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When Harassment Hits Close to Home

January 18, 1998|From Project Sentinel

QUESTION: Our apartment manager is continually harassing the single women who live in our complex with snide remarks and sexual innuendoes. The other day he followed me to my apartment, and when I asked what he was doing there, he replied with a leer, "I thought this is what you wanted."

Well, he is the last thing I want, and I finally got him to leave me alone, only after saying I was about to call the police. I would move, except moving is expensive and there are few vacancies in my area.

What can I do?

ANSWER: Your apartment manager's behavior constitutes sexual harassment and is illegal under both state and federal law. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and, as such, violates the federal Fair Housing Act as well as the state Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Sexual harassment includes, but is not limited to, unwanted sexual advances or unwanted touching, sexually charged comments, threatened eviction if sexual favors are not granted, intimidation, coercion and assault.

Though most people tend to associate sexual harassment with an employment setting, more instances are being observed in the housing context. Sexual harassment in housing is an issue of growing importance to attorneys and civil rights agencies and has proved to be extremely costly for offenders.

When confronted by this type of behavior, there are several tools you can and should employ to empower yourself:

First, you should document any and all encounters with the offender. Try to maintain detailed and thorough records, and if possible have witnesses during any communications with your apartment manager.

Similarly, you should put the owner of the complex on notice by sending him a letter describing the manager's conduct. The owner is under legal obligation to promptly investigate the complaint.

If the manager's behavior persists, there are several resources at your disposal. You can contact your local fair housing agency, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the district attorney's office, the U.S. Department of Justice or a private attorney.

Ex-Tenant May Get a Double Refund

Q: I moved out of my apartment shortly after a change of ownership and have been waiting for the return of my security deposit. I called the resident manager and was told that it might take a while because of the sale.

I asked for the name and address of the new owner, but the manager refused to give me that information. After several weeks and more calls to the manager, I still do not have my refund. What can I do? And who is responsible: the old owner or the new owner?

A: The answer depends on the procedures followed by the owner when the property was sold.

When an owner sells rental property, he or she can either settle the security deposit with the tenant before the sale is completed or transfer the full deposit amount to the new owner. If the deposit is returned to the tenant, the owner may deduct any charges allowed by Civil Code Section 1950.5. In this case, once the property changes hands, the new owner can ask the tenant to pay a new deposit.

Very few landlords return deposits to tenants when property is sold. Most landlords transfer deposits to the new owner. However, unless the old owner properly notifies a tenant of the sale, as well as of the transfer of the deposit, both the old and new owners may be liable to the tenant to account for the entire deposit when the tenancy ends.

In your case, since you did not receive your deposit upon sale of the property or a notice of its transfer to the new owner, you are within your rights to demand payment from both the old and new owners. You can often obtain the name and mailing address of a property owner by contacting your county tax assessor's office. You should send a letter to both the past and present owners demanding your deposit refund.

If the owners refuse to return your deposit or return your calls or letters, you may want to contact your local mediation service for assistance. You also have the option of Small Claims Court. If you proceed with legal action, you should name both the former and present owner. California Civil Code (section 1950.5) states that a property owner has 21 days to return a security deposit--or, if any amount is deducted, furnishing an accounting of how the deposit was used. If the owner does not do so, the court may award punitive damages up to $600, in addition to any deposit returned.

This column is prepared by Project Sentinel, a rental housing mediation service in Sunnyvale, Calif. Questions may be sent to 1055 Sunnyvale-Saratoga Road, Suite 3, Sunnyvale, CA 94087, but cannot be answered individually.

For housing discrimination questions, complaints or help, call the state Department of Fair Housing and Employment at (800) 233-3212 or the Fair Housing Council or the Fair Housing Institute office in your area:

Bellflower: (888) 777-4087

Carson: (888) 777-4087

Hawthorne: (888) 777-4087

Lancaster: (888) 777-4087

Redondo Beach: (888) 777-4087

West Los Angeles: (310) 477-9260.

San Fernando Valley: (818) 373-1185.

Pasadena: (626) 791-0211.

El Monte: (626) 579-6868.

Orange County: (714) 569-0828.

San Bernardino County: (909) 884-8056.

San Diego County: (619) 699-5888.

Ventura County: (805) 385-7288

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