Portable Heaters May Pose a Greater Danger Than You Think

iStock_000034198242Small-300pxIt’s always tragic to learn about a fire at an apartment complex, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it. But it’s particularly frustrating when the cause is a tenant’s portable heater. It means someone was just trying to get warm and was using a device intended for this purpose—yet something went horribly wrong, putting life and property at risk.

Apparently, something goes horribly wrong with portable heaters too often, and with unusually dire consequences.

According to a recent study of portable heater fires in residential buildings by the U.S. Fire Administration, roughly 900 such fires are reported each year in residential buildings across the United States, with the greatest number occurring in January. Most notably, while portable heaters are responsible for only 2% of residential heating fires, they’re involved in a whopping 45% of all fatal residential heating fires and cause an estimated $53 million in property loss annually.

That’s why tenants need to be careful when it comes to portable heater use in their apartments and landlords should consider banning portable heaters or adopting rules governing their safe use at a rental property.

Should Tenants Use Portable Heaters?

If tenants are using portable heaters in their apartments, it raises the question of whether the landlord is providing adequate heat. As a landlord, the best way to lower a risk is to remove it completely, and so deciding to ban portable heaters altogether may be wise. But before you consider imposing such a ban, first be sure that you’re providing adequate heat to all apartments in your building. Not only are you required by law to do so, but providing adequate heat means tenants probably won’t use portable heaters anyway, eliminating the danger risks that these devices pose.

Courts recognize an implied warranty of habitability, which requires landlords to maintain apartments where tenants may live comfortably, including staying warm in the winter. Moreover, many local laws spell out specific requirements for providing heat to tenants. For example, New York City landlords are required to provide heat from October through May. During the day (6 a.m. through 10 p.m.), the temperature inside an apartment must be at least 68 degrees if the outside temperature falls below 55 degrees; at night (10 p.m. through 6 a.m.), the inside temperature must be at least 55 degrees if the outside temperature falls below 40 degrees.

If you’re a tenant and you believe your heat isn’t working as it’s supposed to, you shouldn’t have to spend extra money on a portable heater and higher electric bills. Start by contacting your landlord about any heat issues. Chances are, if your heat is inadequate, your neighbors are experiencing the same problem, and so your communication may yield more responsive results if you approach your landlord together. Short of taking a landlord to court, you may be able to get a heat problem resolved through a municipality’s specific resolution procedure. For example, New York City tenants can make a complaint by calling 311 or visiting the city’s 311 website.

For more information about a landlord’s implied warranty of habitability, be sure to check out the Nolo article, “Tenant Rights to a Livable Place.”

Follow Two Simple Rules for Portable Heater Safety

A look at the U.S. Fire Administration’s study reveals the top two reasons why portable heaters have sparked fires in residential buildings. (The remaining contributing factors involve equipment malfunction and electrical issues.) So, if you’re a tenant who uses a portable heater or a landlord who allows them, play it safe with these two simple rules:

Rule #1: Don’t place portable heaters near items that can burn. Topping the list (at 52.4%) of factors contributing to portable heater fires is “Heat source too close to combustibles.” This means that if you must use a portable heater in your apartment, keep it away from items that can burn. The study cites “soft goods” such as bedding, curtains, and clothing as the most common type of item that gets ignited by portable heaters.

Rule #2: Don’t leave portable heaters unattended. The second-most common contributing factor cited in the study (at 11.5%) is “Equipment unattended.” So, be sure to make a habit of switching portable heaters off before leaving your apartment, taking a shower, or going to sleep.

Just this past Saturday, a family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, didn’t follow these rules and tragically lost their home, dog, and possessions to a fire sparked by a portable heater. According to a report from Fox6Now.com, the family didn’t shut off the portable heater when they left for church, and the fire ignited when a curtain came into contact with the unit.

Collecting Rent From Behind Bars

iStock_000024388823Small-300pxThis Thanksgiving, many tenants across the United States can be thankful for having a landlord who strives to maintain a safe living environment while being responsive to tenants’ legitimate needs as they arise.

But although there are many excellent landlords out there, some are real turkeys who excel at gobbling up rent while ruffling tenants’ feathers to a point that crosses the line. Rather than just being held civilly liable to tenants for a dispute or even being outed on a city’s website for excessive violations of its code, these landlords’ take action that’s so egregious it warrants criminal charges.

Fortunately, not many landlords manage their property in a manner that lands them in jail. But here are some ways it can happen:

Putting lives at risk to save money. There’s nothing wrong with trying to save money, but landlords who attempt to do so in a way that violates the law and puts tenants’ lives at risk are making a serious mistake.

When a fire consumed a New York City apartment building in 2010, fire fighters encountered unexpected trouble when trying to battle the blaze because the landlord had illegally added partitions to create additional apartments for more revenue, according to reporting by The New York Times. Earlier this month, prosecutors announced that the landlord, who was arraigned in 2012, pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and will face a prison sentence of one to three years. In addition, the landlord is reportedly paying $1 million to the family of a girl who escaped the fire with serious injuries.

