Landlord and Renter Rights After a Wildfire

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Landlord and Renter Rights After a Wildfire

The article was first published Nov 10, 2017 and has been updated on 09/30/2020 with expanded information on current events and resources. 

The fires ongoing on the West Coast have left communities, families, and individuals devastated as they deal with the tragic aftermath.  

Between extreme weather and arsons, over 70 active wildfires raged along the West Coast in early September and most continue their devastation weeks later. 

These West Cost fires are destroying land and structures which come with at a hefty price. In Oregon alone, the estimated damage is estimated at a $100 million dollars. But more devastating are the injuries, loss of lives, loss of businesses, and housing across Oregon, California, and bordering states. 

In Southern Oregon at least 2800 structures, mostly housing, have been destroyed and with a continued heatwave and an underground wildfire may burn for months, Oregon is not in the clear. 

Creek Fire, one of the largest fires in California, spawned two firenados (known as a fire tornados) with 100 mile an hour winds that devastated the area. Oregon, Washington, and California have all reached out to FEMA with declared emergencies due to fires recently. 

IMPACT AND RECOVERY FROM THE WEST COAST FIRES 

As the western states begin recovery efforts to rebuild, concern has grown for who and how housing will be provided to families who have lost their homes.

State and federal resources are stretched thin, as floods, fires and hurricanes have gripped the nation and many states such as Oregon and California confront an unprecedented, statewide housing crisis. 

Meanwhile, many whose homes burned are finding their insurance policies won’t cover the cost of rebuilding. Others lack home or renter’s insurance altogether. 

This will have a huge impact on homeowners and investors, property managers, and tenants alike. Property managers and landlords need to be aware of their responsibilities to tenants who have been displaced, while tenants should also be aware of their own rights.

This article is written with the intent to provide guidance to renters, landlords, property managers, and investors for what do when your property was damaged in these most recent west coast fires. 

But as I am researching this article, I am blown away by the lack of information available on how to manage fire damage repairs for rental properties. While it’s obvious that homeowners insurance is the answer for a residence that currently lives in the home they own, it is very unclear for what happens to any displaced renters.

Renters will be looking to their landlords and property managers for information on where they can currently live if their home was damaged or destroyed by fire. And landlords, property managers, and investors will be looking for information about how to answer these tenant questions. 

Additionally, property managers need to work with owner clients to communicate repairs and their responsibilities for honoring or canceling lease agreements and how it will affect your clients’ rental income.

Here’s a look at some West Coast state-specific information and housing laws to help guide your decisions during this difficult time.

REGULATIONS REGARDING FIRE DAMAGE TO RENTAL PROPERTY

Again, there is a lack of information regarding the landlord’s responsibilities when rental homes are destroyed sans the Implied Warranty of Habitability. 

For example, California rental property owners and managers are required to uphold the Implied Warranty of Habitability to their renters. According to Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1941 A rental unit must be fit to live in; that is, it must be habitable. In legal terms, “habitable” means that the rental unit is fit for occupation by human beings and that it substantially complies with state and local building and health codes that materially affect tenants’ health and safety.

A renter’s right to an implied warranty of habitability is something I predict most renters will turn to when asking their landlords to provide temporary housing for them while rebuilding takes place. In fact, in California, if a tenant has to temporarily relocate for required maintenance and repairs, a tenant does not have to pay rent to his landlord during the time he is not able to live at the property.

But here is the big BUT…

If a property is totally destroyed, like those homes in Napa and Sonoma counties, the California Department of Real Estate states that a rental lease will terminate, the landlord does not need to provide temporary housing, and the tenant can stop paying rent.

If the premises are only partially destroyed (due to no fault of the tenant), the tenant may terminate the lease upon delivery of written notice to the landlord if a substantial portion of the premises is damaged or if a material portion of the premises necessary for tenant’s use is damaged.

Oregon has similar regulations regarding the Implied Warranty of Habitability but does not specifically address the lease termination process if the premise is uninhabitable. 

Because of the lack of information available, renters, investors, landlords, and property managers in affected areas are advised to seek licensed legal assistance in their area for more advice on their state’s rental laws.

Rentec Direct created State Landlord-Tenant Laws Resource Guides to serve as a starting point for renters, landlords, and property managers to understand their rights. 

West Cost guides can be found here:

NEXT STEPS | WHAT TO DO AFTER A WILDFIRE

Tenants
If your rental was destroyed in the fire, your landlord or property manager has hopefully communicated with you your rights and provided information about repairs, relocation, or lease termination.  

If you have renters insurance, your policy can help cover the cost of your belongings. 

The American Red Cross, FEMA, and several local non-profits have set up relief and recovery stations in the communities for displaced residents to find resources.

If you have been permanently displaced due to total property destruction, your options are leading towards finding new rental housing.

File a claim with your insurance provider is you purchased renter’s insurance. This will require you to make a list of what was destroyed and damaged. 

Check with your credit card company to see if the items purchased with the card might be covered for replacements. 

Landlords
What can landlords do when a wildfire damages a rental? Here is a list of best practices: 

Communicate with your tenants – Not only should landlords reach out to discuss the ending or modification of the lease, but also to discuss the tenant’s security deposit, and ask about their general wellbeing. 

Help tenants find housing – Provide resources to help your tenants connect with services such as the Red Cross and FEMA. Remember to check your state regulations as you may be responsible to cover the relocation costs. 

Collect rental property fire details, fire department final report

Contact your insurance company – Ask what information is needed to submit a casualty loss claim. You may also need to collect property fire details, fire department final reports, and other documents for your claim.  

Remind tenants to file a claim with their renter’s insurance provider. 

Secure the property – Ask your insurance carrier and law enforcement best practices for securing the property. You will likely need caution tape, no-trespassing signs, boards to board up doors and windows if still intact, and maybe consider installing a temporary security fence. Taking these steps may help keep squatters at bay and avoid someone from getting injured if they wander the property.

Order city and county inspections if you are able to rebuild or restore the home to obtain a certificate of occupancy releasing the property as habitable.

Contact your accountant to discuss write-offs for your uninsured losses. 

Secure the property – Ask your insurance carrier and law enforcement best practices for securing the property. You will likely need caution tape, no-trespassing signs, boards to board up doors and windows if still intact, and maybe even a temporary security fence. Taking these steps may help keep squatters at bay and avoid someone from getting injured if they wander the property.

Order city and county inspections if you are able to rebuild or restore the home to obtain a certificate of occupancy releasing the property as habitable.

Contact your accountant to discuss write-offs for your uninsured losses. 

DISASTER PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE

It’s never too early to plan for the unknown. If you don’t already have them in place, now is the perfect time to create a disaster preparedness plan, talk to your renters about renter’s insurance, and encourage them to plan for the unknown as well. 


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