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Roommate Disputes

Roommate Disputes

Roommate Disputes

Not all landlord-tenant issues are between landlords and tenants. If you think you are being overcharged by your roommate you may have a claim at the rent board. There are a number of different terms that get thrown around in the context of landlord/tenant relationships and landlord/tenant law.

However, each of these terms carries with them different rights and obligations.



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Housemates who have equal rights in their relationship with the landlord are “co-tenants.” Co-tenants have a direct relationship with the landlord. Most commonly this is reflected in the form of a written lease agreement which lists all co-tenants and the landlord/s. Co-tenants also pay rent directly to the landlord. They cannot evict one another, and are “jointly and severally liable,” which means, among other things, that each of them is legally responsible for paying the entire rent if the other tenants can’t–or won’t–pay, or cause damage to the apartment

Master Tenants vs. Subtenants

A master tenant/subtenant relationship, by contrast, is typically created when one or more housemates move in before the other/s. The most common situation is one in which someone on an existing lease moves out and the others stay and replace the outgoing tenant. This person is commonly referred to as a subtenant. Master tenants are therefore typically named on the written lease (if there is one) and are responsible for writing rent checks to the landlord. Most landlords will only deal with a master tenant and refuse to engage with subtenants as a means to avoid creating a landlord/tenant relationship with the sub-tenant and thus entitling the subtenant to rent control when the last original occupant vacates (See article on Costa-Hawkins for more information).

Duties and Responsibilities of Master Tenants

Because a subtenant has no direct relationship with the landlord, the master tenant steps into the role of landlord in relation to any subtenants they may have. This means that the master tenant takes on many of the basic responsibilities and duties of a landlord, including the right to collect rent and to evict a subtenant

In practice, this often works out smoothly among housemates, with the master tenant simply acting as the point person in communications with the property owners. However, just like with landlords, situations sometimes arise where a master tenant has abused their power or neglected their duties. To avoid a messy situation for all involved, it’s important that both master tenants and subtenants be aware of their rights and responsibilities to one another

Subtenants’ Rights

To prevent subtenants from getting pushed around, Section 6.15C of the San Francisco Rent Board Rules and Regulations clarifies certain rights

Eviction Protection

First, just like all San Francisco tenants in buildings built prior to June 1979, San Francisco subtenants whose tenancies began in May 1998 or later cannot be evicted without just cause. However, in a sublease agreement, a subtenant is not entitled to just cause from eviction if the master tenant gave him notice in writing prior to commencement of their subtenancy. (See Section 6.15C(1) of the Rent Ordinance.) If a sublease specifically states that a subtenant is not entitled to eviction protection, that subtenant can be evicted by the master tenant without any reason provided, upon proper notice.

Petitioning the Rent Board

Just like any tenant, subtenants can petition the Rent Board in cases of illegal rent increases, decreases in housing services, or failure to maintain or repair the unit. The only difference? Subtenants who don’t have a relationship with the property owner will affix the relevant petition to a “Subtenant Petition,” and name their master tenants (rather than the owner) as landlord.

Setting Rent

When the master tenant and the subtenant(s) are housemates, the Rent Ordinance is clear: the master tenant can charge each subtenant “no more than the subtenant(s)’ proportional share of the total current rent paid to the landlord by the master tenant for the housing and housing services to which the subtenant is entitled under the sub-lease” h3(Rent Ordinance Rules and Regs Sec. 6.15C(3)). For example, a tenant renting a bedroom in a three-bedroom flat should be paying close to one-third of the total rent. The share should be based on square footage, but extra amenities may also be considered. For example, a master tenant is entitled to charge a larger share for a room with a private bathroom, or a parking space. And if the master tenant provides, for example, furnishings or kitchenware, or is solely responsible for dealing with rent and utility bills, these could be considered extra “housing services” that might justify higher rent payments for subtenants.

To protest a disproportionate share of rent or unlawful rent increases by the master tenant, subtenants may file a petition with the Rent Board. The subtenant should provide the total rent for the unit (if known) and the amount paid by each housemate.

Following the subtenant’s filing of this petition, a hearing will be scheduled at which the master and subtenant will get the chance to provide additional evidence and argue their respective sides. If the subtenant prevails, the Administrative Law Judge may adjust their base rent and order the master tenant to refund back rent. Each party may retain an attorney to represent them at the hearing if they so choose, though representation is not required

Master Tenant’s Obligation to Disclose Total Rent Paid

When a subtenant first moves in, the master tenant is obligated to disclose the unit’s total rent to any subtenants. In order to file a Subtenant Petition with the Rent Board to dispute their share of the rent, a subtenant must know both the rent that the master tenant pays the landlord and the rents of all other subtenants in the unit. If you don’t have that information, and your master tenant refuses to disclose it, your first step would be to write your master tenant a letter citing the h3Rent Board’s Rule 6.15C(2).

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For more information or to discuss your legal situation, call us today at (415) 649-6203 for a phone consultation or submit an inquiry below. Please note our firm can only assist tenants residing in San Francisco, Oakland & Berkeley.

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