Don't get stuck paying for tenant blight

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Q: My tenants incurred a fine from the city, which claimed that their poor housekeeping (really, their yard-keeping) was a violation of city codes. The ordinance says I’m responsible for paying the fine, too. I think that’s unfair — after all, I can’t just enter the property and take their junk and clean it up! –Walter H.

A: It sounds like your city inspectors concluded that the yard constituted a blight: an unhealthy or extremely unattractive condition that they thought was offensive and needed to be cleaned up. Typical examples of blight include junker cars parked on lawns, discarded furniture and appliances, and extremely overgrown foliage.

When conditions deteriorate badly, they may even be a "public nuisance," which is another way of saying that the public sense of cleanliness and order has been offended. Blight and nuisance laws are very common; almost always, the owner is given a chance to clean up the problem before facing fines.

When a tenant occupies the property, the city’s initial response will be no different than when the owner himself is in residence: notice of the violation and a chance to clean up. But because you have considerable say in how your property is used by a tenant, the city will also look to you if the tenant doesn’t get busy. While it is true that you cannot enter the premises and unilaterally dispose of the tenant’s belongings, you can take steps that would indirectly accomplish the inspector’s goals.