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Neighbors a bit too edgy for downtown loft dwellers

June 22, 2008|Janet Portman | Inman News

Question: We rent a loft in a renovated downtown building, which has space for retail on the ground floor. We've just learned that a mental health services organization will be our downstairs neighbor. We know that the neighborhood is considered "edgy," but it just doesn't feel safe here. Do you think we have grounds to break our lease?

Answer: You're not the first to react in dismay when a health services facility or clinic appears in a mixed-use building, though it's arguable whether your fears are well-grounded. Commercial tenants also typically don't welcome low-income health and law clinics or government agencies, such as unemployment or probation offices. They may insert clauses in their leases that make the landlord promise not to rent to specified organizations or tenants.

Residential tenants rarely think about these issues, though in situations like yours, before signing the lease, you could press for such a clause. This route won't do you any good this time.

Two areas you might rely on to support breaking your lease are lack of personal safety and any landlord promises regarding new neighbors. But they find slim support in the information you've supplied.

In virtually every state, tenants can break a lease when the landlord fails to properly maintain the premises, exposing the tenant to a serious risk of injury. The duty to maintain has been extended, in many states, to include the duty to keep tenants reasonably safe from foreseeable criminal acts by providing adequate locks, lighting and security personnel and warning tenants about known dangers. When landlords fail to take these safety measures and a demonstrably unsafe situation develops, tenants can sometimes successfully break their leases. But your "feeling" alone that people visiting a mental health services office makes the building unacceptably unsafe probably would not persuade a judge to support your lease-breaking.

When you rented were you given any reason to believe that the ground-floor spaces would be retail establishments only? If so, you might argue that this representation was not only a promise, but a crucial piece of information without which you would not have rented the loft.

If you can prove that management knew that "retail-only downstairs" was highly important to you, you might be able to convince a judge that when this promise was broken, you were free to move out.

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Parking fines not landlady's to pay

Question: When roof repairs were scheduled for our apartment complex, we received a notice telling us that our vehicles had to be moved from the parking lot by 8 a.m. The notice said to use street parking but did not mention any parking restrictions for the street on which the complex is located. Many tenants, including myself, parked overnight and received parking citations, because this street prohibits parking from midnight to 5 a.m. The landlady says she will talk with the city to see if the fines can be waived. If the city won't do it, is the landlady responsible for paying our fines?

Answer: You may have a hard time coming up with a legal reason compelling your landlady to pay your parking tickets. Although she advised you to use street parking, she did not warrant that it would be OK to park on the street you used. You're responsible for checking the "No Parking" signs and choosing a street that permits overnight stays.

The outcome might be different had she urged you to "park right outside, opposite the building" or something similar. But she didn't say that.

All is not necessarily lost, however. Your landlady now has a building full of annoyed tenants, which is a situation no careful owner wants to continue for very long. If she is unable to get the city to rescind the tickets (a long shot, to be sure), she may still be willing to subsidize your fines a bit.

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Janet Portman can be reached at janet@inman.com.

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