Landlord/Master Tenant Relations

Posted by wasserman

What are my rights as a landlord to request information from a master tenant about who else is occupying the unit?

You may request anything you want. Compelling a response is a different story. There is no law that requires a tenant to divulge personal information to the landlord. Management often asks, “Can’t we require all occupants to give us their personal information in case of an emergency?” The short answer is “no,” you may not require them to make this disclosure but you may ask.

The local rent laws do allow you to screen additional or replacement roommates by requiring the procurement of information that would allow you to run credit and to verify employment prior to move-in. This author strongly advises against utilizing those tools to screen subsequent occupants. First, there are really no legitimate grounds to deny the application of an authorized subtenant, especially if the master tenant represents that the new occupant will not be rent responsible. Secondly, and more importantly, interacting with subtenants in this manner creates risk that, when the last original occupant vacates, the landlord may be viewed as having created a co-tenancy relationship with the subtenants and, if a co-tenancy is deemed to exist, no unlimited rent increase will be allowed. As such, this author firmly believes that all non-emergency contact, interaction, and communication with subtenants should be avoided at all times until the last original occupant vacates, at which point the landlord should immediately notice everyone that rent is being increased.

This question specifically asks if the landlord should inquire about the identity of subtenants. This author has no problem with the landlord making such an inquiry to the master tenant. As stated above, the master tenant may decline to provide this information and, if the subtenants are already lawfully living there, the landlord has no real recourse. The landlord should not, however, query the subtenants directly, as doing so invites a later argument by the subtenants that a co-tenancy was created.

Lastly, landlords should note that tenants (and their subtenants) are not required by law to fill out and return “tenant estoppels.” Estoppels are questionnaires that typically get distributed when the building is being sold. Most estoppels ask for the identity of each occupant, when the tenancy began, the amount of the security deposit, the current rental rate, and, most importantly for many buyers, whether a tenant is protected by age or disability and therefore not eligible to be evicted for owner/relative occupancy. The Tenants Union and other tenant advocacy groups urge their constituency to ignore these forms. Polite tenants will truthfully complete and return them. Some landlords will point to the clause in the SFAA Lease and other good lease forms which require that a tenant fill out an estoppel, but enforcement through eviction should a tenant decline to do so is highly doubtful as this would not be likely deemed as a material enough lease rule to justify a termination of the tenancy for its breach.

In sum, feel free to ask the master tenant about the identity of those also living in the unit. Unless the master tenant is preparing to move someone in, there is little if anything you can do to compel a response. The same holds true for estoppel forms: good tenants will fill them out truthfully and promptly return them, whereas bad tenants may not. Regardless, your recourse to compel action is virtually nonexistent, so oftentimes we just have to accept the reality that we may not know the identities of everyone who lives in our buildings.