My Landlord Has Different Pet Policies For Different Units. Is That Legal?
Here's a landlord-tenant question that's a little different. Suppose you move into a residential rental property and the landlord tells you "no pets." Some time later, someone else moves in, and the landlord lets them bring their cats. Is the landlord allowed to treat different tenants differently in this way?
Or, imagine the nightmare scenario--after years of hard work and saving, you one day buy an income property, only to find yourself sued by a tenant who thinks he's entitled to six figures in damages because you let someone else have a pet and not him!
Such a claim would almost certainly lack merit. I'm not aware of any legal authority that says a landlord has to give equal pet-related lease terms to tenants. Tenants in different units in the same building commonly have different terms--different lease periods, lower or higher rent, etc.--and the vast majority of the time, this isn't a problem for the landlord. Not every unit is the same, and it's reasonable for landlords to treat different units differently.
We can expand on this a little by generalizing it beyond landlord-tenant pet policies. It often happens that one unit in a building is somehow better or worse than another. In such cases, it's reasonable for the landlord to charge a different rent amount. The law doesn't, and shouldn't, require landlords to charge equal rent for every unit in the building, especially when one is a three-bedroom with a view and beautiful hardwood floors, and another is a one-bedroom with old carpet and bare-bones accessories. Just like it's legal for a landlord to charge different rent for different units in the same building, it's legal for a landlord to allow pets in one unit but not another. This could be perfectly logical: maybe the landlord is comfortable with pets in a unit that has waterproof laminate floors, but not in a unit that has white carpets.
However, a landlord can't treat tenants unequally based on an unlawful motive such as discrimination or retaliation. The landlord isn't required to give equal terms to all tenants in a flat-out, universal way. But if the reason for the unequal treatment is a discriminatory or retaliatory motive--for example, because the tenant is of a different ethnicity or national origin, or because she complained to the landlord or Code Enforcement about something wrong with the unit--that could be unlawful and may lead to a viable claim. I could see a successful lawsuit alleging, for instance, that a large management company allowed white tenants but not Latinos to have dogs in their apartments. Since it's hard to prove racial prejudice, the plaintiffs would probably have to prove a racially discriminatory motive using data such as statistics on what ethnicities the tenants are and which leases contain a "no pets" term.
Beyond pet issues, landlords and tenants alike should especially be aware of California Civil Code section 1942.5 on retaliation and related issues. If you're interested in digging into the landlord-tenant statutes, that's a good place to start: landlords sometimes make crucial mistakes in this area and end up with significant liability for retaliatory eviction.
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