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Is landlord retaliating for tenant's refusal to pay 'pet rent'?

ApartmentsLaws and LegislationCrime, Law and JusticeU.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Question: I moved into a small fourplex a year ago with my service dog, a border collie named Harlan. I have a seizure disorder and Harlan alerts me when I am about to have a seizure. The apartment manager gave me no problems about my dog when I moved in, but she charged me an extra $50 a month in "pet rent." I later found out that she was not supposed to charge pet rent for a service animal because it is not really a pet under the fair housing laws.

When I told my manager what I learned she became really angry, and when I didn't pay the pet rent the next month she gave me a three-day pay-or-quit notice for the $50 pet rent. I then wrote a letter to her and to the apartment owner, explaining that I couldn't be charged rent for a service animal. They stopped pushing for the extra $50 after that, but the manager also stopped being friendly with me.

Now that my lease is up, the manager just notified me that the owner doesn't want to renew my lease. She won't tell me why she won't renew. I don't understand this — I have been a good tenant and always paid my rent on time. I think she is angry because I refused to pay the extra pet rent. Is she allowed to do this?

Answer: First, you are correct that the landlord may not charge additional pet rent for a service animal under federal and state fair housing laws. You were perfectly within your rights to refuse to pay the additional $50.

Second, it sounds as if your landlord may be unlawfully retaliating against you for exercising your rights under the fair housing laws. Both federal and state fair housing laws protect the right of individuals to assert their rights under the law without fear of being punished or suffering retaliation.

The retaliatory action can take many forms such as raising the rent by an exorbitant amount, refusing to repair fixtures in the apartment or giving a series of baseless notices for rule violations. Retaliatory actions also include actions a landlord otherwise has a right to take — like terminating a month-to-month tenancy or refusing to renew a lease.

With exception of local jurisdictions that require "just cause" to evict, a landlord ordinarily doesn't need a reason to terminate a tenancy or to decide not to renew a lease. However, in every jurisdiction, these actions become unlawful if the landlord takes these actions because he wants to punish the tenant for asserting his/her fair housing rights.

To be entitled to the protection of the fair housing retaliation laws, you need not have filed a formal complaint in court or with an administrative agency; rather, you need only show you objected to what you felt was discriminatory treatment.

In your case, you clearly asserted your rights under the fair housing laws when you objected to paying the $50 pet rent. What is particularly helpful is that you made your objections in writing and mentioned the fair housing laws, because that will make it easier to show that you asserted your fair housing rights and that the landlord knew of your assertion.

The most difficult aspect of your retaliation case, though, will be proving that the landlord refused to renew your lease because you objected to paying the pet fee. Your good record as a tenant and timely payment of rent will certainly help your case.

However, there could be other circumstances surrounding the decision that would provide plausible reasons for why the owner would decide not to renew your lease. Perhaps the landlord plans to renovate the building and sell it, for example, or wants to move into the apartment himself.

You should contact a fair housing agency and ask for an investigation of your claim of retaliation to help answer some of these questions, or you should consider filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on your own.

Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a Bay Area nonprofit. Send questions to info@housing.org.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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ApartmentsLaws and LegislationCrime, Law and JusticeU.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
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