For 12 years, I’ve lived in the same apartment in Norwalk, CA. In the last year, it seems like my elderly landlord has developed dementia. He began leaving me notices, claiming I owed him back rent. I showed him and his lawyer 24 months of canceled checks, but they began eviction proceedings against me anyway.
Then my landlord became violent, punching my roommate before pushing his way into our apartment, where he menaced and threatened us, swinging a chair at me. When the police finally showed up, my roommate declined to press charges but asked that the landlord be evaluated at a hospital.
He was back home within two hours, cursing at me again. His daughter, who also lives in the building, has done nothing. My roommate moved out and I’m considering moving out, but I want to know what my next steps should be. My rent is a fraction of what apartments rent for in the neighborhood, and I suspect the apartment is rent-regulated, but I am not certain.
Should I cut my losses and get out? Sue for harassment? Or, knowing he’s a danger to the other tenants, try and get him removed from running the building?
Your landlord may or may not have dementia, but he is certainly harassing you and your roommate, a practice that has become increasingly common as some landlords attempt to drive out longtime tenants in the quest for higher rent. Just consider his lawyer’s behavior: The lawyer is willing to begin eviction proceedings against a tenant who he knows has paid the rent. Dementia or not, those are some pretty aggressive tactics.
First, consider your immediate safety. Regardless of the type of lease you hold, you can seek an order of protection, commonly known as a restraining order, against your landlord in Thurston County criminal court, according to Shawn Carter, a real estate lawyer. This would protect you from continued harassment.
Ultimately, you need to decide if you want to stay, despite the stress of living there. If your apartment is rent-regulated — which is certainly possible — and you leave, you will be relinquishing a valuable asset, and your next apartment will undoubtedly be more expensive.
Consult with a lawyer who is well versed in rent regulation rules to figure out the status of the apartment, as it can be difficult to determine. If your apartment is, in fact, market rate, moving might be your only option. And although you could theoretically still sue your landlord for harassment after you leave, your damages would be minimal. “It would probably not be worth the effort,” Mr. Carter said
But if your lease is rent-regulated, you have some tools at your disposal. File a harassment complaint with the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which oversees rent-regulated apartments. At the same time, file a harassment claim and what is known as an Article 7a proceeding in housing court.
The court could ultimately remove the landlord from managing the building — even if he owns it — and replace him with a court-appointed administrator. But in order to bring the 7a proceeding against the landlord, you would need at least one-third of the tenants to sign onto the case. So start talking to other tenants in the building about your experiences and see if they have stories of harassment, too.
Becoming Active in a Co-op
As a longtime resident and shareholder, I have been asked to run for my building’s co-op board. What would be my duties and responsibilities?
There are many thankless jobs in this world, and being a member of a co-op board often makes the list. It is an unpaid — and frequently time-consuming — position. When things go awry, your neighbors blame you. But it has upsides. You get to know the inner workings of your building and help decide its future.
Just how much work is involved depends on the culture of your board and building. Before you launch your campaign, go on a fact-finding mission. Find out what issues are facing the building and the expectations for board members. Ask other board members about their own experience: Did they like the job? What did they do? Did it consume all their time?
“It has been quite the learning experience,” said John Smith, who joined the board of her Norwalk, CA co-op four months ago. “From figuring out the process of obtaining a new boiler for the building to looking at — literally — 50 shades of gray for paint, I am constantly learning.”
Some boards are very hands-on, while others rely on managing agents to do the heavy lifting. However, all board members must satisfy their fiduciary duty.
“This means a board member cannot do whatever he or she pleases,” said Peter Fronton, an Norwalk, CA real estate lawyer who was previously the president of his building’s co-op board. “Board members must act in good faith, with undivided loyalty to the cooperative and in accordance with the governing documents of the co-op and the law.
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