Q: I recently moved into a two-bedroom apartment. I received the owner’s permission to move in, but pay rent to my roommate, who has lived here for four years. She originally signed the lease with someone who moved out after a year, so she has had the place to herself for a few years now. She acts like she owns the place, saying I can’t use the living room because she’s writing her “great American novel” there, and has papers all over the place. She further threatens that since I’m not on the lease she has the right to kick me out if I don’t obey her every command. What are my rights?
A: It doesn’t matter that your name is not on the lease, because you are as much a tenant as your roommate, and you are protected by the Rent Ordinance in that you can be evicted only for one of the good causes listed in the ordinance. You are a subtenant and she is your landlord, but have the same right to occupy the apartment as she does.
Your roommate’s ability to exclude you from the living room is governed by your original agreement with her. If you agreed to share the living room, or reasonably assumed this was the case, then you have a right to use that space. [This is a good reason to put a subtenancy agreement in writing.] But if it was clear when you moved in that the living room was her space, then you probably can’t insist on being able to use it.
In any case, your rent cannot exceed an amount proportional to the space you occupy. In other words, if your roommate pays the owner $1,100 for the entire apartment and you occupy half of it – say, you each have exclusive use of a similarly-sized bedroom and share the rest of the space – your rent should not exceed $550. If your roommate has exclusive use of the living room, then your rent should be less than $550, reflecting her greater share of the unit. You should try to negotiate a lower rent if you think you’re paying more than your fair share, but if you cannot work out your differences, you may file a petition with the Rent Board. If it is determined that your roommate either reduced the space originally available to you, or is charging more than your proportionate share of rent, your rent will be reduced.
Q: My tenant moved out and left a bunch of things in the apartment and in the yard. Some of it is obviously garbage, but he also left behind things of some value, like furniture and electronic equipment. Can I assume he doesn’t want it and throw it out? Can I charge him for storage costs by deducting it from his security deposit?
A: Your responsibility under California law is to act reasonably to ascertain whether or not the tenant would like his possessions back or whether the property has been abandoned. In any case, you should safely store the property where it cannot be damaged or stolen because you could be liable for losses caused by your negligence. You must give the former tenant an opportunity to reclaim his possessions by written notice to him that sets a deadline [at least 15 days after the notice is personally delivered, or 18 days if mailed] after which he can no longer claim the property. You may demand storage costs incurred as a condition of returning the property, if you include your intent to charge these costs in the notice. [You could instead deduct the charges from his security deposit, but an accounting of deductions and return of any remaining deposit must, under state law, be made within three weeks after the tenant vacates.]
Specific steps to follow regarding property left behind, including the wording of the notice, how to determine whom the owner is when there is more than one tenant, and separate rules for tenants who have been evicted, are outlined in the California Department of Consumer Affairs legal guide, “Options for a Landlord: When a Tenant’s Personal Property Has Been Left in the Rental Unit.” You can access this guide from the Rent Board website under “Other Sources.”
You can e-mail the City of Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board at email@example.com for individual questions, or you can call or visit the office at 2125 Milvia Street, Berkeley, CA 94704 (northeast corner of Milvia/Center Streets) Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, between 9 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., and on Wednesday between 12:00 noon and 6:30 p.m. Our telephone number is (510) 644-6128. Our website address is www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/rent.