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Can Lease Be Broken for Quake Damage?

January 30, 1994|KEVIN POSTEMA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Postema is the editor of Apartment Age magazine, a publication of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA), an apartment owners' service group

QUESTION: The apartment building I own in Northridge was only slightly damaged by the earthquake. The damage appears to merely be cracked and fallen plaster and the like. Of course, I'll have the damage repaired, but I have a more serious problem than that.

Some of my renters are saying that they believe the building is uninhabitable because of the quake. They want to break their leases.

Frankly, I think the building is fine, but how do I prove that to the tenants, or can they break their leases?

ANSWER: You are not obliged to prove to the tenants that the building is habitable, and they cannot break their leases because of problems like those you describe.

Unless the building, or a particular unit, has been condemned by the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, Los Angeles County Health Department or Fire Department or similar agency, it is likely habitable and the leases remain in effect.

You should attempt to repair the damaged plaster as soon as possible and certainly within 30 days.

Guide for Refunding Rents and Deposits

Q: My Reseda apartment building was virtually demolished by the earthquake. My renters want their security deposits and rents refunded immediately.

I understand that I must refund their security deposits within three weeks under state law. Does this disaster change that time frame? Also, must I refund the balance of January rents or may I keep them?

A: While the disaster doesn't change the maximum time frame for refunding rents and deposits, the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA) recommends that all owners in your situation refund whatever money their renters are owed as soon as they can to facilitate the tenants rehousing.

While state law does not require it, AAGLA recommends that any owners who can do so refund prorated rents, those beyond the time the property became uninhabitable. Any deposit money left after legitimate deductions from them must be refunded under state law.

For instance, if your historical records indicate that a tenant's rent was late three times, and you charge deposits a $20 late fee per incidence, you could logically deduct $60 from the deposit before refunding it.

Similarly, let's say a renter admitted he broke a window two months ago and you had it fixed at a cost of $70, which the renter never reimbursed you. That $70 would also be a legitimate deduction from the deposit.

How Quake Victims Can Find Apartments

Q: My West Los Angeles apartment has been condemned because of the recent earthquake. Now, obviously, I need an apartment. Is there a list anywhere of available housing for those displaced by this disaster?

A: AAGLA is helping find new housing for renters displaced by the quake. AAGLA has available to the public a list of property management companies across Los Angeles County with available apartments.

Those needing assistance may call AAGLA's main office for information at (213) 384-4131, or they may visit any of AAGLA's three regional offices located at: Main Office, 621 S. Westmoreland Ave., Los Angeles; 12012 Wilshire Blvd., West Los Angeles, or 17707 Crenshaw Blvd, No. 210, Torrance.

Must Landlord Pay Interim Expenses?

Q: The Chatsworth apartment in which I lived has been condemned by the city because of the quake. It cannot be fixed so I'm looking for another apartment. In the meantime, I have been staying at a hotel and, of course, have been eating all my meals at restaurants.

Is my former landlord responsible to pay for my interim housing and meals? Does he have any responsibility to relocate me?

A: Because the quake is legally considered "an act of God" (like a flood, tornado or hurricane), the landlord is probably not liable to your for food, housing or relocation expenses.

If, on the other hand, a landlord was in some way negligent in the wake of the quake, he may be liable. If, for instance, a landlord was required by the city to make a building seismically safe, and he didn't do so, he may be liable for some or all of those expenses.

If that's the case, and your damages don't exceed $5,000, you may sue the former landlord in Small Claims Court for damages, but you'll need evidence of the landlord's transgression from the city for the court.

Should Landlord Close Up Broken Windows?

Q: My North Hollywood apartment building was destroyed by the quake. The tenants are moving their belongings out of the property, but I'm wondering about all of the broken windows. Should I board them up? The building will be demolished anyway. What do you think?

A: I think that an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure. Beside the security of your renters' possessions, there is their safety to consider.

If one of them is injured by falling glass while moving his belongings, you may very well be liable for his injuries because you had knowledge of a dangerous condition at your property and did nothing to correct it. For both of the above reasons, security and safety, if I were you, I would board it up as soon as possible.

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