Election Section

Some Advice for Apartment Renters in the Bay Area

By Matt Cantor
Tuesday August 21, 2007

Although I’ve been a home-owner for many years, it’s not hard to remember my renting days. I lived communally, like many of us in Berkeley, and shared cooking, food shopping and the lack of attention to property care that says “I’m a renter. Painting the house is someone else’s problem!”  

Although this was probably more emblematic of my youth than my housing status, in truth, I did care about the houses I lived in, but not to the extent I do now. That’s reasonable. Who wants to fix up someone else’s property? I certainly didn’t, although I did like making the place suit me. That included some painting inside, hanging hooks and perhaps changing a light fixture. Moreover, I should say that I didn’t have a distaste for landlords and did not, as was the aphorism of the day, consider property ownership a crime. 

I came to Cal during the slam-dancing days of Barrington Hall when Jell-O Biafra of the Dead Kennedys crooned “Let’s Lynch the Landlord.” (We still joke that Jell-O’s surprising vote count during his abortive run for S.F. Mayor only confirmed the power of the Kennedy name.) Nevertheless, many do consider landlords criminals and will cut off their noses to spite their faces sticking it to the landlord. Making the landlord an enemy and ignoring the welfare of your living space is a mistake.  

Granted, there is no reason to fix up someone else’s place but there are reasons to be conscious of the conditions around you for your own benefit and that of others. Some of those others are your fellow renters. These can quickly become the other faces set aglow by the firelight as you stand watching your homes go up in flames and yes, it IS your home, at least for today. 

Here are a few of the things you, as a tenant, can do for yourself AND your landlord to keep life and limb together and to keep the peace. In general, the thing that helps the landlord also helps you. 

Fire safety is always uppermost in my mind when I’m looking at houses and the better part of fire safety is fire escape. If you’re a renter, take 10 or 20 minutes (preferably with roommates or family if you have ‘em) to look at how you would get out in a fire from every part of your space, especially where you sleep. Give up the illusion of magnificent acts of heroism. If you’re stuck in a smoky space, you have a very short period in which to act, so be sure that the windows open wide enough to get out. If they don’t, talk to your landlord and calmly and blamelessly explain that you can’t get out of your bedroom window and that a fire could result in a death.  

Most landlords don’t want a death on their hands, and most of them don’t know much about their own property. Surprising but true. If the window is too high to jump to safety without resulting in a broken you, then get yourself a rope or chain ladder at the hardware store and install it just below the window. Make sure that you don’t block access to the ladder. I like to see one end of these screwed onto the wall so that you don’t end up throwing the whole thing out the window in a panic. Your landlord might be willing to reimburse you for this but don’t let their cheapness cost you your life. Just buy it. 

Smoke detectors are required in housing and if you don’t have a working smoke detector, please ask your landlord to install one in the hallway. It’s also a very good idea to put one in each room that’s being used as a separate living space. If someone is crashing in the attic or growing pot up there, put up an extra smoke detector. I don’t care what you’re growing. I just don’t want those grow-lights to kill everyone in the building.  

A fire can start almost anywhere in a building and the reasoning behind smoke detectors in halls, as well as inside of rooms, is that smoke simply takes too long to get through that door and that lost time means fewer minutes before your home is engulfed in flames. O.K. I’ll stop. Or not. There’s one more fire thing I want to present (no—two). Heating systems can cause fires that can cost lives or at least destroy all your stuff. Here are a couple of recommendations. First, don’t use extension cords any more than absolutely necessary and never use them with electric heaters. If you must use an electric heater, make sure it’s plugged directly into the wall and that you turn it off prior to saying your prayers (I don’t care which god(ess) is involved). 

If you have a gas heater (wall, floor or otherwise) do not put candles, fabric, newspapers, underwear or anything that can burn on or near the thing. As Mazda is my witness, I have seen wall heaters in rental units with candles melted right down inside the grate and covered over with Hindu Madras. If you die this way, you don’t get to ascend to any of the good planes of existence and probably have to come back, own property and rent to a bunch of thankless, stupid tenants who will, in turn, burn your houses down for all eternity. This is called Karma. 

Another handy item you can ask for, or simply buy, is a carbon monoxide (CO) tester. Most rentals don’t have these but should, in my rarely humble opinion. A young woman in Berkeley was killed by CO in a rental a few years ago, unleashing one of the most lurid tales of slavery, human importation and corruption we naïve Berkeleyites had ever heard.  

CO kills at least 500 people a year unintentionally (sadly suicide numbers are much higher) but many more are walking around sick and debilitated by the weakening effects of this poison. CO is utterly without taste or smell and can only be detected with the proper equipment. A CO tester costs as little as 20 bucks and is worth far more in peace of mind so…go buy one. Ask your landlord to buy it for you. This is like an intelligence test. If they say no, it’ll prove that they’re stupid. 

There there’s Mold. The word elicits fear and disgust. Many assume that mold is inherently toxic and that enough can be fatal. Mold is, in fact what makes milk into cheese and is a normal part of our world— ask any biology student, especially a mycologist. Molds are in your apartment right now. They can hurt some people some of the time. So can a glass of water. If mold (or something that looks like it —remember, you’re not a mycologist) appears to be growing in your space, contact your landlord. If it keep growing and they are seriously ignoring you, call the city housing office or a tenant advocacy agency (Berkeley has several). Mold, mildew or other fungi are almost always associated with excessive moisture. This may mean a plumbing leak, a roof leak or ground water that’s seeping into your space. These are usually not very dangerous (unless you have a specific allergy to what’s there) but should be viewed as a litmus test for excessive moisture. If your landlord is smart, they’ll take an interest, get help and eliminate the source of moisture. Bleach can be used to kill the remaining growths. 

So these are a few of the things you can, as a tenant, be attuned to. Sadly, we can’t cover the wider range but I would like to finish by offering a little advice on how to deal with landlords and how to improve your rental experience. 

Now some landlords are just plain dumb. There’s no lipstick for this pig, it’s just the simple truth but it’s not pandemic. Most landlords are smart about money and, at least somewhat smart about the care of property. Since many tenants are less than sterling, they may tend, as a group, to be somewhat callous toward those dear souls whose welfare has been entrusted to them. 

If you try, just a little, to appeal to the logical side of the landlord, you may find success. Tell the landlord when something has broken or begun to fail. Leaks should be presented at once. It’s only the real stinkers who will accuse you of wrong-doing. Most will be very happy to know that there’s a problem and most will similarly be perturbed to discover that a leak in your abode has been doing damage for months. The landlord has a right to know as soon as possible of anything that may affect the condition of their real estate. Keep in mind that most owners of property are pretty cheap. They may do what is necessary but few will spend much that has no obvious return. Remember, they bought the property to make money, not to spend it. It may be hard to imagine but you may, one day, view your own rental property in just the same way. 

Tenants and landlords don’t necessary have to hold hands, sing songs or cuddle up and watch Terms of Endearment. It might be enough for them to simply play their parts and not bounce too many checks.