What are renters’ rights when big-house apartments are busted?

Last week, we told you about several so-called “big houses” — apartment buildings in disguise in areas zoned for one or two families.

When city authorities catch landlords in the act, it’s often the renters who suffer most. Always Investigating looked into renters’ rights and what to watch out for.

When these big houses get rented out to more than the number of families allowed by zoning, it’s not legal. When it’s caught, the owners have to comply quickly, often putting unsuspecting tenants out on the street.

Big houses, chopped up into too many units with too many tenants, are seeing mounting demands to fix it, among the hundreds of notices of violation a year that city inspectors dole out.

“They trusted what they signed on the lease was valid, and obviously it wasn’t,” said the family member of a renter who has to move out of a three-story multiplex after the landlord was caught renting to more than just the single family plus one family-related ohana unit occupant allowed in zoning.

Several renters, in units they say they didn’t know were illegal, were given a month and a half to find somewhere else to live.

“There needs to be some kind of advocacy, government advocacy for tenants,” the family member said.

The state Office of Consumer Protection, under the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, has a Landlord-Tenant Center. We took these cases to the OCP for review and asked, what’s wrong with what you see?

“A lot’s wrong with it,” said OCP executive director Stephen Levins, “and it’s probably one of the more obnoxious clauses that I’ve ever seen.”

He’s referring to a clause in the Palolo multiplex lease that says if the landlord is caught violating zoning laws, the tenant is out and the landlord’s not liable.

“That’s very troubling to have something in the contract that would indicate they’re violating the law going into this, and they’re basically telling the tenant, ‘Okay, I’m in violation of the law, anything bad happens, it’s your responsibility. I’m not taking any responsibility for this,’” Levins said.

“The law is what the law is,” Levins added, “and if the landlord is responsible for certain things, you can’t disclaim it and tell the tenant, ‘I’m sorry, the law doesn’t apply in this situation,’ because one, it’s unconscionable under the law, and two, it’s in violation of the landlord-tenant code, which makes these kind of provisions void on their face.”

That same clause in the Palolo lease also says the tenant knows the place doesn’t conform to zoning or building codes, but tenants told Always Investigating they didn’t know that was in there.

“Most people don’t read the fine print in contracts,” Levins said, “or the seller or landlord will give it to the tenant or buyer on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.”

A realtor who helped lease some units for this owner says it’s a standard clause reviewed by a lawyer, and that he didn’t know this particular house wasn’t up to code. He says that after going through this, he’s modifying his listing agreements with owners to say the landlord ensures any property is legally rentable.

Always Investigating asked the OCP, what rights do tenants have when they find themselves kicked out of a rental they didn’t know was illegal?

“Obviously, the devil is in the details on all of this stuff, but tenants certainly have the right, if they think they’ve been wronged by a landlord, to seek recourse at the court,” Levins said.

District Court handles frequent landlord-tenant disputes. Lots of times tenants go in without attorneys.

“The courts are actually very good in assisting tenants in navigating court processes,” Levins said.

Honolulu County notices of violation given to landlords who break the rules give 30 days to make things right. State law requires landlords to give month-to-month tenants 45-days notice to vacate, or honor a fixed-term expiration date.

People familiar with past violation-driven evictions say the county enforcers tend to be understanding in terms of the 30-day corrective period when it is in conflict with the timing left for a legal eviction.

Monetarily speaking, what should tenants be walking away with if they have to exit this kind of situation?

“The tenant should be able to get back what they provided to the landlord — the deposit of course. If they trash the place, that may be a different situation,” Levins said. Tenants should also expect to get back any prepaid or “last-month’s” rent for unused days.

But then, there’s the problem of where to live next on an island that has nowhere near enough housing for regular working folks. Neighbors say that’s no reason to look the other way.

Always Investigating asked big-house neighbors, to those who may say we’re always hearing about how much more housing is needed, isn’t this helping with housing inventory?

“I don’t think so,” said Glenn Kalopedes, who lives next to a Kaneohe big house under construction. He was told it’s going to be a four-plex. “It’s just all wrong.”

“I hate to say it, but renter beware,” said Wendell Hopkins, who also lives next to that home. “Same with the old buyer beware story? Same if you’re renting.”

The owner of the big house in question told Always Investigatng he plans to keep it single-family and sell it.

Always Investigating asked the OCP, how can tenants avoid finding themselves in this kind of situation in the first place?

“Well, it’s hard because there’s a lack of units out there,” Levins said. “The best thing a tenant can do is go in with their eyes open, read the contract carefully.”

Check out websites that list all county property, building permit, and zoning records. Check out a landlord or rental company’s history, if any, at District Court with rental disputes. You can also see the resources at the state’s Landlord-Tenant Center about what should or shouldn’t be in lease language.

Finally, ask the landlord straight up, is this place by the book?

“I would look at what their permit is and then I would check with the city,” said the family member of the Palolo rental. “It’s terrible you have to investigate your landlord like that, but apparently you do.”

“It’s almost heartless to put a tenant in a situation like this where you tell them, ‘Come on in, I’m going to rent you this thing illegally,’” Levins said. “There may be a strong possibility you’re going to have to leave, and where are they? They’re out in the street.”

Renters Resources Web Links

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