Who Gets to Keep Fruit From Back Yard Trees?

Special to the Times; <i> This column is prepared by Project Sentinel, a rental housing mediation service in Sunnyvale, Calif</i>

QUESTION: About eight months ago, we assumed tenancy of a house. This summer our landlord instructed us not to pick the fruit, that it belongs to his family and that they would be over to harvest it when it was ripe. We are responsible for maintaining and watering the yard, are we not entitled to the fruit on the trees?

ANSWER: Residential rentals usually provide for exclusive use of the property by the tenants. For your landlord to cultivate the fruit on the trees, he must have reserved this right in a written rental agreement. Because you assumed possession of the property from the former tenants, you are bound by the terms of the original rental agreement. Check this agreement to see if it includes anything regarding the landlord’s reserved right to remove the fruit.

If there is nothing in the rental agreement on this topic, then you should be able to restrict the landlord’s entry and have the right to reap the fruits of your labor. However, the most prudent action for all parties concerned might be to negotiate and to find some way to share the fruit.

Must Landlord Replace Smoke Alarm Battery?


Q: My tenant called to notify me that the battery in his smoke detector was dead and to request that I provide him with a new one. Is it my responsibility to replace batteries?

A: Generally, it is up to the tenant to replace items such as batteries and light bulbs when they wear out during the tenancy. However, considering the importance of a functioning smoke detector, you may want to give him a battery, as the benefit far outweighs the cost, and under the circumstances, your tenant may decide not to replace it just to spite you. You might consider changing to non-battery operated detectors, so you won’t need to depend on your tenants to keep the detectors in operable condition.

You may want to check with city or county offices to determine if there are local ordinances that make landlords or property owners responsible for maintaining smoke detectors.

‘Steering’ Is a Form of Racial Discrimination

Q: For the last 10 years I have enjoyed having neighbors and friends from different races and backgrounds in the large complex where I live. However, since the new manager took over a year ago, it seems to me that most people of color end up living in the back of the complex near the freeway, while my section is becoming increasingly white. I noticed a reference to child “steering” in a recent column. Could this be a variation of the same practice? When I asked the manager about it, she said that people often prefer to be with their own kind, but I disagree. Can anything be done here?

A: Yes, something can be done. Steering as a means of racial and national origin discrimination also occurs, and may explain the changes that you have observed in your complex. As it does in child discrimination, this practice has the effect of limiting the amount of housing stock available to the people who are being segregated, however subtly, into one part of the complex. It may also result in less-desirable housing being made available, often near a busy street or in a less visible or less well-maintained part of the complex. In any case, it represents less than equal opportunity housing. If you feel that this may be happening in your complex, it’s time to contact your local Fair Housing agency.

What to Do If Security Deposit Isn’t Returned

Q: Although I moved out of my former apartment more than two weeks ago, I have not yet received a refund of my security deposit from my ex-landlord. I know that she is legally bound to return my deposit with two weeks, or to provide me with an explanation of any deductions. What should I do now?


A: Unless your lease or rental agreement specifically mentions a two-week deposit return period, you should wait another week because of recent changes in the law. In the past, many landlords complained that the two-week period allowed by state law was not sufficient because they needed more time to clean and to complete repair work before they could fully assess damages on a vacated unit. Also, many tenants complained that the $200 maximum that judges could award as penalty when landlords acted in bad faith, was too little to discourage landlords from retaining security deposits without cause.

In an attempt to respond to these complaints, California Civil Code Section 1950.5 was amended to modify both of these items effective as of Jan. 1, 1994. Your landlord now has three weeks to return your security deposit, or to send you a written explanation of any deductions, and a judge can now award up to $600 in punitive damages if you can prove that your landlord acted in bad faith.

If you still do not receive your refund and an explanation of any deductions within the next week, you have several options. Write, call or tell the landlord in person that you want your refund and that you are aware of your rights under state law. If the landlord does not give you the refund with a written explanation of any deduction, you can contact your local tenant/landlord program for assistance. If both you and the landlord wish, the program can set up a mediation to resolve any disagreements you may have about the refund. Should these approaches fail, you may have to file in Small Claims Court against your former landlord to attempt to receive any refunded to which you feel you are entitled.

Both tenants and landlords in existing rental agreements should be aware that a long-term lease specifying a two-week period remains in force until the end of the lease, and in such a case, the deposit must still be returned within two weeks of the end of the tenancy. Terms in existing month-to-month agreements now specifying a two-week period may be changed to three weeks with a 30-day written notice from landlord to tenant.