Your Assignment This Weekend: Save Lives

iStock_000025583375Small-300pxBeginning Sunday, most of the United States will observe Daylight Saving Time, and if you’re one of the millions of people who will be moving their clocks back an hour, you may already be planning what you’ll do with the extra time you’ll gain.

If you’re a tenant, consider taking a few minutes from that extra hour to make sure your apartment’s smoke detectors are in working order. Fire and safety experts across the United States recommend this, and Energizer, along with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, has been spreading this important message through a “Change Your Clock Change Your Batteries” campaign for 27 years.

This small task can go a long way toward saving lives in the unfortunate event of a fire at your building. Here are some sobering statistics from a recent report by the National Fire Protection Association:

  • Smoke alarms didn’t sound in 48% of reported home fires.
  • In 60% of home fire deaths, smoke alarms weren’t there to help… 37% of the time, there weren’t any smoke detectors present and 23% of the time, the smoke alarms didn’t sound.
  • When smoke detectors failed, it was usually because the batteries were missing, disconnected, or dead.
  • The risk of dying in a home fire is cut in half when working smoke detectors are present.

If smoke detectors are missing from your apartment or you find they’re not working even with new batteries, talk to your landlord, who may be obligated to replace them under state or local law.

Speaking of which, if you’re a landlord, why not use this opportunity to check that you’re in full compliance with your state and local codes regarding detectors? Such an effort helps keep tenants safe and your property intact. Plus, if a fire occurs, you won’t be open to liability if a tenant or guest claims that your failure to follow safety codes contributed to their injuries.

Smoke detector laws vary in their complexity but typically at least set forth requirements for the number and placement of smoke detectors as well as carbon monoxide detectors in a building. If you’ve been referring to a printed version of the law, it might be out of date. California’s and New York City’s smoke detector law, for example, have changed significantly in just the past year. If you’re not already familiar with how to find laws that affect your rental properties, check out Nolo’s “Legal Research” resource for guidance.

Rejecting Apartment Applicants Because They Have HIV/AIDS: Is It Legal?

iStock_000016736849Small-300pxCommunicable diseases have been making headlines recently, between the growing Ebola scare and the rapid spread of enterovirus D68. When you learn that someone who lives near you or with whom you may come in contact has a communicable disease, it’s only natural to get concerned and want to follow precautions to prevent getting infected.

Given this legitimate concern, do tenants have the right to live in an apartment building free of neighbors who have HIV/AIDS? Are landlords legally or morally obligated to turn away applicants who have HIV/AIDS to protect tenants and shield themselves from liability?

The answer to both questions is no. On the contrary, tenants have the right to live in an apartment building without regard to the fact that they have HIV/AIDS. Plus, landlords who turn away applicants because they HIV/AIDS invite liability because they are violating federal housing discrimination laws.

If you’re not sure how this can be true, consider these two realities:

  1. HIV/AIDS isn’t spread through the air or by casual contact. There’s no denying that AIDS and HIV, the virus that causes it, are very serious and that you should do what you can to avoid getting infected. In the United States alone, roughly 635,000 people have died from AIDS since it was first discovered in the early 1980s and some 50,000 people get infected with HIV every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    Although scientists have learned a great deal about HIV/AIDS over the last few decades, misinformation persists and is often disseminated by public figures. Just last week, for example, televangelist Pat Robertson told The 700 Club viewers that people who visit Kenya should worry more about contracting AIDS than Ebola and suggested that AIDS can be spread through casual contact. “You’ve got to be careful… I mean, the towels could have AIDS,” he cautioned, earning him the spotlight on Anderson Cooper’s RidicuList. But HIV/AIDS isn’t spread by casual contact or even through the air, and so tenants needn’t fear contracting HIV/AIDS if they discover that someone in their building has it.
  2. HIV/AIDS is considered a disability under federal law. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) protects prospects and tenants against housing discrimination across the United States based on seven protected classes, including disability. The FHA defines disability as any “physical or mental impairment” that “substantially limits” one or more “major life activities,” which includes HIV/AIDS. (Check out the Nolo article, “Who’s Protected Against Disability Discrimination?” for more information.) This means that landlords can’t refuse to rent to applicants or offer them an apartment on different terms simply because they have HIV/AIDS.

As you can see, apartment applicants with HIV/AIDS don’t pose a public health threat and have the same right to housing as others under the law. For some help complying with this important aspect of the FHA, check out the Nolo article, “Dealing With Rental Applicants Who Have HIV/AIDS.”

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.