Q: My tenant asked me if she could have an extra key to give to her boyfriend. She specified that he would not be living there, but that she would like him to be able to get in occasionally if she is not there. What should I do?
For San Francisco rent controlled apartments, landlords must be mindful of the “key amendment” to the rent law. Passed in 2005, this law allows tenants to receive an extra set of keys from the landlord for such reasons as admitting a service provider, delivery person, houseguest, or relative. The intent of the legislation emanated from a concern that a tenant may be in poor health or incapacitated and therefore unable to let a caregiver into the unit. Unfortunately, the breadth of the law extends well beyond this purpose.
Your tenant could easily argue that her boyfriend is an occasional houseguest or even a “family member,” as the word “family” is broadly defined by various San Francisco ordinances. As such, you probably should provide a duplicate set of keys unless you have good reason to suspect that there is subletting in violation of the rental agreement. Failure to comply with the key amendment allows the tenant to file a decrease in housing services petition with the Rent Board, and under these circumstances you would probably incur a rent decrease until keys were provided. You can charge the tenant for the actual cost of replicating the keys, but you cannot impose any other fee.
However, the law does require the tenant to provide a written request stating the reason why duplicate keys are necessary. Please make sure the tenant states, in writing, that the keys are for her boyfriend, who is an occasional houseguest and not a resident. Have the tenant sign and date this request, as it may be used as evidence should the boyfriend claim to be a co-occupant in the future. When providing the replicated keys, you may also hand the tenant a letter summarizing the understanding that this person is not a co-tenant, subtenant, or permanent occupant. Also consider adding language that the tenant assumes all risk associated with granting access to her unit to another person; to that end, make it clear that you assume no liability for any property damage or personal injury caused by, or inflicted onto, the boyfriend.
Finally, this situation highlights a critical part of property management in the City: Always monitor who is living in your apartments. While you do not need to routinely spy on residents, pay attention to who enters and leaves the building. Never accept rent from a subtenant, and never name someone other than the approved tenant on correspondences and other communication. If you have reason to suspect that unlawful subletting has occurred, consult an attorney immediately. In sum, the key amendment gives tenants great latitude to allow others to access your building and their unit. It may also provide you with insight that a tenant is, or may be in the future, sneaking in another occupant.