Q: I’m a tenant in a small apartment complex in Vallejo. This week my mother flew out from New York to come stay with me and her granddaughter for a week. She had been here about four days when I found a note on my door from the owner of the apartments telling me I was in violation of the lease and if my guest didn’t leave immediately I was going to be evicted. I placed several calls to the owner but just got his answering machine and he hasn’t called me back. I checked my lease and it does say that it’s a violation of the lease if I have a guest stay over more than three nights in any given month. Is this legal? I pay my rent and am a good tenant. Do you mean to tell me that I can’t have my child’s grandmother come stay for a visit? That doesn’t make sense. Am I missing something?
A: This is what we call in the business a “gray area” of the law.
People are often shocked when I tell them I can’t give a definitive yes or no answer to a question when it comes to legal subjects like this.
Gray areas are part of the Lawyer Full Employment Act, as I’ll explain.
In this landlord/tenant relationship there are two competing interests.
You expect to rent a home and to be able to enjoy it as your home in the same way someone who, for example, owns his own home.
An owner can have relatives stay over for any length of time in which they can put up with one another.
Landlords, on the other hand, want to be sure they are only renting a unit to the people who he has approved to live there. That likely includes credit and background checks.
The landlord has an obligation not only to his business, but to the other tenants as well, to have only fully qualified tenants reside on the property.
Plus, housing laws only allow a certain number of people to live in each unit, primarily based upon the number of bedrooms and baths.
The landlord’s greatest fear is that a single, qualified tenant will rent a one bedroom apartment and then have 22 of his closest relatives and friends move in too.
How does the landlord determine who is a “guest” and who is a “tenant?”
So landlords put in restrictions as to how long a non-tenant can stay on the property.
Now here’s the rub.
I know of no specific laws that tell a landlord, or a tenant, how many days a person can stay with you and not be considered an illegal tenant.
When you rented your apartment the law provided you with a “reasonable” expectation of privacy in your affairs.
The landlord can’t just barge in on you. He can’t discriminate against you. He can’t mandate that you wear certain types of clothing or listen to certain types of music, or that you be home by a certain time.
These, like many other things, are privacy rights that are constitutionally protected.
On the other hand, the music you listen to can’t be so loud that you “unreasonably” interfere with your neighbor’s right of privacy.
It’s a legal balancing act.
In the same way, your landlord has a right and duty to protect his interests and those of the other tenants.
Here’s how your question typically plays out.
Your mom stays too long. The landlord tries to evict under the three-day term in the contract.
You defend by telling the judge your mom spent $800 flying out to stay with you and her granddaughter. In this case, the judge probably determines the three days in not reasonable and you win your case.
On the other hand, if grandma’ were to stay there for three weeks a judge may well determine that to be unreasonable.
On the other, other hand; if grandma’ were to be staying with you because she was undergoing chemotherapy at U.C. Davis medical center, an extended stay may be reasonable.
This is what I mean by a “gray area.”
The best a judge can do is to try to balance the interests of the landlord and of the tenant.
From a practical perspective, you really don’t want to have to defend an eviction action in court if you can avoid it.
I’d keep trying to talk to the landlord. If you want everything to calm down, your mom could stay in a hotel for the last few days of the visit, I guess.
Tim Jones is a real estate attorney in Fairfield. If you have any real estate questions you would like answered in this column you can contact him at SolanoScene@TJones-Law.com.