The Berkeley Rent Board Mailbag


Q: I have been a tenant in an apartment for 2 years. Recently my telephone connection stopped working. I tested my phone and had Pac Bell test the outside wiring, and they concluded that it must be the internal wiring and that it would cost over $150 for them to come out, identify and fix the problem. Is this my responsibility or the landlord's?  (June 2004)

California Civil Code section 1941.4 states that landlords are responsible for installing a working phone jack in each rental unit and for maintaining the inside wiring in good working order.

Q: I have a tenant whose water consumption has more than quadrupled. I, of course, am paying for the water, but I'd like to pass on the increases to the tenant. Is that possible?  (June 2004)

Our advice would be to discuss the matter with the tenant, if you haven't already done so, to find out whether there is a leak and, if not, why his/her usage has increased. If there is no leak and you cannot reach an understanding with the tenant, you could petition the Rent Board to transfer responsibility for the water bill to the tenant with a corresponding rent ceiling decrease. In the alternative, you could petition for a rent ceiling increase; you would have to prove that the tenant is using more water than is reasonable for the number of occupants in the rental unit, and take the position that this constitutes an increase in services.

Q: I've lived in my apartment for 5 years. When I first moved in, there were a washer and dryer in the basement. Now the owner has obtained permits to convert the basement to another rental unit and is removing the washer and dryer. Can he do this? (September 2003)

He can remove the washer and dryer, but not without compensating you for your loss. Rent Board Regulation 1269 authorizes you to file a petition for a rent ceiling reduction when your housing services are decreased.

Q: I have owned a 4-plex in Berkeley for almost 10 years. Two of my tenants already lived there when I bought the place. The other two tenancies began in the past three years. The Notice of Apparent Lawful Rent Ceiling for these long-term tenants says that heat is included in their rent, but I have never paid for heat. Each apartment has its own meter and the tenants pay their own gas and electric bills. Is there a clerical error? (March 2003)

It's possible that there's a clerical error, but there's a more likely explanation. For any tenancy beginning before 1/1/99, the services included in the rent are the same services that were included in the rent in 1980. Since the rent ceilings for those long-term tenants of yours are based on the original rents and services reported to us, the services cannot be discontinued without a corresponding reduction in the rent ceiling. So, even though these tenants have always paid for heat since you've owned the building, according to our records, the tenants living in those units in 1980 did not pay for heat. If you can find out when the separate meters were installed, or find some information that indicates that the 1980 tenants paid for heat, then we can remove heat from the services included in their rent ceilings. In the meantime, it appears that those tenants' rent ceilings include an allowance for heat, and they are entitled either to have you pay for their heat or to have their rents reduced.

Q: I moved into my apartment two years ago. One of its features was the privacy afforded by all the shrubs and trees between my windows and the walkway to the apartments next door. My landlord has had all the shrubs and trees cut way back, citing high water bills and maintenance costs. Now everyone walking by can see into my entire studio. Am I entitled to any compensation for this new lack of privacy and the destruction of my garden setting? (August 2002)

Possibly. The privacy provided by the shrubs most likely is a housing service included in your rent. In other words, you would not have agreed to pay the rent you do if the unit had lacked the privacy provided by the shrubs. Because the service has been removed, you could file a petition with the Rent Board for a rent reduction. A rent reduction, however, would not return your privacy. Therefore, your best option is to talk to your landlord about possible solutions to this problem. If high water and maintenance costs are the issue, you might be able to restore your privacy with low maintenance, drought resistant plants. Or, maybe a fence or trellis is the solution. If you cannot work out a satisfactory solution, then you should file a petition for a rent reduction.

Q: I am a landlord with a question about the Notice of Apparent Lawful Rent Ceiling I just received. It says I provide storage for my tenants, but I have owned the building for almost 7 years and have never provided storage. There is no storage space on the property now, but there was a back shed used for storage years ago, before I bought the place. Can you please eliminate the storage service from your records?

