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Does racism threat justify lease breaking?

Rent it Right

by Janet Portman, Inman News

landlord helpQ: We live in a multifamily community whose management assures us that they take their screening duties very seriously (the result, perhaps, of a crime committed by a resident a couple of years ago).

They claim that they hire a screening company, that they check “every legitimate source” of information on an applicant. We know they look on the Internet — when the manager gave us the keys, he complimented us on the photos on our family Facebook page!

But the guy who moved in next door must not have been screened — his blog goes back years, filled with racist rants. As members of one of the races whom he hates, we feel very uncomfortable living near him, and would like to break our lease and move.

Can we do so legally? –Bill and Janelle P.

A: Tenants may break their leases and leave when the landlord fails to honor explicit, important promises made before the lease was signed. For example, a promise made during a tour that the pool will be up and running by summer is one that the landlord must keep or risk losing his lease-holding tenants to whom the pool was a real deal-breaker. The reason is straightforward: When the promise concerns a significant matter, and the tenant relies on that promise in deciding to rent the property, the promise becomes part of the deal. The landlord’s failure to deliver on the promise constitutes a breach of the lease, enabling the tenant to walk away.

Let’s assume that management did not look up your neighbor on the Internet (from what you’ve told us, it’s unclear whether they consulted the Web or not). Is an applicant’s blog one of the “legitimate sources” that management promised they’d check? You could make a good case that it is — that the contents are a sort of “super application” that gives landlords added information about their applicants. Written by the applicant himself, the contents are surely “legitimate.”

This is not to say that every landlord must check online for blogs and posts. But once a landlord says that he will cast a very wide net, however, that arguably becomes the kind of promise that must be kept.

Although we may have answered your stated question, a thornier one lies beneath. Suppose the landlord actually did see your neighbor’s racist blog (or would have seen it had he looked)? There’s no question that he could have rejected this applicant on this basis alone, without fear of fair housing repercussions, because posters of racist rants are not a “protected class” under fair housing laws. But what about the next question: Would he be obligated to turn this person away? In other words, once a landlord learns that an applicant has such beliefs, is he legally required to reject him?

The answer is probably no, as long as the applicant has a track record of paying the rent on time, treating property and neighbors respectfully, and showing no signs of allowing his below-the-surface bigotry to surface in antisocial behavior. Some landlords might consider his racist beliefs to be irrelevant, as long as he acts the model tenant.

Likewise, if your new neighbor does not cause problems by using racist language or epithets, your landlord would have very little on which to base a termination or eviction. And for this reason, you might have a hard time justifying breaking your lease. In the context of this question, breaking a lease without responsibility for the balance requires that you point to a dangerous or illegal situation on the property that the landlord has failed to remedy. Your neighbor’s abhorrent beliefs alone, without resulting acts, may not give you the reason you need.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of “Every Landlord’s Legal Guide” and “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide.” She can be reached at [email protected].Copyright 2010 Janet PortmanSee Janet Portman’s feature, Are Occupancy Limits Legal?

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  • Subhash Agrawal

    right on.

  • [email protected]

    A complicating factor from the management side is who is who on the internet. There are so many “John Smiths” online with blogs and websites that it becomes nigh impossible to filter every one of them. It becomes easy to find a dozen websites, blogs, forum posts and more from every side of the spectrum of life, culture and politics. While we don’t know your neighbors’ name, you can see how easy it is to find people of like or same names on the world wide web. The possibility that your managers DID run across his site, but may not have recognized it as his, is also very real. Also, until a few months ago, some social network tools that allow easier searches of multiple social networks were simply not available. With thousands of sites offering free blog space and people able to set and change privacy settings, it may not have been located or even available. Also, people often use screen names that are pseudonyms online, so locating people is not always a simple matter, even for seasoned research professionals.

    As a manager, your best course of action is to take a serious look at your research methodology, while documenting every search by taking screen captures or copying data to a file with time and date stamps.

    Bear in mind also, that some of what you find and use as the basis for denying rental can come back to haunt you. If you find a applicant who subscribes to net groups that advocate the sort of racist things noted in the post, but who does not espouse such views directly himself, denying him or her the rental based on his association with such groups may indeed be illegal under fair housing laws. He or she could sue for discrimination based on his ethnic or racial affiliations to a group which are as protected for him or her as a black woman being a member of the NAACP…affiliation right, and rights based on heritage that is not controlled by choice of the individual…watch it.

    Oh, this reminds me. Not all racist groups are of the white / European-descent variety. Strong movements in Asia and Africa over the past decades have emerged espousing the same style of racist rhetoric as seen in some parts of ethnically white communities. So, don’t be blind when looking into such matters.

  • M Clark

    What stipulations are in the rental contract? You may want to check that first.

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