Can Owner Ban Terrace Plants?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Postema is the editor of Apartment Age magazine, a publication of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, an apartment owners' service group

QUESTION: I live in Los Angeles and I have a question for you about plants on the terrace of my apartment. The problem is that the landlord does not want any plants there.

At first I had them hanging up. He objected so I moved them to a shelf located about four inches below the railing. There is a solid concrete wall beneath the railing. The manager initially approved of that location, but now he says they do not want any plants there at all.

We have a city view of roof tops and want to soften it with plants. Do we have the right to place plants on the terrace?

ANSWER: Unless your lease or rental agreement specifically prohibits them, you can probably soften the city view with leafy matter without worrying about having to leave.

And, according to Trevor Grimm, general counsel, the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA), if the owner changes the rental agreement to prohibit plants on the terrace, your feet are probably still planted on firm ground if you keep the plants and he tries to evict you and you decide to fight it.

While he couldn't guarantee that you won't be evicted, Grimm said, "A court in such a case would likely find that such a breach of the agreement is so insignificant that eviction is not warranted."

How Can Owner Protect Self From Deadbeats?

Q: We own a five-unit apartment building in San Pedro. We just got through evicting a woman who, after paying a few month's rent, stopped paying and told me, "Ha, ha. Just try and get me out. I know how long I can stay."

When we went to court, we met another owner who had just lost about $6,000 from a similar scenario. This shocked us until we went through the mill ourselves.

After the court hearings for eviction were all done, the renter filed for bankruptcy. That required a hearing in federal court and, of course, added attorney's fees.

All in all, we lost about eight months' rent and had to spend $5,000 for legal fees and refurbishing the unit. Such is the state of business in the State of California. Is there any relief in sight?

A: Maybe, if the state Senate passes SB 690, AAGLA's pretrial rent deposit bill. Among other things, the bill would require the marshal to evict a renter notwithstanding a bankruptcy filing.


The theory is that once the state court terminates the tenant's right to possession, there are no rights left for the bankruptcy court to protect.

There is also a federal bill proposed by California Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) that would stop such bankruptcy abuses. However, since there are relatively few other states with the problem most congressmen don't understand it. Therefore, that bill is not likely to pass in the near future.

Tenant Wonders If New Late Charges Are Legal

Q: I live in Burbank and I'm having some problems with the new management company. I just received a notice of changes in the terms of my lease from the new company and I'm wondering how legal these changes are.

Rent is due on the first of the month with no grace period. Among these proposed changes is to raise the late charge from $10 to $50, plus the current $2 a day for each late payment. They also want to raise the returned check charge from $25 to $75. Are these high rates of increase legal?

I have also been told that the rents will soon be increased. Is there any limit on the rate of increase they can charge?

A: The reasonableness of the late charge depends on the amount of the rent. According to the law, an "unreasonable" late fee is an illegal penalty and, therefore, unenforceable.

A good rule of thumb is that a late fee should be no more than 6% of the rent, or $50 for a rent of $833.50. If your rent is $833 or more, the fee is probably legal. Otherwise, it's probably not.

A $2 daily late fee, since it's unlimited, is probably not legal. A daily fee can be charged, but it, too, should be capped so as not to exceed to 6% of the rent.

Similarly, the returned check charge must bear some relationship to the cost (damages) incurred by the owner. If the charge is too high, it, too, is an unenforceable illegal penalty; $75 sounds too high.

As far as getting a big rent increase, I wouldn't worry unless your rent is substantially below market rate. There is an extremely high vacancy rate in L.A. County, particularly in the San Fernando Valley, making the competition stiff for good renters.

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