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Do I Have To Subsidize My Landlord’s Improvements On Another Building?

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

Our landlord is performing tenant improvements to the three unit building in front of ours: involving scaffolding, painting, decking and window replacement. Without asking our permission or giving us a courtesy heads up the construction workers are pulling power from the unused basement of our one unit rental.

On receiving our latest PG&E bill there’s been a dramatic 25%+ increase for the two weeks they’ve been working onsite (it’s projected to last for at least another 2 weeks).

I’ve contacted out landlord and explained the issue over voicemail and emails, attached photos showing the equipment plugged into the basement and asked how we can recoup the money that we’re being billed for.

I’ve offered to show them all of 2012 statements, average it out and then agree that the difference for the duration of the work being performed is the landlord’s responsibility.

They’re not responding so what are the options – can I deduct these electricity costs from the rent attaching all the correspondence, photos and bills? Do I issue them with an invoice? Or due to their refusal to acknowledge what’s going on, do we have to subsidize the landlord’s improvements on another building?

This is a more common problem than one might think and it comes from an attitude inherent to the landlord class. “It’s my building and I can do anything I want with it.” The repairs to the building in front are likely legal, although you’d be wise to see if that is the case. Simply enter the address here to check that out. But, just because the repairs are legal does not give the landlord the right to steal power from you.

Common courtesy should dictate that the landlord inform you, in advance, that the repairs were going to commence and that the most convenient place from which to pull power for the project was your basement. The landlord should have asked your permission to use the power you pay for, and 1) offered compensation for it and, 2) offered to decrease your rent to account for the noise, dust and inconvenience the construction would create.

But noooooo… this Cheese Ball doesn’t give a rat’s ass about any of that. He’d rather try to chisel you out of the cost of the power to do the job and make your life miserable during the process. Of course the unstated corollary of “It’s my building…” is “They’re my tenants and I can do anything I want to them.

If your unit is rent controlled you have two options.

You don’t mention if your building was built before 1979, but if it was, and your unit is on the same lot as the building in front, you can file a petition for a decrease in services at the San Francisco Rent Board.

Normally I would suggest that you call PG&E to verify the power “leak”, but it seems that you have ample proof, given your photos of the equipment plugged into your box in the basement. Be prepared to demonstrate the increase in the electricity bills in the manner you proposed in your question.

Then think about how the construction has affected your tenancy. How many times did you have to clean up because of the dust and dirt generated by the project? How did the scaffolding obstruct your access to your unit? Etc.

Finally, inform the landlord about any habitability issues inside your unit and assign monetary values to them. Then demand repair and compensation for all of the above. Give the landlord a deadline–a relatively short deadline–to pay and repair. If he refuses to act, file a petition at the Rent Board.

Consider calling a housing inspector from the Department of Building Inspection to complain about habitability defects inside the unit. If there are substantial Housing Code violations, the inspector can write a Notice of Violation that you use as further evidence of your claims.

Before you call a housing inspector, make sure your unit, which I’m guessing is a cottage in the back, is legal. I’m also assuming that the unit is legal, given that you are separately metered, but you should verify that before you call the DBI. You don’t want to suddenly find out that the unit is unpermitted when the inspector serves a notice of violation to remove the unit for residential use.

If your unit is not rent controlled (built after 1979) follow all of the same steps above, but instead of filing a petition at the Rent Board, file a lawsuit in Small Claims Court for a monetary amount that corresponds to your earlier demand. The letter you write the landlord will serve as evidence that he was on notice of the various issues, as well as a demand letter required to bring an action in Small Claims.

Before you embark on any of this, take all of your documentation to the San Francisco Tenants Union to discuss this and other potential strategies.

A few days ago, a reader left a sarcastic comment on our website that suggested I couldn’t understand that there are good landlords out there. It’s like asking me to consider if there are any good absolute monarchs or dictators. I pointed out that landlords don’t produce anything. It doesn’t matter that there are some benevolent landlords. Landlords inherently believe that their class allows them to do what they will with their property despite their tenants–a simple have/have not class distinction–I have, you don’t, fuck you. Why shouldn’t landlords feel this way? Absolute property rights are simply another flaw in an eighteenth century philosophy that bears little relevance to today’s issues.

If you still think that property rights should be sacrosanct, watch this:

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.

One Response to Do I Have To Subsidize My Landlord’s Improvements On Another Building?

  1. Great video!

    Property rights are always relative–unless you’re rich. Look, for instance, at the assault on pensions for both public and private sector workers. Yeah, we had a contract, but you’re the underlings and we’re just going to take your money.

    What’s interesting about landlords is that it makes ordinarily decent people behave like jerks. They seem not to be able to help themselves. One of the good things about tenants’ rights, including rent control and just cause eviction, is that it makes it more likely that landlords will behave themselves–courtesy, respect, fair dealing–and it can punish those who continue in their jerk-y ways.

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