Keeping Tenants Safe When Hidden Product Dangers Are Uncovered

iStock_000024302748Small-300pxSome everyday items that tenants use inside their apartment pose a danger due to a manufacturer’s design defect. Whether the item is one that a landlord has provided (such as a kitchen appliance or window treatment) or something a tenant has purchased (such as a crib or a chair), it’s important for tenants to find out about any hidden dangers that get discovered. This way, tenants can stop using unsafe products and, depending on the item, landlords or tenants can proceed to get recalled items repaired or replaced promptly.

Just recently, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the federal agency “charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of injury or death associated with thousands of types of consumer products,” announced recalls for a range of products that can be found in apartments, such as:

When landlords and tenants seek to learn about newly discovered dangers in such products, their efforts minimize the chances that tenants or guests will get injured or that the property will suffer damage (such as by a fire hazard). Plus, landlords will avoid a situation in which injured tenants and guests pursue legal action claiming a landlord is responsible for having supplied the dangerous item.

Sign Up for Recall Notices

Many landlords and tenants don’t know that there’s an easy way to learn about recalled consumer products once dangers are discovered. In addition to informing the public of product recalls on its website, CPSC can automatically email you about important safety recalls the day they’re issued.

To sign up, visit the Subscriptions page of CPSC’s website and enter your email address along with the type of information you wish to receive. Note that all recall emails are sent at the end of the day, and you can change your subscription or unsubscribe at any time.

Help Others by Reporting Unsafe Products

If you learn about a recall for an unsafe product, it was probably the result of complaints and reports of injuries from consumers like you. So, if you encounter a problem or you identify a hidden danger in an appliance or other item that you use, consider reporting it to the CPSC, as it may prove to be part of a widespread issue. Your efforts can contribute toward helping keep everyone safe.

Click the “Report an Unsafe Product” link at the top of CPSC’s website or visit the File a Report page to access the form directly. You can complete the form online or follow the instructions to file your report by email, mail, or phone, if you prefer. Note that unless you wish for CPSC to share your contact information, it will remain confidential.

Are You Familiar With Familial Status?

iStock_000040070258Small-300pxNot long ago, a couple sitting at my table at a wedding reception were talking about how they bought a house. They happened to mention that they first tried to rent an apartment but gave up because the landlords they met didn’t want kids at their properties.

Two things occurred to me then. First, it was clear that the couple didn’t know that these landlords were violating the law. Second, I thought it’s quite possible that the landlords didn’t know they were violating the law, either.

It’s not surprising that many people who aren’t familiar with the Fair Housing Act (FHA) wouldn’t think that the law protects families with children. In fact, it took over 20 years since the FHA was enacted in 1968 for “familial status” to be added as a protected class. When landlords don’t comply with the ban on familial status discrimination, it means families with children are more limited than other tenants when it comes to housing options. Also, because so many families with children don’t realize they’re protected against discrimination, many violations go unreported or even unnoticed.

Familial status discrimination most often occurs during an apartment search, when a family learns that a landlord, often citing past problems, has a policy of not renting to children (as, apparently, had happened to the couple sitting at my table). Sometimes, a landlord might not go so far as to refuse to rent to families with children but instead only show them available apartments in a certain part of a building (an unlawful practice known as “steering”) or impose illegal bedroom-sharing rules that require tenants to look for apartments with more bedrooms (and higher rent) on account of their children.

Some landlords who rent to families with children begin discriminating against them after they’ve moved in. Just this Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced it settled with a housing provider in California and charged Kansas owners and managers in similar cases involving familial status discrimination claims.

According to HUD, the manager of an apartment complex in California allegedly cursed at children he found playing outside unsupervised, then ordered them to clean his office toilet and pick up trash while threatening their families with eviction. In addition, the apartment complex allegedly had a rule barring children from the swimming pool during certain hours. The owners and manager agreed to settle for almost $30,000.

In the Kansas case, the owners and managers of an apartment complex allegedly required children to be supervised by an adult at all times, limited children’s outdoor recreation to the playground, and banned team sports, bicycles, skateboards, and scooters. When a mother complained, they allegedly refused to renew her family’s lease in retaliation. The case is expected to be heard by a HUD administrative law judge.

As you can see, familial status discrimination is an important topic to know, both for landlords and tenants. Why not take a moment to get familiar with familial status by checking out the Nolo article, “Who’s Protected Against Familial Status Discrimination?

Protecting Yourself During Apartment Showings

iStock_000015879321Small-300pxThe sudden and mysterious disappearance of an Arkansas real estate agent after showing a home last week topped national headlines. The search ended tragically on Tuesday when police discovered the agent’s body and charged a parolee with her murder.

Unfortunately, such a heinous crime is not a remote risk for real estate agents, who are often in a position of meeting clients alone in vacant spaces. The National Association of Realtors does a lot to focus attention on safety awareness, such as by devoting a section of its website to this important issue and having designated September (the month in which the Arkansas incident occurred, ironically) as “Realtor Safety Month.” In response to this tragedy, the Arkansas Realtors Association announced Tuesday that it will “re-educate our members on best safety practices and plan to implement a statewide, if not nationwide, safety plan.”

While the Arkansas tragedy concerns a real estate agent, it can also serve to shine the spotlight on the larger issue of safety for all during real estate showings. Whether you’re showing homes or looking for one, there are steps you can take to protect yourself against crime.

If you’re an agent or a landlord who deals directly with prospective tenants, make sure someone in your office (or, if you run a small operation, a friend or relative) knows where and when you have scheduled your showings, and have them check in with you. Ask prospects for ID and consider taking a colleague with you if you don’t feel comfortable being alone with anyone. Since your profession requires you to be in a potentially dangerous situation on a regular basis, it’s also a smart idea to take a course or two in basic self-defense and also ask your instructor for additional safety tips.

If you’re looking for a home, don’t let the excitement of your search make you forget about safety. Just as apartment hunters should be on the lookout for rental scams (as I wrote about last month), it’s also important to steer clear of crime that may occur at showings. When viewing apartments, consider having your roommate or a willing relative or friend accompany you, at least for visits where you’ll be meeting a person you don’t know and aren’t able to learn much about. Also, unless you know a particular landlord or agent well, play it safe by providing your own transportation to and from showings. Finally, in the event these precautions don’t work, consider carrying pepper spray with you so you can defend yourself, if need be.

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.