Sheltering in Place: Escaping Danger by Staying Put

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When you think of an emergency situation taking place at an apartment building, chances are evacuation comes to mind as an appropriate response. After all, when there’s an imminent danger somewhere in the building, such as a fire, smoke condition, gas leak, or structural failure, evacuating the building makes sense to ensure that tenants escape danger and reach a place where they can stay safe.

But some emergencies that pose a threat to tenants in their apartments occur right outside the building, in the immediate neighborhood, or in an even more widespread area. When this type of emergency occurs, it means the safest course of action for tenants to take is actually to remain in their home. Not only would evacuation be ill-advised under such circumstances, but authorities may issue a “shelter-in-place” order, requiring everyone in an apartment building to stay put until the risks of leaving have gone away.

Although the term is unfamiliar to many people, a shelter-in-place order is more common than you might think. Here are examples of a variety of situations that led to a shelter-in-place order in communities across the United States that made headlines in just the past week:

  • San Jose, California, September 25, 2014: A storm caused a transformer to blow and catch fire, leading fire officials to order nearby residents to shelter in place, according to reporting from NBC Bay Area.
  • Ridgeway, New York, September 24, 2014: As state police engaged in a standoff with a man who allegedly threatened his mother with a gun while barricaded inside her home, nearby residents were ordered to shelter in place, according to reporting from WIVB.
  • Mosinee, Wisconsin, September 24, 2014: A utility company employee accidentally ruptured a gas line with a backhoe, causing a natural gas leak in an industrial park, according to a report from the Wassau Daily Herald. Fortunately, there apparently weren’t any residential properties in the immediate area, however people in a FedEx building near the leak were reportedly asked to shelter in place.
  • Mountain View, California, September 24, 2014: After discovering two bodies while trying to identify the cause of a mysterious noxious odor, local authorities called for the evacuation of two apartment buildings and ordered tenants of a third building to shelter in place, according to a report from The Elkhart Truth.
  • Barrett Township, Pennsylvania, September 19, 2014: State police ordered residents in the neighborhood of an accused cop killer to shelter in place for roughly 24 hours as they searched for him following an exchange of gun fire, according to a report from 69 News. County officials reportedly set up a temporary shelter at the fire house for residents who weren’t home when the shelter-in-place order was issued.

As a tenant, you should be aware of what to do if a shelter-in-place order is issued when you’re in your apartment. If you’re a landlord, you’ll need to aid authorities by making sure tenants, employees, and any visitors who happen to be on your property stay safe. To help you, check out this Nolo article for more information about complying with a shelter-in-place order.

The Key to Avoiding Apartment Rental Scams

iStock_000016530240Small-300pxApartment rental scams are very frustrating. Unlike the case with many other crimes, victims of a rental scam aren’t forced to do something against their will and don’t even know that a crime is in progress. Instead, rental scam victims give their hard-earned money to thieves under false pretenses, and by the time they realize what has happened, the scammers are usually long gone.

A typical rental scam involves a person who poses as a landlord with apartments to rent, then takes money from unsuspecting apartment hunters who think they just gave a legitimate deposit for the perfect rental.

Just this week, for example, the Manhattan District Attorney announced the indictment of a pair who allegedly defrauded more than 20 victims, many of whom were new to New York City, out of some $60,000, with victims losing as much as $4,500. Last month, a Phoenix couple realized they were scammed after wiring $500 to a man who created a fake rental ad and used the name of the property’s owner, then disappeared, according to a report from azfamily.com.

Not so long ago, I had the opportunity to speak with a couple who fell victim to a rental scam. What became clear to me as I spoke with them is how unlikely it is that they will get caught up in a rental scam again. This is because awareness of rental scams is the key to avoiding them, and this couple’s unfortunate experience ensured they would be on their guard going forward.

Fortunately, you don’t need to experience a rental scam in order to proceed with this insight. If you go about your apartment search keeping in mind that there are people out there pretending to be landlords and trying to con people out of money, you’ll be able to approach questionable listings with caution and pass on opportunities that seem suspicious.