Taking eviction law into your own hands. Landlords who ignore landlord-tenant law and follow their own rules when it comes to evicting tenants not only risk liability with their tenants but could get arrested for their unlawful actions.

Early this month, a Lloyd, New York, landlord decided to wake up a tenant in the middle of the night and try to evict her by throwing away her belongings. The landlord was charged with second-degree burglary (a felony) and fourth-degree criminal mischief (a misdemeanor), according to the Poughkeepsie Journal.

In a similar recent case, the owner of a rental property in Norwood, North Carolina, allegedly broke the law by forcing tenants out of their apartments and removing their belongings. Local police arrested and charged the landlord for three felonies, including breaking and entering, larceny after breaking and entering, and larceny of a motor vehicle, according to a report from the Anson Record.

If you’re a tenant facing an eviction that you believe is unlawful, learn about your rights by checking out the Nolo article, “Can I sue my landlord for an illegal eviction?

Continuing to ignore the law even after you’re ordered to pay for violating it. Landlords who don’t follow laws that pertain to them usually risk getting sued or fined for their noncompliance. But landlords who ignore laws, get fined, and then ignore those fines may risk jail time.

Earlier this month, the Contra Costa Times reported that local authorities in Concord, California, were seeking to arrest a landlord for allegedly refusing to comply with the city code when it comes to eliminating bed bugs. For months, the landlord ignored violation notices and refused to pay fines totaling $800, according to the report. If convicted on the misdemeanor violation of the city code, the landlord could face six months in jail and an additional $1,000 fine.

Taking advantage of your position as a landlord. Although landlords own the buildings in which their tenants reside, their actions are limited by their lease and the law. For example, landlords can’t just drop in on tenants whenever they wish or secretly spy on them.

The owner of a New York City brownstone just learned that lesson the hard way when a grand jury indicted him on 10 felony counts of unlawful surveillance after a tenant discovered he was secretly filming her using hidden cameras in her apartment, according to a report earlier this month in the New York Post. The tenant is also bringing a civil suit against the landlord for liability.

If you’re interested in crime (reading about it, that is), be sure to check out another Nolo law blog, “Uncuffed: A Candid Take on Crime and Society,” in which Micah Schwartzbach discusses all things criminal law, from individual rights to fair punishment to current events.

Accused of a Fair Housing Violation? How Not to Make Things Worse

iStock_000028313630Small-300pxWhen tenants accuse their landlords of housing discrimination, much of what happens next is determined by how the landlord responds. A landlord’s initial reaction to an accusation and subsequent behavior could lower the likelihood of an amicable outcome and even open the door to more liability.

One recent case concerning a tenant and her three children in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (HUD ex rel. Beverly Dittmar v. Elite Properties, LLC. and Robert K. Miell, HUDALJ 09-M-113-FH-40 (July 9, 2010)), is a perfect example of how this can happen.

After losing her home to a flood, the tenant sought an apartment for her family. She approached a landlord who owns and manages over 430 rental properties in the area and asked if she could rent a three-bedroom apartment that became available. For reasons that aren’t clear, the landlord declined but offered her a two-bedroom house for rent instead. The tenant accepted and moved her family into the house, paying a requested $645 as a security deposit and keeping up with timely rent payments each month.

The tenant later complained to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) about the landlord, accusing him of refusing to rent the three-bedroom apartment to her because of her sex, in violation of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) (42 U.S. Code §§ 3601-3619 and 3631). Following an investigation, HUD concluded that no reasonable cause existed to hold the landlord liable for the alleged discrimination.

The case could have ended there, with the landlord feeling exonerated and able to move on without having incurred any liability. But instead, the landlord wound up paying dearly, both with his wallet and reputation, thanks to two big mistakes he made in his handling of the tenant’s fair housing accusation:

Mistake #1: Retaliating against the tenant for complaining to HUD. The FHA makes it “unlawful to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with any person in the exercise or enjoyment of” fair housing rights (42 U.S. Code § 3617), and federal regulations clarify that this includes “[r]etaliating against any person because that person has made a complaint, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in a proceeding under the Fair Housing Act” (24 CFR § 100.400(c)(5)). When the landlord learned that his tenant complained to HUD about his alleged sex discrimination, he reacted by taking adverse action against her, refusing her rent payments and proceeding with an eviction. As a result, the tenant amended her complaint to include the retaliation component and succeeded—even though HUD believed the underlying matter didn’t have merit.

Mistake #2: Not cooperating with HUD’s investigation. The landlord’s allegedly poor behavior with HUD investigators hurt him even more. According to the HUD administrative law judge’s (ALJ) decision, the landlord displayed defiance, indifference, disrespect, and a lack of cooperation throughout the investigative process. For example, the landlord hung up on investigators during a telephone interview, refused to claim certified letters, walked out on an investigatory meeting without notice or reason, and made rude statements to the investigator. This behavior led the HUD ALJ to impose the maximum civil penalty ($16,000) on both the landlord and his management company for the retaliation claim, in addition to damages for emotional distress and other relief.

As you can see, landlords can easily make things worse for themselves if they’re not careful about how they respond to a fair housing accusation. Check out the Nolo article, “What to Do if a Tenant Accuses You of Housing Discrimination,” for more guidance on this important topic.

