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Abusive Tenants Make Landlords' Lives Miserable

September 06, 2003|Kathryn Morea | Kathryn Morea lives in Santa Monica.

I run a small business in Southern California, and that business is being a landlord. I can think of few other businesses in which the law so heavily favors the customer (tenant) and so punishes the proprietor (landlord).

There are many remedies available for tenants who feel mistreated. Yet what can a landlord do when she is mistreated by a tenant?

Let me share a few stories with you.

During the time I have been a landlord, I have had countless experiences with tenants who used "the system" to their advantage. I've had several tenants who didn't want to pay rent anymore. They knew evicting them would be lengthy and expensive. After months of legal wrangling, I finally got them out. But I have yet to see a dime in lost rent, attorney fees and damages.

I was once terrorized by drug dealers who were living next door in a Section 8 subsidized house. When I attempted to contact the Department of Housing and Urban Development for help, I found a host of referrals for those wanting to report a "bad landlord" but not a single one to report a bad tenant. Is one to conclude that all tenants are perfect?

I have had tenants steal stoves, heaters, air conditioners, refrigerators; take sledge hammers to windows, walls, sinks and toilets; spray-paint graffiti throughout the interior; leave human and canine feces on the carpet; and commit other destructive acts.

I once discovered a trespasser inside my vacant house. This person simply smashed a window to gain access, and once inside changed the lock and drafted a phony rental agreement with a nonexistent landlord. When I called police to intervene, the trespasser produced the document as proof of legal occupancy. Police called this a civil matter and walked away. It took me five months and about $1,000 in attorney fees to get possession back.

Not long ago, I had a tenant who was so wasted on heroin that she didn't notice the house burning down. (She and her boyfriend had cut the wires on the smoke alarms.) Luckily, a neighbor called 911.

One tenant wanted out of a lease only a few weeks after moving in. Fearing she would be liable, she chose instead to contact city officials and let them go on a "fishing expedition" looking for code violations.

A security deposit could not possibly cover the lost rent, damage and attorney fees in these cases. I continue to rent out my property, although I'm not as anxious to fill vacancies anymore. I check tenants more thoroughly nowadays and sometimes turn away tenants with less than perfect credit.

In what other business might I be at risk for jail time and criminal prosecution? Isn't it punishment enough that the city has the power to force a landlord to lose her property?

Arbitrary building codes can be forced on owners, requiring tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to comply. Penalties against landlords can be huge. And if all else fails, the property itself can be attached.

I spend my weekends painting and repainting. Cleaning, tiling, sanding, sealing. Repairing screens, replacing windows. They used to call it "sweat equity." I'm building something for my family, something I hope will endure long after I'm gone.

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