To answer your question, we need to know whether the tenancies began before or after January 1, 1999, the date Costa-Hawkins went into full effect. For a tenancy that began on or after January 1, 1999, our records should reflect whatever services you indicated on the Vacancy Registration form for that tenancy. If you mistakenly stated that storage is provided, then we will remove storage as a service upon your written request. We will confirm that change in a letter to you with a copy to the tenants. If your VR form was accurate, but we mistakenly entered storage as an included service, we will correct our error.

For a tenancy that began before January 1, 1999, the provided services are those listed on the Initial Registration Statement for that unit which were included in the rent in May 1980, the year the Rent Ordinance was adopted. For example, if the shed you mentioned was used by tenants for storage in 1980 for no additional charge, storage is a provided service on your property. Any change in a provided housing service requires an adjustment of the rent ceiling (Rent Board Regulation 1269). Therefore, when the prior owner removed the shed, the rent for the units on your property should have been decreased. Accordingly, you should consider replacing the shed or filing a petition for a rent reduction, or your tenants may file one instead.

We frequently receive requests to remove services that are no longer offered. However, our job is to reflect accurately the services provided for pre- and post-Costa-Hawkins tenancies. For post-1999 tenancies, the services are indicated on the Vacancy Registration form filed by the landlord for each new tenancy. For pre-1999 tenancies, the services were indicated on the Individual Registration Statement of 1980. Sometimes the services have changed over the years--sheds get removed, water charges are transferred to tenants, parking spaces become distributed differently, etc. The important thing to note is that with the removal of every initially-provided service, there must be a corresponding rent reduction for that unit.

Q: I rent a parking space in the garage of my building. I alternately park my car and my motorcycle in the space. The space is not included in the regular rent for my apartment. Recently, my landlord said he received a complaint that my bike was too loud and threatened to take the space back if anyone else complained. Do I have a right to my parking space?

If the space is rented under a separate agreement, the landlord can terminate the rental with a 30-day written notice. Even if a service, such as a parking space, is included as part of a unit's rent, a landlord can petition the Rent Board to remove such a service. The Rent Board would determine the amount of a corresponding reduction in the rent ceiling but could not force the landlord to continue providing the service. Try to figure out a compromise with your landlord that would allow you to continue using the space and honor your neighbors' right to the peaceful enjoyment of their apartments.

Q: I have been a landlord in Berkeley in 1994. Our lease states that all utility bills are the responsibility of the tenants except garbage. My tenants have been subtracting the charges for sewer service from their rent for a while now. Can they do that?

Sewer service fees were originally billed to landlords as part of their property tax bill. Sewer service was, therefore, implicitly included in the rent charged for all units. In July 1997, the City of Berkeley switched sewer service billing from the tax bill to the East Bay Municipal Utility District as part of the water bill. Regulation 1269.5 was approved by the Rent Board as of June 20, 1997 to protect tenants who paid their own water bill from the responsibility of paying for a service that was previously considered an included service under the rent ceiling. Regulation 1269.5B(1) therefore allows tenants to deduct each monthly sewer service fee from the subsequent rent payment. The tenant is advised to inform his/her landlord of their reason for taking the deduction, and further allows landlords to request a copy of the tenant's water bill to verify that the amount of the deduction is correct.

For tenancies that began after January 1, 1999, landlords have been allowed to assign responsibility for the payment of utilities and/or services to tenants as long as those responsibilities are clearly stated in the lease or rental agreement.

Q: I have lived in my apartment since January 1999. It is a two-bedroom unit with a deck. My current landlady bought the building in 2000. Recently, she served me a "Notice of Change of Terms of Tenancy." She wants me to remove all of my plants from the deck. She claims the plants cause water to drain onto the building and that this has damaged the property. I pointed out to her that a good rainstorm results in more water on the building than my plant watering ever could, and offered to place the plants in a container. Now she says she doesn't want me to use my deck at all. Does my landlady have a right to make such demands?

Landlords in Berkeley may not unilaterally change the terms of a lease and then evict a tenant for breach of the new term. In other words, were you to continue to use the deck for its intended purpose, your landlady would not have grounds to evict you. If, however, it could be proven that you were actually damaging the building and that you did not cease the damaging activity when asked to do so, the landlady would have just cause to evict you.

