Before a tenant signed a lease, I told her the neighborhood was safe. Her car has been broken into twice in three months, and she is claiming I misrepresented the neighborhood. How can I protect myself?
For starters, never represent that a neighborhood is “safe.” The reality nowadays is that no neighborhood comes close to being one-hundred percent safe. There is always a real risk of crime. In fact, as we are oftentimes reminded, some of the worst affronts against persons and property are happening in neighborhoods formerly thought to be immune from urban woes.
The SFAA Residential Tenancy Agreement was amended about a decade ago to include a neighborhood disclosure paragraph. This admonition was originally crafted by CAA and thus is deployed in most industry approved statewide lease contracts. The current version with recent input from SFAA’s lease drafting committee reads as follows:
53. NEIGHBORHOOD DISCLOSURE: Tenant is advised to investigate, before signing this Agreement, the neighborhood or area conditions, including the following: schools; proximity and adequacy of law enforcement; crime statistics; proximity of registered felons or offenders; fire protection; other governmental services; availability, adequacy and cost of any wired or wireless internet connections or other telecommunications or other technology services and installation; proximity to commercial, industrial or agricultural activities; existing and proposed transportation, construction and development that may affect noise, view, or traffic; airport noise, noise or odor from any source; wild and domestic animals; homelessness and homeless encampments; open drug dealing; other nuisances, hazards or circumstances; cemeteries; facilities and condition of common areas; conditions and influences of significance to certain cultures and/or religions; and personal needs, requirements, and preferences of Tenant.
Tenant understands and agrees that neighborhood conditions are not under the control of Owner, and changes to neighborhood conditions from traffic, construction or other causes shall not be considered a basis for a claim of decrease in housing services. The same is true of the conduct of other occupants in, or visitors to, the building. While Owner will seek enforcement of building rules and standards in an even-handed manner and to a reasonable degree, the conduct of other people in lifestyle and personal interactions with Tenant is beyond the control of Owner and shall not be considered a basis for a claim of decrease in housing services.
As evidenced by the statement’s length, prospective residents are thoroughly advised to investigate the neighborhood prior to solidifying their agreement to rent. However, this verbiage is not enough to give you full-proof protection. To be blunt, nothing you can say, do, or disclose will provide an absolute liability shield. To that end, California case law is increasingly holding housing providers financially liable for harm inflicted onto apartment residents not just from acts that occur within the property itself but also from external events such as gunfire, traffic accidents, and assaults that occur nearby. So, in addition to making the above Neighborhood Disclosure a part of all new and existing leases – if your rental agreement does not have the disclosure, you may amend it by issuing a 30-day change-in-terms-of-tenancy notification to incorporate this warning into older agreements – you are urged to equip your rental property with (i) ample exterior and common area interior lighting; (ii) effective ground floor window bars; (iii) functioning entrance security such as gating and automatic exterior and garage door closures; (iv) video surveillance around the building’s perimeter as well as throughout interior common areas; and (v) quality front and individual apartment door locking devices that cannot be easily compromised or disarmed by intruders.
Crime is rising in most urban areas. San Francisco is pressed with uniquely adverse circumstances due to homelessness, lack of police protection, and rampant open air drug use. This means that you may never deem any neighborhood to be safe, and you should vigilantly ensure that your rental property is well equipped to deter or help prevent criminal activity.