landlord, advising us that the lease is up and the security deposit isn’t enough to cover the damage and unpaid rent. He’s asking us for $300 more! Do we have to pay this? –Kelly P.
A: Whether you’re still on the hook depends on what that cosigner agreement says. First, understand that you agreed to stand behind a specific lease, with specific tenants. The general rule is that once that lease changes — as it did when your daughter left and someone else took her place — your obligation ends. Unless the cosigner agreement specified that your obligation would continue despite a change in residents or other tenancy terms, you can consider yourself beyond the reach of this landlord.
Be prepared, however, to counter the landlord’s argument that your lease-breaking daughter’s behavior shouldn’t take you out from under your cosigner obligations. You can defeat that by pointing out that when the landlord allowed the new resident to live on the property and began accepting rent from her, he implicitly acquiesced in your daughter’s departure. Thus began a new tenancy (for the remaining original residents, plus the newcomer), and thus ended your obligations under the old.
Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of “Every Landlord’s Legal Guide” and “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide.” She can be reached at [email protected].