Q: I share an apartment with another guy. The police showed up at our door last night, saying that a nearby apartment had been burglarized and asking to be let in to look around. I said OK, and they came in, looked around, and left. My roommate, who wasn‘t home, is furious with me, and said I had no right to allow the cops to enter. What do you think? –Paul M.
A: The officers didn’t show you a search warrant, and apparently had no good reason to forcibly enter without a warrant (for example, they didn’t claim they had information that the burglar was inside). Therefore, you could have said "no" and prevented their entry. But you allowed them to come in, making them your guests. You and your roommate have equal and unfettered rights to invite whomever you please into your apartment. If one of you dislikes the other’s guests, you can certainly argue about it, but the only sure way to prevail is to get your landlord to intervene. A wise landlord won’t do so unless these guests are disturbing the peace or otherwise damaging the landlord’s property — and you can be sure that your landlord would not have intervened on your roommate’s behalf in this situation.
Maybe there’s more to your roommate’s anger than first appears. Suppose he was the burglar, and the cops’ visual search of the living room turned up stolen items? Since he wasn’t home to say "no," the evidence the cops found could be used against him at trial, because you had the right to invite the police in, at least into the common areas. But suppose he had been home, and had unequivocally said "no" while you said "Come on in?" Here, any evidence found by the police could not be used against him. That’s because, according to the Supreme Court, the apartment is his castle as well as yours, and as long as he’s physically present and makes his wishes clear, the police may not enter without a warrant (or a good reason why they don’t need a warrant) unless they’re given permission by all co-tenants who are present.
As you may imagine, there are endless variations on this rule — what happens when a houseguest gives permission? Suppose you had figured out your roommate’s burglaring ways, and had locked him out, thereby preventing him from being present and refusing consent? Suppose he’d been apprehended outside, placed in a squad car, and not present (and thus unable to object) because the police had made that impossible? These situations, and more, have come before the courts, making for endless discussion and argument.
Q: Last month a burglar broke into our apartment complex and assaulted a tenant. The police have finished their investigation, but today I encountered a private investigator asking my staff questions and taking pictures. I‘m beginning to get nervous — is there something I should be doing? Am I about to be sued? –Donald T.
A: Your suspicions are probably well-founded. Your tenant may have gone to an attorney, to inquire about filing a claim against your insurance company or a lawsuit against you. The lawyer may be looking for evidence that you failed to provide adequate security, and this enabled the burglar to gain access and do his dirty work. You or your insurance carrier could end up paying for the tenant’s losses and injuries, even though you didn’t inflict them.
Like any good lawyer, this attorney has taken action while the evidence and people’s memories are fresh. A picture of a broken door lock, for example, taken days after the event, will be relevant and persuasive evidence, but that same picture, taken years or even months later, might not even make it to the jury. Finding a witness a week after the event will be a lot easier than later, when people have moved on.
Contact the insurance company that writes your liability policy right away. Tell them what happened and that the tenant appears to be working up a case. A competent carrier will send its own investigators, even though no claim has yet been filed, because it knows better than anyone the value of a contemporaneous investigation.
In fact, alerting your insurer is part of your obligation as an insured person. Policies commonly require you to alert the company of a probable claim immediately, precisely because the insurer does not want to be at a disadvantage with a cold case. Failing to alert them might cause you trouble later if the company ends up paying out on a large claim that they allege could have been better defended had you done your part to speak up immediately.
Q: Our rent-controlled apartment building changed owners six months ago and the new owner made several renovations, including an automatic gate for the off-street parking. This parking was never assigned to specific tenants in our leases, but we‘ve always had use of the lot. The owner never told us about the plans for the new gate, and now they‘ve given access only to the manager and one other, new tenant. What are our rights? —Aziz K.
A: Landlords who own rent-controlled properties and are dissatisfied with the allowable yearly rent-increase figure frequently seek to increase their profits by looking for ways to run their buildings cheaper. By draining the pool, for example, they’ll save on maintenance. But rent-control ordinances are wise to this ploy, and universally include "reduction in services" as a form of rent increase. Here’s how the reasoning goes: When a landlord has reduced services, the true value of the rental has gone down (an apartment without a pool has a lower market value than one with a pool), but since the rent has remained the same, the difference constitutes a rent increase. Add that difference to the allowable yearly increase (which the landlord has surely imposed), and you’ve got an increase that’s above the allowable amount. That’s a violation of the ordinance, which can be brought to the attention of the administrative board that oversees the law.
You may be able to argue that your situation constitutes a reduction in services. Though parking rights were not specifically part of your leases, the fact that everyone openly and with permission used the off-street parking for years makes it part of what you were paying for. The change in ownership doesn’t affect your right to continued use. Your landlord can charge new tenants for garage parking (that appears to be what’s going on), but existing tenants should not be charged separately for something that was part of their rent all along.
Your landlord should have consulted the rent-control ordinance for a legal way to recoup its renovation expenses. All ordinances allow owners to petition the board for an above-limit rent increase based on extensive renovations or remodeling. This is only fair — when a rundown building gets a major redo, it will command a higher market rent from new tenants, and it’s not reasonable to expect long-term tenants to continue paying the old rent. Of course, there are endless arguments about what constitutes major work — the line between maintenance and substantial upgrades is not easy to draw.
Get together with the other tenants and have a word with your landlord. If he won’t budge, you can file a complaint with the rent board, which will hold a hearing. Your landlord may belatedly ask for an increase based on the renovations, so be prepared to argue that the work did not fit within your ordinance’s definition of renovation or remodeling.
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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