Can I Break My Lease Due To My Insane Landlord And High Cats?

by | Sep 22, 2011 | Tenant Law

My husband and I moved into our apartment about 6 months ago. It is rent controlled. There are 6 units. My husband also has a very visible disability, which we fully disclosed diagnosis when signing the lease even though we weren’t required. The past 5 months have been hell.

I have a letter from a previous tenant who lived here for 4 years saying that he and his girlfriend were finally forced out and gave up most of his deposit because he didn’t want to go to court. People are afraid of the landlord. Other tenants in the building are as petrified of him as am I.

The landlord suddenly moved a pot obsessed druggie into the basement under our apartment and our place is continually filled with pot and cigarette smoke. I think our cats are getting high and we’ve had to close our vents, which prevents us from turning on the heat. We’ve told the landlord about all of this and have many many insane letters from him. The downstairs neighbor parties until 3 or 4 am keeping us awake and when we call and text the landlord he never responds.

In fact, he was so bold as to say that the downstairs tenant accused us of harassment. I should also add that this tenant is an obvious friend of the landlord, whom I suspect he moved in just to make our lives hell so we’d leave and lose our $5,000 deposit. The landlord is also currently living on the property.

The landlord had his lawyer send us a “I’ll evict you or else” letter if we didn’t carpet 80% of our hardwood floor apartment in three days even though we had 2 medical letters stating that carpeting could cause my husband to trip and fall – which is why we rented the unit in the first place. He lied and said he had no knowledge of my husbands disability.

He has also just locked the utility room with the washer/dryer and water heater stating that if we want to use it we will need to pay $150 a month. We rented the apartment knowing we had the only rights to the washer dryer. In the lease, there is a statement that says he can take it away, as well as request we carpet apartment. The lease was 14 pages, which we didn’t fully read because we believed we were entering a contract with a reasonable human being.

I could go on and on but I fear this is already too long. Here’s my question:

We found another apartment and will be signing a lease and receiving keys on Thursday. Our lease is until May 2012. But we can’t stay here. Is there a legal way to break our lease quickly? Is there any way to be compensated for the moving fees we will be incurring?

Thank you for any advice. No matter what, I feel content that we will be out of this hell hole in a week – even if it means we’ll have to live on Ramen noodles and water for the next year.

It would be greatly appreciated if you could somehow mask this letter so our landlord doesn’t know we’re talking about him. The landlord doesn’t know we’re leaving yet and I know if he thinks I wrote this letter he will find a way to hurt me. Seriously.

As I was reading your email, I was thinking, I hope to hell she doesn’t want to ask about a strategy to stay in the unit. If the landlord is truly crazy as you paint him, I think you’ve made the right decision on a personal level to walk away from the lease. On a legal level, however, you should be aware that there may be some pitfalls.

As you anticipated, the landlord will not refund your security deposit. He will claim that you breached your lease for no reason and that he must apply the security deposit to rent he lost while trying to re-rent the unit. He will also claim that you set off a nuclear bomb in the place before you left.

Before you leave you must gather all of the evidence you can to show that you were forced out of the unit–either wrongfully evicted or “constructively evicted.”

First, reread my SF Appeal columns dealing with security deposits. You should also take a look at my blog post, “Grand Theft Security Deposit.” Take lots of pictures of the unit before you leave.

Second, I’m guessing that the landlord brought up the issue about the carpeting provision in your lease because the downstairs tenant allegedly complained about your noise. Even if the landlord lied about your husband’s disability, he was still on notice of it when you responded to the lawyer with the doctors’ letters. You can likely show that the landlord discriminated against your husband, based on his disability, if the landlord continued to insist that you comply with the 80% carpeting clause.

You mentioned that the tenant lives in the basement. Check the SF Assessor-Recorder’s website. to see if the unit is illegal. You may also need to get a “Certificate of Occupancy” or a “Certificate of Final Completion” from the Department of Building Inspection to understand how many legal units are in the building. If the unit in the basement is illegal, the landlord should not be protecting the rights of a tenant who should not be living there in the first place.

Third, you also need to prove that the landlord’s removal of the utility room a) is more evidence of harassment and b) that the lack of use was more than just a decrease in services, rather a necessary part of the tenancy and another reason you had to move.

Finally, gather all the crazy letters and see if you can get the neighbors to agree to testify against the landlord regarding his ongoing harassment.

The only way you will obtain any compensation other than the return of your security deposit is to claim: 1. Constructive eviction; 2. Wrongful eviction; 3. Disability discrimination; 4. Harassment; and several other causes of action in a lawsuit that you will have to file to get your security deposit.

If your allegations are true (believe me I’ve seen worse) and you do not sue the landlord because you fear him, he wins. In his mind , his actions are justifiable, economically sound and right.

Now, a little admonishment: Not reading a lease because you believe the landlord to be reasonable is, simply, suicidal. We have entered the era of Trust No One. These days anybody who pushes a piece of paper in your face and asks you to sign it is probably a crook trying to steal your money. The least you can do before you sign, is understand what you’re signing.

As an attorney, about the only thing I’ll sign willingly is an endorsement on the back of a check that I’m depositing in my own account.

Take all of your documents, including the lease to the San Francisco Tenants Union to develop a firm strategy going forward. You may also want to call some attorneys to determine if this is a case that is worth bringing in a court other than small claims. Ask the Tenants Union counselor for the list of TU approved attorneys.

Call the Tenant Lawyers now for a free consultation.
(415) 552-9060