Tag Archives: crime and security

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.

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.

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 email 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.