Our Landlord’s Sawing Is Making Life Miserable

Dave’s at the SF Appeal to answer your questions every Wednesday, so send them to him at tenant@sfappeal.com, here’s what to make sure to include in your letter.

For 16 years my wife and I have lived in the lower unit of a rent-controlled two-unit Victorian flat, built around 1875 in Hayes Valley.

My landlord has a woodworking shop in the basement. Several days a week he is there from around 1:00 PM to about 5:00 PM, using a table saw, sander, and other power tools which are very loud.
I work from home and my office is directly above his table saw.

Because our rent is so reasonable, and we have always been on very good terms with him, I am hesitant to complain about the noise.

Furthermore, he is a retired lawyer.

I feel that it is time to confront him and want to know where I stand legally before I do this.
Also, my wife suffers from MS and often requires a nap during the day to relieve her constant fatigue.

How should I approach this issue?

In San Francisco various city departments enforce specific areas of the San Francisco Noise Control Ordinance, Article 29, San Francisco Police Code. The Department of Public Health provides a list of the departments and noise enforcement for which they are responsible. For example, the Department of Building Inspection looks into construction noise and the Police Department is responsible for stereo, television, music, party, and animal noise.

Your landlord isn’t really making construction noise nor is he blasting his stereo. I think his noise is more related to “personal” noise that interferes with quiet enjoyment related to enforcement by the Police Department. In my experience, the cops are going to be reticent about investigating the noise as you describe it. Don’t call the cops yet.

Let’s step back for a moment. You say, “Because our rent is so reasonable, and we have always been on very good terms with him, I am hesitant to complain about the noise.” Here’s a learning moment for us all. Let’s take your statement apart.

First, your rent is reasonable because it is regulated by the San Francisco Rent Ordinance. That has nothing to do with your landlord. He may not like it, but he may not care if he has owned the building for a long time and he’s making a reasonable return on his investment. He certainly cannot evict you because you complain about the noise.

Second, you’re on good terms with the landlord. Is the only reason you’re on good terms because your rent is low? If that is true, it suggests that your civility is predicated upon fear. I guess one could make the argument that all human civility is based upon fear of punishment, but we have been out of the caves for awhile now. I have a feeling that you are just treating the landlord as would treat others–with consideration. Guess what? Your landlord doesn’t know why you’re civil to him, he just knows that you are civil.

One of the biggest problems for landlord and tenant relationships is that both landlords and tenants often have ulterior motives to be civil, rather than just respecting the relationship for what it is–a business relationship. If you have an ulterior motive for acting civilly, but you’re really just seething with anger and hate, you’re likely practicing a passive-aggressive approach that is destined to thwart any rational discussion with the landlord. That’s a waste of human energy more properly reserved for lawyers.

You have an opportunity to be powerful here. I’m not talking about the power of, “I’m going to sue your ass, if you don’t stop building your stupid little toy trains or whatever the hell you’re sawing.” I’m talking about the power of genuine human interaction.

Retired lawyers can be good communicators and maybe, just maybe, they are sick and tired of the adversarial process. I often would rather deal with older, more experienced lawyers because they don’t need to posture and they understand the value of settling an issue rather than duking it out.

I suggest that you simply talk to the landlord. Tell him that you didn’t have any problem with his work in the garage before (if that’s true.) Tell him that you work more from home now and that your wife is sick and needs to sleep during the day. Listen to him. Try to work out a schedule that will accommodate both your needs.

If the landlord acts like an asshole, walk away. Then look into writing him a request for a reasonable accommodation based on your wife’s disability. Request that he limit his noise during certain hours of the day.

Go to the San Francisco Tenants Union to discuss other options including filing a complaint with the California Department of Fair Housing and Employment.

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

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