Q: We own a four-bedroom, single-family home in a university town, which we rent to students. Our neighbors have been complaining about noise and traffic. There’s a movement now afoot to change the zoning laws to provide that a “family” be defined as prohibiting more than two unrelated occupants from living together in a single-family neighborhood. This will make it very hard for us to keep the property (we’ll have to drop the rent if we can’t rent to more than two unrelated students). Any suggestions? –Sharon and Matt D.
A: When large universities rely substantially on the local town to house their students, it’s common to hear neighbors complain of noise, traffic and diminution of property values. Zoning ordinances like the one you describe are a likely response, and none other than the U.S. Supreme Court has blessed them.
Back in 1974, a similar ordinance in the Village of Belle Terre, N.Y., got the OK from Justice Douglas, who wrote, “A quiet place where yards are wide, people few, and motor vehicles restricted are legitimate guidelines in a land-use project addressed to family needs. … [Government may] lay out zones where family values, youth values, and the blessings of quiet seclusion and clean air make the area a sanctuary for people.”
You may be wondering how all these values would be met if you were to rent your house to a traditional family of eight — surely there would be noise, litter and parking congestion from them, too. This is exactly what some state courts have seized upon when ruling on ordinances like Belle Terre’s. They’ve reasoned that because the classification scheme doesn’t advance the stated goals, the law can’t be allowed to stand. Whether your neighbors’ hoped-for zoning restriction would pass state court muster will depend on the approach taken by your state’s high court.
Before gearing up for a legal fight, step back and think about whether there are more practical ways to address this problem. Some university towns have taken creative steps, such as initiating rental registration programs that obligate landlords to give tenants informational material on their responsibilities as tenants, require landlords to terminate the tenancies of tenants who repeatedly violate the law, and revoke a property’s permit when it has racked up repeat violations. Allocating a portion of registration fees to the hire of additional law enforcement who can respond to complaints and investigations is also a good idea. Finally, don’t overlook the university itself. Pressure from the community may encourage more on-campus housing, which will ease the impact students have on residential neighborhoods.
Q: I was injured when my building’s staircase door, which has a pneumatic assist, continued to close, despite the pressure of my hand as I tried keep it open. The landlord says it’s the maintenance company’s fault, and I should contact them if I want to be reimbursed for my medical costs. Doesn’t the landlord bear any responsibility? –Mark M.
A: Let’s start with the basics: Your landlord is legally bound to maintain the common areas of the building, including staircase doors, in a safe working order, and he’ll be responsible if his failure to do so results in injuries to tenants. Farming out this responsibility to a maintenance company doesn’t relieve the landlord of this duty, and he’s still responsible to you for your injuries.
The landlord might not end up paying out-of-pocket for all of your injuries, however. If the maintenance company was at fault, it will have to reimburse the landlord for payments he made to you. This could happen if the maintenance company failed to monitor the door’s opening mechanism, or did so carelessly. On the other hand, the landlord may be stuck with the bill if the maintenance company did its job perfectly, but the door broke between scheduled maintenance — and the landlord knew it was broken but failed to alert the company. And it’s possible that they’ll share responsibility if it turns out, for example, that both of them knew of a problem but decided to defer maintenance. The important point for you, though, is that you don’t have to sort through these facts. It is up to the landlord and the maintenance company to figure it out between them.
Because your landlord remains responsible to you for your injuries, start your claim with a letter to your landlord, demanding repayment for your medical costs, and for further compensation (lost income and perhaps “pain and suffering”) if you feel that is appropriate. You may want to consult a lawyer about this, but if your injuries are not severe or permanent, you may be able to handle the claim without a lawyer.
Unless the amount you’re asking for is relatively small, the landlord will probably refer the matter to his insurance carrier, who will immediately begin looking around for someone else to take up (or at least share) the blame — the maintenance company! Leave it to their insurance adjusters to develop the facts and fight about who’s ultimately responsible. The bottom line is that you’re entitled to reimbursement from your landlord. And this is true even if you may have partly contributed to your injuries.
Q: We’re new landlords, proud owners of a 20-unit apartment building. A neighboring owner advised us to consider billing our tenants for their water usage. We’ve never heard of this; how can we bill them when there’s only one meter that services the building? –Martha and John M.
A: Making tenants pay for their water usage has become a popular way for landlords to recoup their water costs and increase their profits (studies have also shown that when tenants are billed directly, a property’s overall water usage drops considerably). There are three ways to go about this. The best method is to have the water company install meters for each unit, so that each household pays the utility directly. Secondly, you can contract with a sub-metering company to install sub-meters, which transmit a unit’s water usage directly to the company via digital signals (no need for a meter-reader to physically check the meter). The company bills each household directly, and the landlord pays an administrative fee. Finally, you can estimate each unit’s usage by using the “RUBS” method (Ratio Utility Billing System), in which you estimate each unit’s usage and share of the total bill based on the unit’s square footage or number of occupants. The landlord bills each household for its share of the monthly bill.
Each of these approaches has its limitations, however. Having the water company install individual meters is feasible in new construction, but usually not practical as a retrofit. Using a sub-metering company involves an initial expense (installing the sub-meters), though you may find an aggressive company willing to front the cost. And don’t count on being able to pass-through this cost (or the ongoing administrative costs) to your tenants, because some states or localities forbid it. As for RUBS, many tenants will object, arguing that whatever formula you use cannot take into account individuals’ habits (the careful family of three might use less water than the wasteful couple next-door, for example).
Be sure to do your homework before taking up your neighbor’s suggestion. Your state might disallow sub-metering altogether (as does Mississippi), and your local laws might have something to say, too. Start by talking with your water company or check its Web site (go to www.utilityconnection.com for a comprehensive list of water districts and agencies). If you decide to use a sub-metering company, shop around and look for a company with a solid reputation for customer service and accurate billing.
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.
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