Should you elect to cease using the deck at your landlady's request, you would be entitled to a rent reduction. You or your landlady may file a petition with the Rent Board to reduce the rent ceiling for the reduction in space and services. Board petitions are available at the Board's office or on the Board's website.

Q:  In a letter I recently received from the Rent Stabilization Board, I noticed that I am supposed to receive parking as one of the housing services.  However, my 1998 lease agreement says that no parking is available for my unit.  I believe I am entitled to either a parking space or a refund for the market value of the service that I am not receiving, plus a reduction in my rent amount for the same reason.  I have called my landlord regarding this subject and he said that parking was included while everything was rent controlled, but that it isn't so anymore.  Is my landlord correct?

No, your landlord is mistaken.  For a tenancy that began before January 1, 1999, a landlord cannot cease to provide a base year housing service, i.e., a housing service that was provided in 1980, without a corresponding rent reduction.  A pre-January 1, 1999 tenant whose landlord has discontinued a base year housing service may be eligible for a rent reduction and refund.  The tenant must, however, file a petition for Individual Rent Adjustment, for a determination on the matter.

For tenancies started on or after January 1, 1999, a landlord may, in most cases, establish the initial rent, as well as the number of tenants allowed and the services included in the rent.  The rent, number of tenants and services are controlled for the duration of the tenancy.

Q:  I have a question concerning my right to have hot water.  My landlord lives in the upstairs unit and controls the hot water temperature.  I believe he purposefully lowers the temperature on the hot water heater in order to save money.  However, I am lucky when I have enough hot water to fill the bathtub.  Do I have a right to demand that he turn up the temperature?

Your landlord is obligated to provide sufficient hot water for each unit.  The City of Berkeley’s Residential Rental Inspection Service can check the water temperature and may cite your landlord if it is inadequate.  You can request an inspection of your unit by calling the Housing Department at 644-6445.

Q:  I have to pay my own water bill, but I recently heard that tenants are not responsible for paying the sewer service charge that is billed with the water payment.  Can you tell me where I can find more information about this?

In most cases for tenancies that began before 1999, sewer services charges are included in the rent and should be paid by the landlord.  Where a landlord does not pay these charges, the tenant is authorized under the Rent Board Regulation 1269.5B(1) to deduct the charges from the rent.  For tenancies that began since January 1, 1999, however, landlords have the right to redefine the services that are included in the rent charged.  Therefore, the new tenants may be responsible for the payment of sewer service charges.

Q: I live in a large house with nine other people. We share a kitchen, bathrooms and the living room. Our landlords recently told us that they plan to rent out the living room as a bedroom, in spite of our objections. Does this loss of our common area justify a rent reduction?

The first thing you should know is that single family houses rented after January 1, 1996 are now exempt from the rent ceiling provisions of the Rent Ordinance. Had this house been rented by one family or a set group of people who all moved in at the same time after January 1, 1996 under one lease, it would now be exempt.
If, however, each of you has a separate rental agreement with the landlord, the property would be classified as a rooming house and would be subject to the Rent Ordinance. Should the landlord rent the common living area to an individual tenant for use as a bedroom, each of the current tenants could file a petition with the Rent Board to request a rent reduction based on loss of use of the living room.

Q: Our landlords plan to raise our rent (a fixed amount with utilities included) because they say our utility expenses are higher than the amount allotted in the rent payment. We'd like to know what we're actually paying for, but they ignore our repeated requests to see the utility bills. Can they suddenly raise our rent without proof that it's necessary?

Assuming this house is subject to the Rent Ordinance, your landlord cannot raise your rent without first petitioning the Rent Board and receiving authorization to do so. Should the landlord file such a petition, you would have the right to review any documentation the landlords might submit is support of their claim for the rent adjustment. If you objected to the evidence or had any questions about the documents submitted, the matter would be set for hearing.

Q: Our landlords say they are thinking about forcing us to sign a contract that says we will not drink alcohol in the house, even though most of us are over the age of legality. After we have moved in and signed our housing contracts, could we later be evicted for drinking alcohol in our own home?

Your landlords may not unilaterally change the terms of your lease to prohibit alcohol. Most leases do, however, prohibit illegal activities on the rental premises. As such, the lease probably already prohibits minors from drinking on the property.

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