As you proceed, ask yourself questions such as:

  • Does this deal seem too good to be true?
  • Do I feel rushed or pressured to give money?
  • Are they taking shortcuts with me such as waiving tenant screening requirements?
  • Have I met the landlord or property manager?
  • Have I seen the actual apartment and not just photos?
  • Do I need to wire money?

If the answer to one or more of these questions is yes, it may be a red flag of an apartment rental scam.

Three Things Every Landlord and Tenant Should Know About Steering

iStock_000004787361Small-300pxEarlier this summer, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced that a Pennsylvania landlord agreed to pay $25,000 to resolve allegations that it discriminated against prospective tenants based on race. The claim was that the landlord’s agents allegedly directed white prospects to neighborhoods they believed were safe while showing black prospects apartments in less desirable, high-crime neighborhoods.

The practice at issue is quite common and is known as “steering.” Steering occurs when a landlord or agent guides or encourages prospects to live in a certain neighborhood, building, or even a particular section of a building based on a protected class (in this case, race) under federal (the Fair Housing Act), state, and local fair housing laws.

Very often, victims don’t know they’re being steered or don’t realize it’s illegal, and many landlords who engage in steering aren’t aware that they’re breaking any laws. Whether you’re a landlord or a tenant, here are three important points to help you get up to speed on steering:

  1. Steering may not be overt, but it’s illegal. In the recent Pennsylvania case, it’s not that the landlord was refusing to rent to prospects because of race. The claim was that the landlord was guiding people to different neighborhoods based on their race, with white prospects receiving more favorable treatment. Although less overt than other types of discrimination, steering is illegal because it limits tenants’ housing choices based on a protected class. Plus, if a landlord runs out of vacancies in the floor, building, or neighborhood to which he steers certain types of people, then the landlord would presumably start flat-out rejecting such prospects.
  2. Steering can happen with any protected class. Steering often involves separating people based on race, as allegedly occurred in the Pennsylvania case. But steering can (and does) happen with any protected class. For example, a landlord who avoids renting apartments in the main building of a complex to people who use wheelchairs because he’s afraid his property will “resemble a nursing home” is steering based on disability. A landlord who shows non-Christian prospects apartments only on certain floors is steering based on religion.
  3. Good intentions don’t make steering legal. Very often, steering is motivated by a dislike of a certain group of people and a desire to be exclusionary. But steering is illegal regardless of what’s fueling it. For example, the sight of a prospect using a wheelchair shouldn’t lead a landlord to assume she would be interested only in a ground-floor or accessible apartment. Also, a landlord can’t tell a family with children about vacancies in only one building because children live there. It’s up to the family to decide how important it is to have other families with children as close neighbors.

Learn More About Steering

For more information about steering and help with identifying it, check out my Nolo article, “Avoid Practicing Illegal Steering at Your Property.”

Can Landlords Benefit from Renter’s Insurance?

iStock_000015565844Small-300pxAs you read in the last post (see “Renting Without Insurance: Why So Many Tenants Do It,” August 29, 2014), renter’s insurance offers significant benefits to tenants. Most notably, tenants need renter’s insurance to cover losses to their personal property, since their landlord’s insurance only covers the building’s structure. Plus, renter’s insurance includes a liability component that can offer you coverage in case, for example, someone breaks a hip after tripping over a step in your apartment.

It’s no surprise that, true to its name, renter’s insurance aims to help renters. But does a renter’s insurance policy also benefit landlords? In other words, is a landlord better off if the tenants in the building have renter’s insurance?

The answer is yes. Although renter’s insurance is only for renters and landlords already have their own insurance, landlords nevertheless stand to benefit when their tenants also buy insurance. If a tenant gets compensated after a loss thanks to insurance, it’s more likely that the tenant will continue staying in the apartment and remain in a position to afford the rent. Plus, if a guest is injured and you’re found partly liable, you’ll feel better knowing your tenant’s insurer is there to shoulder the tenant’s costs.

