Religious family complicates life for tenants

Rent it Right

Q: I live in a large apartment complex, and have as neighbors a family that takes their religion, and its mandate that they spread their faith, very seriously. I’m constantly greeted with blessings and inquiries as to my spiritual condition, and written materials are often left at my door. Even a casual encounter in the elevator or laundry room becomes an opportunity to spread their views. Other tenants in the complex have had the same experience, and we’ve complained to management. They answer that it would be illegal to interfere with these tenants’ free expression of their religion, even though it substantially annoys other residents. What do you think? –Larry S.

A: Management is taking a very cautious approach to your complaint, no doubt mindful of the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of a tenant’s religion. Aware that their ads cannot indicate a preference for tenants of a certain religion (or against others), that they cannot turn prospects away because they disagree with the prospects’ views, and that they cannot make facilities and services, such as use of the clubhouse, available to some but not all religious gatherings, they are assuming that interfering in this situation would be illegal too. But that may not be the case.

First, understand that the fair housing prohibitions prevent landlords from discriminating based on a person’s membership in a protected class, not on what that person actually does as a tenant. For example, a landlord would be acting illegally by refusing to rent to someone because he’s a member of a specified religion. But suppose that as part of practicing that religion, the tenant engaged in the daily practice of prayers accompanied by loud drumming. A tenant who behaved that way would be disturbing his neighbors’ rights to peace and quiet, and a landlord would be on solid ground in asking that it stop, based on the landlord’s duty to ensure all tenants’ "quiet enjoyment" of the premises. If the drumming didn’t stop, a termination would be justified on the grounds of excessive noise, irrespective of the tenant’s membership in a protected class.

The question for your landlord is whether your neighbors’ behavior interferes with your right to be left alone at home. On the one hand, some amount of this sort of thing is to be expected and happens all the time — who hasn’t encountered door-to-door visits from Scouts selling cookies and soccer teams selling raffle tickets? But the situation you describe is rather different. Unlike a door-to-door pitch, which you can end by politely saying no thanks and closing the door, your neighbors’ actions are not so easily avoided. If you’re doing your laundry, it may be awkward to end an encounter and stay to get your clothes out of the dryer. And repeated drop-offs of literature forces you to handle it and dispose of it, which could become burdensome.

One thing you haven’t mentioned is whether you’ve spoken directly to your neighbors about their actions. You might start there, beginning with your respect for their right to practice their religion. Emphasize that you are firmly and comfortably at peace with your own beliefs, and would appreciate their acknowledgment of that.

If you’re not successful with the direct approach, and management continues to refuse to get involved, consider contacting a landlord-tenant mediation service in your town (often legal aid offices and city government offer this service, which extends to tenant-tenant situations, too). A mediator may help both you and your neighbors come to an acceptable resolution. Failing that, your only option would be to move out. If you have a lease and are worried about being held responsible for the rent for the balance of the term, you’ll argue that your leaving was justified because the landlord actually broke the lease first, by failing to preserve your right to quiet enjoyment of your rented home.

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Q: I park in an underground garage in my apartment complex. A community pool with a cement deck is above. The pool leaked and water dripped onto my car, damaging the finish. My auto insurance gave me an estimate but it’s below my deductible, so I’ll have to pay. However, they suggested I contact the property owner. I have spoken to management and they claim they aren’t liable. I think that because maintenance of the pool is under their control, they should be responsible for the damages. Can you help me determine who is correct or what my rights are as a tenant? –Judith O.

A: Your landlord is responsible for the consequences of his negligent acts. If he knew the pool was leaking and didn’t take action, or failed to conduct any regular maintenance (which would have uncovered the leak), it’s likely that he was careless. On the other hand, if the leak resulted from a sudden accident or "act of God" that no one could anticipate (such as an earthquake that split a pool wall or pipe, resulting in leakage), he may not be responsible. We expect property owners to take reasonable steps to prevent harm and damage; we don’t make them automatically responsible for events they could not know about or could not control.

So the first question for you to answer is whether this was a long-running problem or a sudden occurrence. If the former, you have a good case for expecting your landlord to pay up. If the landlord has liability insurance, it should cover this situation. If the landlord doesn’t have this coverage, he’ll have to pay up or face you in small claims court if you want to take the matter to court.

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 janet@inman.com.

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