Q: My tenant has asked me to let her out of her lease so she can move away from her roommate-boyfriend, whom she describes as abusive and dangerous. She says the boyfriend can’t afford the place on his own. I said OK, but until I get replacement tenants in there, I’ll hold them to their obligation to pay rent. Saying she can’t afford to pay rent here and at a new place, she claims this will mean she has to stay. Do I have a legal obligation to let them out of the lease and excuse their responsibility for future rent? –Sabrina M.
A: In most states, lease-breaking tenants are indeed responsible for the rent for the balance of the rental term until the landlord has re-rented (and the landlord must take reasonably prompt steps to find new tenants). But several states, including Oregon, Washington, Colorado, North Carolina and Texas, have recognized an exception to this rule and have given domestic violence victims an early termination right. Tenants who participate in federal Section 8 and public housing programs also have this right, under the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. These laws typically include some safeguards for landlords, such as requiring tenants to verify their status as domestic violence victims (by providing a copy of a police report or restraining order, for example), insisting that tenants submit their requests in writing (sometimes within a specified time after the reported violence), and specifying that remaining tenants on the lease are still bound by its terms.
Landlords whose states have not passed early termination laws for domestic violence victims shouldn’t automatically conclude that they have no reason to accommodate a request from a tenant in this situation. If the landlord knows (or should realize, given the circumstances) that the tenant is in danger, in most states the landlord must take reasonable steps to protect this tenant from harm. A reasonable step would include letting the tenant move away and excusing her from any future responsibility for rent (as you note, without this forgiveness, in practical terms the tenant simply can’t move). If the landlord refuses to take reasonable steps, and the tenant is injured in another incident of violence, the landlord could end up at least partially legally responsible.
Q: I rent a single-family home, which my landlord is selling. She dropped-off a paper called an “estoppel certificate” and asked me to fill it in and send it back to her broker. I don’t understand what this is for (neither does she, but she says it’s important). What do I need to know? –Paul M.
A: This document is indeed important, to both of you. Here’s the deal: When someone buys property and asks a bank to finance the sale, the lender will evaluate the chances that the buyer will repay the loan. If there’s a tenant on the property whom the buyer will inherit, the monthly rent will help pay the monthly mortgage charges. So the lender wants to know — How healthy is the tenancy? When everything is going great — neither landlord nor tenant owes the other any money; the landlord hasn’t promised pricey repairs or renovations; the tenant isn’t threatening to leave over lack of repairs; and there are no agreements between tenant and seller that aren’t contained in the written lease — the lender assumes that it’s got the whole picture and the rent stream will funnel nicely into the mortgage stream. But if the current landlord has promised expensive renovations, or you’re about to break your lease because necessary, expensive repairs haven’t been made, the lender will get nervous, realizing that the buyer will inherit these problems and the steady rent stream may dry up or be diverted. The estoppel certificate comes from the lender and asks you about unpaid rent, oral or other changes to the lease, whether there are problems with the tenancy, and so on.
You can see how these disclosures are important to the sale of the property. But the information you supply is important to you, too. First, be very sure you answer completely and truthfully. Most certificates will include a statement at the bottom in which you acknowledge that the lender and buyer will “materially rely” on the information you supply. This is a tricky phrase — lawyers use it to set you up. It means that you’re acknowledging that your answers are critical to the lender’s and buyer’s decisions. If you answer untruthfully, particularly if you do so intentionally, and problems stemming from your answers develop later, you’ve made yourself an easy target for a lawsuit.
Finally, understand that though you don’t want to misrepresent issues you’re having with your landlord, you don’t want to hide them, either, because you might lose your right to raise them later. For example, suppose your current landlord promised to reimburse you $500 when you painted the living room. If you don’t note that promise on the certificate, your new landlord may refuse to honor the deal.
Q: My elderly mother has decided to sell her home and become a renter. She looked at a nice property but was turned away when the manager said they didn’t have any “appropriate” ground-floor units. Mother uses a cane but can certainly navigate stairs and use the elevator. Can she expect similar treatment everywhere? –Jessie W.
A: Every landlord or manager who makes similar decisions will be violating the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination based on one’s familial status. Though “age discrimination” isn’t mentioned specifically in the Act, judges and regulators have consistently held that housing decisions based solely on one’s advanced age are discriminatory. That manager should have shown your mother every available unit. It’s up to her to decide which one is “appropriate” for her needs.
This is not to say that every elderly applicant is entitled to a rental or that age-related infirmities can never be considered. Landlords can and should look at the evidence. For example, suppose a prior landlord reports that an elderly applicant often forgot to turn off the stove, got lost finding her apartment, couldn’t remember to take out the trash, and consistently forgot the rent. This is behavior that would justifiably scuttle any applicant, not just an elderly one, and for this reason, it can form the basis for a denial. But that’s a long way from assuming that all older applicants will exhibit these problems. Taking the latter approach is illegal.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.