When a Tenant Changes Locks

Posted by wasserman

My tenant changed the locks on some if not all of the doors of the home that she is renting from me. I understand that I can serve her a notice that she must provide a copy of the keys to those locks to me. If, after serving this notice, she does not comply, what is the next legal step I should take?

You do not necessarily have the right to demand that keys be provided to you. Rather, the first step of this analysis is determining what, if anything, your rental agreement states with regard to locks and/or alteration of the rental unit. The SFAA lease agreement strictly prohibits a tenant from changing the locks. If you had used that or a similar lease form, the tenant should be promptly served with a “three day notice to cure breach of lease covenant,” which is a legal notice requiring the tenant to either put back the original locking device or to provide you with keys. If the rental agreement contains a clear provision to this effect and the tenant thereafter fails to rectify the breach within the three-day period, then you could begin the eviction process in court. However, it is absolutely essential that the rental contract set forth a provision restricting the tenant’s ability to change the locks or, if re-keyed, to provide you with keys. There is no state or local law which mandates that a tenant otherwise be required to provide you with keys. Thus, as is taught in the SFAA educational classes, properly drafted leases are absolutely essential in this business.

Even in instances where the landlord does not have a key (and cannot compel a tenant to provide one), state law allows management access into a tenant’s unit for a variety of reasons, such as to make agreed upon or necessary repairs, when an emergency occurs, or to show the unit to prospective tenants, lenders, workers, or building purchasers. A tenant’s failure to grant lawful access is a just cause reason to terminate the tenancy under the local rent law. Thus, it may behoove the tenant to provide you with a key so that lawful requests for entry can be accommodated without the tenant having to be present.

Perhaps this question was submitted prior to December of 2011. Up until the end of last year, owners had more flexibility to unilaterally change the terms of rental agreements, and to then enforce these terms through eviction if necessary. However, in mid-December, the Rent Board adopted changes to Rules and Regulations Section 12.20, and essentially limited an owner’s right to impose unilateral changes unless the tenant agrees to the change in writing after being apprised in writing that the tenant need not accept this change. In January 2012, the Board further amended this regulation by permitting unilateral changes only if the new lease rules are required by law. However, as mentioned above, there is no law that compels a tenant to give anyone a key to the apartment, so passage of new Rule 12.20 further highlights the importance of sound lease drafting at the inception of the tenancy.

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