Q: One of my neighbors informed me that one of my newest tenants is a registered sex offender (I’m not sure how she found this out). He stated on his rental application that he had a three-year-old felony conviction, but he did not report details. Figuring that everyone deserves a chance, I did not ask further and rented to him and his wife and two young children, giving them a yearlong lease. They’ve caused no problems. Our local sheriff’s department plans to notify the neighbors of his address and criminal history.

I’m concerned about the safety of this man and his family, as well as how I should handle this situation with the neighbors. Can you please provide me with some guidance on how I should proceed? –Jan

A: You’ve encountered one of the most difficult situations a landlord can find herself in. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. You were not legally required to ask about your tenant’s criminal history, and you’ve broken no laws by learning that the applicant had a criminal past but not going further to find out what the conviction entailed. And even had you learned the details, a decision to rent nevertheless would not have been illegal. But legalities are one thing, and practicalities are another.

Your fear that neighbors will react negatively to your new tenant is well-founded. Neighbors who learn that a registered offender lives in their midst have often reacted strongly, demanding that the offender move away. Many offenders have been rendered homeless by the refusal of landlords to rent to them (when they provide their history) or the constant harassment of neighbors who want them gone. When the offender is homeless and no longer registering at his home address, the whole point of the registration system (tracking the whereabouts of a registrant) is frustrated.

To effectively deal with the situation, start with the police department themselves. With luck, you’ll find that they have developed educational materials aimed at answering questions that neighbors commonly ask, and they may be willing to come out to your property and speak to a gathering of the neighbors. Meet immediately with your tenant and his family, and assure them that you will protect their right to live peacefully in their home as long as they have a legal right to live there. Understand that until these tenants give you a legal reason to terminate their tenancy, your (or your neighbors’) fear alone that the father will commit a crime on the premises will not support a decision to terminate their lease or evict them.

Q: I am a tenant and sublet two of the bedrooms in my rental. My subtenants signed a one-year lease but announced two months later that they are breaking the lease and moving out because they prefer to live in another area of the city. There has been no death, change of job, miscommunication about the property, or any extreme circumstance that would have caused this change. They are trying to find replacement subtenants, but I am not interested in letting them out of the lease or signing any contract that allows them to exit the lease.

Are their leases null and void once I sign a new sublease with new tenants? I’m worried that anyone they find to take their bedrooms may skip out on me too, and then I will not be able to make my full rent payments and be forced to fall behind on my original lease. –Candace H.

A: The situation you find yourself in is no different than that of a landlord who is faced with a lease-breaking tenant. Here’s the scoop: Your subtenants are legally responsible for the rent for the balance of the lease, until you re-rent. At that point, their responsibility ends. In most states, you have the obligation to make reasonable efforts to find an acceptable replacement, however — you can’t just sit back and sue for the entire remaining months. Your subtenants are smart to begin this search, for the quicker they deliver an acceptable sub, the quicker their liability ends.

Once you or they have found an acceptable sub, you have a choice. You can accept the newcomers as your subtenants’ subtenants — that’s right, you now have two, nesting sets of subtenants. The advantage of this arrangement is that you will keep your original subtenants in the picture, which means that if the new residents fail to pay the rent, you can look to the original subtenants to fulfill it (after all, their subtenancy agreement is still alive). Or, you can terminate the original subtenants’ sublease, and sign a separate sublease with the new folks. If you do that, you’ll be cutting the originals out of the picture, and depriving yourself of a source of payment should you need it.

In theory, the better course is to keep the originals as guarantors of their replacements. But on a practical level, you may have a hard time enforcing the obligation of the original occupants. If the new residents don’t pay the rent, you can’t give the originals a notice to "pay or quit" (they live elsewhere now). You’ll have to go after them in small claims court, and you might find that your time and energy will be better spent looking for yet a new subtenant. The only clear answer in all of this is that you should be absolutely sure your chosen subtenants are sold on the place before you accept them.

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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