Question: We have been experiencing an outbreak of bedbugs in one of our rental communities. Our exterminator inspected the entire property and then told us he would need to use a specially trained dog to sniff out the bedbugs in the individual units. We gave each resident a 24-hour notice that we would be entering each unit with a trained dog to inspect for bugs. One of the residents came to our office after we issued these notices. She said that it would violate her religious beliefs to allow a dog to sniff around her unit and belongings. Our exterminator told us that the only alternative methods would be much more expensive. Can we require this resident to pay the extra cost for an alternative inspection, or are we limited because her religious beliefs are involved?
Answer: The answer to this question requires a balancing act. Your legal duty to respect your tenant's religious beliefs must be balanced against your duty as a landlord to take timely and reasonable steps to maintain the habitability of the rental premises. Under Civil Code Section 1941, that duty requires you to provide premises free from vermin infestation to all your tenants.
If you give proper written notice under Civil Code Section 1954, you have a right to enter the rental unit to address the vermin issue. A tenant would ordinarily have no right to object or refuse entry. Assuming you have correctly concluded that using a dog for the bedbug inspection is an appropriate and effective means of inspecting for bedbugs and that there is no effective alternative at the same cost, your plan does not constitute religious discrimination.
Our answer also assumes that all the tenants are being subjected to the same inspection procedure, regardless of their individual religious beliefs, and any tenant who objected to the use of a dog would have to pay the extra cost of an alternative procedure. Under these circumstances, your plan would be a reasonable effort to comply with your duty of habitability.
There is a legal duty to accommodate tenants with disabilities, but you have no duty to give special consideration to accommodate tenants' religious beliefs. You are required only to avoid treating a tenant differently because of her religious beliefs. As a practical matter, we suggest that you allow this tenant to choose an alternative inspection method that you are willing to employ if she is willing to pay the cost, since denying her any choice at all would give the impression of unfair treatment.