How to Get Your Tenants to Carry Renter’s Insurance

Tenants are already paying rent, a security deposit, and other apartment-related fees and expenses. So, how do you get tenants to open their wallets again and purchase a renter’s insurance policy? You have two choices:

  1. Require it. Some landlords choose to require tenants to have renter’s insurance, citing the benefits to both parties. Sometimes, a landlord’s insurer actually imposes this requirement. If you decide to require tenants to carry insurance, you can add an addendum to your lease going forward. You’ll need to wait, however, until lease renewal with current tenants. If your property participates in an affordable housing program, be sure to check if the program rules bar you from requiring any additional financial outlays from tenants, such as renter’s insurance premiums. If you decide to require renter’s insurance, enforce it by giving yourself the right to ask tenants for proof that their policy is still in effect each year.
  2. Suggest it. There’s nothing stopping you from simply recommending renter’s insurance to your tenants. Since the reason so many tenants don’t carry a policy is they’re not aware of the option or they don’t understand the need, giving your tenants a little education about renter’s insurance without pressure may actually inspire them to buy a policy. You can spread the word by giving tenants information on renter’s insurance at their lease signing, in an e-mail to tenants, or as part of an issue of your property’s newsletter, if you publish one. Mention the benefits, point out the average cost ($15-$30 per month, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners), and provide a list of suggested insurer sites for tenants to go for more information about purchasing a policy, such as State FarmGEICOAllstate, and Progressive.

Renting Without Insurance: Why So Many Tenants Do It

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In the wake of Sunday’s magnitude 6.0 earthquake that rocked northern California, it came to light that only 12% of California’s residents have insurance that includes earthquake coverage, according to a press release from the Insurance Information Institute.

But here’s an even more surprising statistic: According to a recent survey by InsuranceQuotes.com, only 40% of apartment tenants across the United States have any insurance coverage at all.

Short of an earthquake, there are many ways your belongings can get damaged or lost, such as by fire or as the result of a theft. Having a good renter’s insurance policy in place covers your personal property loss in many situations, plus it gives you liability coverage for times when a guest trips and breaks a leg in your apartment.

What’s Your Reason?

If you’re an apartment renting without insurance, take a look at the common reasons why so many tenants don’t have a policy in place. If any of these reasons looks familiar to you, it may be worth revisiting the issue:

  1. You didn’t know it’s available. Some tenants get so caught up in the excitement, stress, or fatigue of the apartment search process that they don’t consider insurance. Others don’t think about renter’s insurance because they assume that insurance is only a homeowner’s concern. But renter’s insurance exists as an option to help compensate tenants for property damage and injuries. Even if you never need to file a claim, knowing you have a policy in place can bring you valuable peace of mind.
  2. You haven’t gotten around to it. Did you know you can compare renter’s insurance policies and buy one online? The process is probably easier and less time-consuming than you think. Just search the Web for “renter’s insurance” and then visit the sites of top insurers to determine coverage and pricing. As a tip, if you already have automobile insurance, a good place to start is to check your auto insurer’s Web site to see if it also offers renter’s insurance coverage. Maintaining two or more policies with the same insurer may qualify you for a multi-line discount.
  3. You think your landlord’s insurance is all that’s needed. Picture what your apartment looked like before you moved in. That’s what’s covered by your landlord’s insurance. All the stuff you love that you brought with you to the space, from the living room sofa to the flat-screen TV, would be covered only by a renter’s insurance policy. Plus, don’t forget that renter’s insurance also has a liability coverage component, which can save you thousands of dollars in the event someone gets hurt.
  4. You don’t want to spend the money. You may be pleasantly surprised to discover that renter’s insurance costs less than you thought. Like other types of insurance, the premiums depend on the level of coverage you select and your deductible, but the average policy costs only between $15 and $30 per month, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
  5. You believe the chances of something happening are so slim. Hopefully, you’ll have nothing short of an enjoyable apartment living experience. But keep in mind that a crime or other loss can occur at any type of rental property. Even if you live in a gated community or low-crime area, that’s no guarantee that a crime won’t occur. Plus, keep in mind that a criminal can be a neighbor, a neighbor’s guest, or even a tenant’s own guest.
  6. You think it’s not worth the bother because you’re just renting for a year or so. As mentioned above, obtaining adequate renter’s insurance is a fairly quick and easy process. Also, a policy provides the same coverage every day for as long—or as little—as it’s in place. So, if you rent an apartment for only a year, you’ll only pay premiums to cover that time period.