VLSC’s Low-Income Landlord Clinic
by Matthew Quiring, Fried & Williams, LLP
Before I volunteered for VLSC, I had no understanding of the legal needs of low income landlords. Like a lot of people, my experiences as a tenant made me think of landlords as the person (or company) who took my money every month, while trying to force me to hang a flag inside my apartment as a condition of my lease, or posting a pay rent notice on my front door in front of my neighbors when I was one day late.
But only after a couple weeks of volunteering, I was hooked.
Not every landlord is a corporation with hundreds of units, or an investor shuttling between vacation homes. Right here, in Oakland and the East Bay, there are huge numbers of elderly, immigrant, and low-income landlords who rely on renting just a room in their house, or a cottage in their yard to make ends meet. It’s true that they own property, but that may be all that they have to rely on for income, savings, or retirement.
Unfortunately, landlord-tenant laws make no distinction between corporate and low-income landlords.
Elderly landlords, or those with limited English, are expected to comply with all the rules and regulations intended to deter sophisticated landlords from gaming the system as part of their business. Furthermore, the laws vary from city to city, and even diligent landlords can be confused about what laws apply and where. My private practice clients pay me for this expertise, but the truth is not everyone can afford it.
When you have a spare room in your house, it’s easy to tell someone that they can come and stay for a while. But nobody explains to the low-income landlord that they should carry wrongful eviction insurance with a lawyer on retainer. They only thought that they were aiding someone from their church, or helping a family member get back on their feet, or just renting a room to help cover the mortgage. I have seen low income landlords’ humanity and generosity rewarded with the cruel irony of being forced into homelessness themselves, the tenants’ threats of violence and litigation reducing their “landlord” to living in a basement, in a garage, or even in a car on the street.
I have seen low income landlords’ humanity and generosity rewarded with the cruel irony of being forced into homelessness themselves
Nearly all the information about rental disputes is oriented towards tenants. Since there are more tenants than landlords, this imbalance is reasonable, but it is exacerbated by laws and regulations which require repeated disclosure of tenants’ rights directly to the tenants, but with no analogous disclosure to the landlord. Our laws and society presume that any owner of property assumes the responsibility of following all laws regarding the use of that property, and without an attorney, a landlord must sink or swim.
The VLSC Low-Income Landlord Clinic is a lifeline to those landlords crushed beneath the expanding weight of their obligations. Disclosure forms, registration fees, and relocation fees keep mounting, while mere communication with tenants becomes more and more fraught with risk of claims of harassment or improper attempts at eviction. Our clients don’t just need forms filled and papers printed, they need an education about what it truly means to responsibly rent property in this time and in this place.
Please consider helping low-income landlords, the people who form the very foundations of our communities and neighborhoods. The thirst for justice is great. When my clients beg to pay me, even though I cannot accept, or return to the clinic only to deliver food to myself and my fellow volunteers, I understand that these landlords are expressing a gratitude that runs so deep that words alone are insufficient. It is that experience that makes volunteering for the VLSC Low-Income Landlord Clinic so moving, meaningful, and worthwhile.