New Roommate Considerations

A resident added her new spouse’s name to her checks.  By cashing these checks, am I also acknowledging her partner as a co-occupant?

The answer is “probably not.”  If the original resident signed the check, and you have been and remain diligent about not recognizing the new spouse as a co-occupant, you should be just fine.  But this question serves as a stark reminder about how housing providers should address new occupants.

Our primary state rent control law, the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, permits housing providers to re-set rent in an unlimited amount when the last original occupant no longer permanently resides in the rented housing.  In this instance, if the original resident permanently vacated and left her partner behind, Costa-Hawkins may permit the owner to serve a notice adjusting rent to an amount that is not constrained by the local rent control law.  However, the Rent Board has promulgated guidelines that restrict this ability if the owner is perceived to have formally recognized any new occupant as a co-tenant.  In particular, the following conduct may complicate the ability to impose an unlimited rent adjustment:  (i) adding a new occupant onto a lease agreement; (ii) addressing communication to the new occupant (for example, notices of entry, annual rent increase letters); (iii) processing non-emergency repair requests from the new occupant; and (iv) taking rent directly from the new occupant.  Should any of these events occur, a Costa-Hawkins rent adjustment attempt may be met with a Rent Board petition and hearing, and the Administrative Law Judge could deny the rent increase finding that a direct relationship was created between the owner and the roommate.

That said, this author believes that certain conduct towards a tenant’s new roommate is benign and in fact may be necessary to foster a healthy landlord-tenant relationship.  For example, owners must by law provide duplicate key sets to facilitate entries for new occupants, although that transaction should occur between the original lessee and the owner.  Additionally, keyless entry mechanisms may require the input of a new resident’s information onto the entryway system.  Similarly, politely greeting your tenant’s roommate is fine, and this person is entitled to enjoy all housing services that are provided to the leaseholders such as receiving mail/packages, accessing common areas, and having the unrestricted ability to come and go from the premises.  The subsequent occupant might also require a reasonable accommodation such as an assistive animal (e.g., an emotional support cat or dog), and such a request may not be ignored but must be duly processed albeit the point of contact should be the original tenant.  And pertinent to this question, processing rent from a joint account with a check signed by the original lessee should likewise be okay.

In sum, utilize sound common sense.  Since tenants can by law replace departing roommates, move in direct family members, and in most instances bring in additional occupants so as to house two persons per room, hosing providers need to embrace the fact that new folks may be joining existing tenancies.  To preserve an ability to impose an unlimited rent adjustment when the last original occupant leaves, keep the above guidelines in mind.  The goal is not to create a hostile living environment, but at the same time make it clear to your original tenants that they are the only ones that may enjoy a direct relationship with you.