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Bad Master Tenant

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What is a master tenant? In residential tenancies, a master tenant is someone who is the “senior” member of a household with roommates by virtue of the fact that they are the last remaining named tenant on a lease. So am I going to regale you with stories of head-banging, raunchy, meth induced sex at 3 a.m.? Piles of dirty dishes for days and pilfered chicken pot pies? No. In rent controlled jurisdictions the worst master tenant will unscrupulously jeopardize the roof over your head. Think Bernie Madoff.

A bad master tenant can be the roommate you rarely see. You pay your rent to them once a month when they breeze into town or you mail them the check in LA. Sometimes the bad master tenant doesn’t even have a room in the apartment where you live. But in other scenarios, the bad master tenant lives as a roommate in your midst. The truly bad master tenant collects all of the roommates’ rent and then, for whatever reason, doesn’t pay the landlord.  Usually you find out about the problem too late, after you’ve been named in an eviction lawsuit (unlawful detainer) or an eviction notice from the sheriff is posted on your door.

Almost all residential leases, old or new, have clauses that prevent tenants from subletting. You should understand that subletting is not just vacating the entire unit and renting it to someone else. You are also subletting if you get a new roommate or replace an old one. Most leases require the landlord’s written consent to sublet. Without that consent a master tenant is already in breach of the lease when he rents to a roommate. San Francisco law also requires that a unit is a tenant’s primary place of residence to keep the price control provisions of the Rent Ordinance in place. In San Francisco, if a landlord finds that a master tenant does not live in the unit, he can attempt to increase the rent to market rate.

A few weeks ago, I met with a tenant who rented a room for an absentee master tenant. She lived with 3 other roommates. They were each paying about $1,000 a month for their rooms in a large well-located flat. The master tenant would come around occasionally and stay on the couch, but everyone understood that he lived in Southern California. One day the landlord served the household with a three day notice to quit. It turned out that the master tenant had not paid the rent, which was $2,400 per month, in several months. Evidently he decided that $1,600 a month for doing nothing wasn’t enough. He had been subletting like this for years.

I hear this at the Tenants Union more times than you might think. I really get pissed off because these are the tenants that ruin the concept of rent control, proving landlords’ points that tenants, in general, take advantage. That isn’t true, but, as a tenant’s rights advocate, my job doesn’t get any easier when examples like the above are thrown in my face.

In San Francisco, Rent Ordinance Rules and Regulations §6.15C requires that a master can only charge a more or less proportional share of the rent based on the amount the master tenant is paying.  A subtenant who feels that he is paying too much rent can petition the Rent Board for a decrease in the rent.

What should you do before you sublet?

•   Find out if the master tenant has permission from the landlord to sublet to you.
•   Ask for a copy of the “master lease” that controls the terms of the tenancy with the real landlord.
•   Certainly find out how much total rent is being paid for the unit.
•   If it doesn’t look like the master tenant is living in the unit, find out why and in most cases just pass. Keep on looking.

How can you tell if the rent is being paid? That’s more difficult, but if the master tenant is experiencing money problems, that may be an indicator. If the master tenant has no visible means of support, isn’t working but still pays his bills may be another indicator.

There is nothing more frustrating for me than telling a tenant that even though they paid their rent to the master tenant, the landlord still can evict them because the master tenant didn’t pay the rent. Paying the rent to the master tenant is no defense to an unlawful detainer. Sure you can sue the master tenant, but the landlord has the right to collect his rent or regain possession of the unit by evicting you.

Master tenants are essentially landlords, some good, some bad.

Crow & Rose's legal practice emphasizes eviction defense, wrongful eviction and other landlord tenant and real property matters.

I do not provide legal advice in the comments section. Please feel free to contact me directly if you have a legal question.

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