Landlord’s Obligation to Tenants Displaced by Fire

Posted by wasserman

What is a landlord’s obligation to a tenant who is displaced from a rental unit because of a fire or other disaster?

Many tenants have been displaced recently because of building fires.  Undoubtedly, there will be a major earthquake someday that could potentially displace thousands of tenants.  The Rent Board’s Rules and Regulations, Section 12.19, speaks to the landlord’s obligations when such displacements occur.  The highlights of this law are as follows:

If the tenant is displaced due to a fire or other disaster, the landlord must, within 30 days of completion of repairs to the unit, offer that same unit to that tenant under the same terms and conditions that existed prior to the displacement.

The tenant has 30 days from receipt of the landlord’s offer to notify the landlord of acceptance or rejection of the right to return.  If the tenant rejects the offer, then the owner can re-rent the unit to someone else and begin a new tenancy.  If accepted, the tenant must re-occupy the repaired unit within 45 days of receipt of the landlord’s offer.

The “offer to re-occupy” shall be sent to the tenant to any forwarding address provided by the tenant.  If the tenant has not provided an address, the offer shall be sent to the unit from which the tenant was displaced and to any other address of the tenant of which the landlord has actual knowledge, including email addresses.  A failure to so notify a displaced tenant and to properly communicate this offer to re-occupy to the appropriate address shall subject the landlord to wrongful eviction liability under the Rent Ordinance.

In recent years, litigation has erupted over the interpretation and enforcement of this regulation.  First, some landlords do not re-build the same building.  The statute requires a re-offer of the “same unit,” but there have been some court cases against owners for not re-offering the same unit because the same unit was never re-built.  Indeed, in one case a landlord had to pay the tenant because the tenant’s unit was not re-built as the building’s new reconfiguration contained smaller-sized rental units, one of which was timely offered to the tenant.  Other landlords have faced litigation because the tenant was not notified at their current address, even though the landlord asserted that notification was sent to the last known residence.  Tenant attorneys have argued that the owner has a heightened duty to track down displaced tenants, especially when the period of displacement has been for lengthy periods of time (for example, one or two years).  Lastly, owners sometimes get into trouble when the offer is made before the repairs are completed or well after the building is ready for occupancy.  The statute states that a re-occupancy offer must be given within 30 days of “completion of repairs,” not before or after this period.

The bottom line is be careful and diligent if your tenants are displaced by a fire or other disaster.  One, keep track of their whereabouts.  Especially since email is now a recognized address, keep their email addresses handy.  Two, never play around with the timeline.  Make the offer within 30 days upon completion of repairs, not 2 months before the unit is ready to be occupied or 6 months after the building is done.  Three, use good faith diligence in trying to communicate the re-offer to the displaced tenant.  While you do not have to employ a private investigator, you should do some basic research to find the tenant’s current physical and email addresses.  Finally, do not even think about ignoring your obligations under this law.  The penalties for noncompliance are substantial, and tenants will easily be able to ascertain when the property is re-built and re-rented.