Eliminating Pests Without Destroying Apartments

iStock_000041523660Small-300pxIt’s unsettling to discover pests living in your apartment. Aside from being scary and annoying, the presence of these unwelcome visitors threaten a range of serious issues, from health concerns to property damage. Whether an infestation of cockroaches, mounting evidence of bed bugs, or a single sighting of a mouse is what’s causing alarm, landlords and tenants both have compelling reasons to move quickly to eradicate pests from their rental property.

But before you rush to fight pests at your building, keep in mind that it’s important to proceed with care. Taking shortcuts or acting recklessly can lead to greater problems, including apartment damage and tenant displacement.

Here are two costly mistakes landlords and tenants often make when trying to combat a pest problem that you should strive to avoid repeating at your building:

Mistake #1: Not Reading Directions Carefully

If you buy a pest-fighting device that’s new to you, be sure to read the instructions carefully and not gloss over the warnings on the label. In your eagerness to treat a pest problem, it may be tempting to proceed without learning about the proper use of a device and ignore cautionary statements because you assume they’re common knowledge or meaningless legalese. But even inexpensive products that consumers can purchase in a hardware or home supply store have the potential to cause substantial damage and serious injury if they’re misused.

One common example of such a device is a fogger, or “bug bomb.” If you’re not already familiar with this product, you should know that a fogger spreads pesticide across a room or an entire apartment through a mechanism of aerosol propellants. In addition to making sure you’re not present in an apartment while a fogger’s fumigation takes place, it’s also essential to make sure any pilot light (such as for an oven) is turned off before you begin using a fogger. If chemicals from a fogger come into contact with a pilot light or other ignition source, it can result in a harmful explosion (just ask Joe). If you’re not sure how to turn off pilot lights in an apartment, check with your local utility company.

Mistake #2: Not Monitoring Risky Pest Treatments

Sometimes, the treatment used to fight a pest problem takes a short time to apply, and then it’s just a matter of waiting for results. This is the case, for example, with a pesticide spray, which may eliminate certain insects either on contact or over a period of time. Other treatments, such as the fogger (mentioned above), may necessitate your leaving the apartment until the health risk is gone. But certain pest treatments involve a special procedure that needs to be monitored until finished. Leaving an apartment unattended while such a pest-control procedure is ongoing can lead to major problems.

Recently, the owner of a Des Moines, Iowa, apartment building used a large, commercial bed bug treatment heater to eliminate a problem in a vacant apartment. While the heater was left unattended, it malfunctioned and ignited a fire, causing $30,000 in damages, according to a report from The Des Moines Register. This incident prompted the city fire department to issue a public warning Monday on the risks of using such heaters to fight bed bugs, urging consumers to be present in case of an electrical overload that can lead to a fire.

As you can see, landlords and tenants who temper their eagerness with caution and diligence when it comes to fighting pests are likely to accomplish their goals without incident or catastrophe.

New York City’s Frank Slumlord-Shaming Strategy

iStock_000025162012Small-300pxStart spreading the news: New York City is making it increasingly difficult for bad landlords to do business in the five boroughs while keeping their reputation intact.

The city that doesn’t sleep has been pressing forward with a strategy of publicly shaming landlords who have displayed a commitment to making tenants’ lives miserable or who treat the city code like an inconsequential compendium of suggested practices. New York hopes that landlords who discover that their reputation is on the line—as well as online—will be inspired to change their ways. Plus, other slumlords with little town blues may think twice before letting them melt away by deciding to be a part of it in old New York.

King of the Violation Hill, Top of the Slumlord Heap

While it’s normally admirable to be exceptional, New York City landlords don’t want to find that they’re A-number-1, top of the Landlord Watch List. Four years ago, the city’s then-Public Advocate and current mayor, Bill De Blasio, started the Watch List with an admonition: “The city’s worst landlords can no longer hide from responsibility while their buildings fall into dangerous disrepair.”

Last month, Public Advocate Letitia James showed her office is continuing its support, right through the very heart of the initiative, by unveiling a revamped website highlighting the “100 Worst Landlords in New York City.” The website lists landlords who own buildings with a high number of outstanding housing maintenance code violations. These landlords can get the city to remove their names once they resolve enough open violations (see the Office of the Public Advocate’s “Criteria & Submissions” page for more information). Already, there’s some evidence that the list is prompting responses.

New Law Will Protect Tenants Not Longing to Stray

Under new legislation enacted September 30, New York City will soon begin posting on the Internet the names of landlords who are found to have violated the city’s tenant anti-harassment law. On the books since 2008, this law bars landlords from using threats or other types of action (such as cutting off utilities) to force tenants out of their apartments. In addition to this public shaming, landlords who illegally require their tenants to wear vagabond shoes could face a maximum civil penalty of $10,000 per apartment, which is twice the current level.

City to Slumlords: It’s Up to You

Given New York City’s growing commitment to shaming bad landlords into cleaning up their act, it may be true that if landlords can make it there, they’ll make it anywhere. As for slumlords who choose not to change their ways, they may indeed need to make a brand new start of it—in another profession.