Landlord Responsibility After A Fire

A fire in your apartment unit or (anywhere in your building) can be a stressful, even life-changing event. Most residential fires (50%) are cooking and stove-top related, but others result from faulty or outdated electrical systems, smoking and candles, portable heaters, outdoor grilling and arson.

It is in both the landlord and tenant’s best interest to do everything possible to prevent fires. When fire occurs, it’s important to know your rights regarding when you can return to your home.

If you are forced to vacate after a fire, the law requires landlords to repair the damage and return the apartment to you in a timely manner.

When Can A Tenant Move Back In After a Fire?

The severity of a fire impacts the time it will take to make adequate repairs. In San Francisco, if you receive a written notice to vacate while repairs are done, your landlord must state the repair process is underway, and confirm you have a right to return when repairs are complete. Your landlord then has three months to complete repairs.

It is essential to provide your landlord with your new temporary physical address and your e-mail address so they can notify you about returning.

When repairs are complete, your landlord has 30 days to “make you whole” by offering your apartment back to you, by mail or e-mail, under the same terms and conditions you had before the fire. You then have 30 days to notify your landlord of your intent to return, and 45 days to move back to your unit.

What if My Landlord Does Not Complete Repairs in 3 Months?

Severe fire damage repair could legitimately take longer than 3 months, in which case an extension could be granted if the landlord demonstrates the delay is unavoidable but repairs are proceeding.  For example, the damage might require the landlord hire an architect to draft plans, this requires additional time.

Sometimes landlords take advantage of fire restoration projects to pursue unrelated cosmetic improvements like updating the floor plans of the apartments, or other projects considered to be elective. The San Francisco Residential Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Board will then review the extension request to determine if it is reasonable, and also consider the impact on tenants waiting to move back in.  Check with the Rent Board to see if the landlord even filed a Rent Board petition.  Also check the Department of Building Inspection website to see if the landlord even applied for permits to rebuild.  Or, is the landlord waiting until all the tenants move on so when repairs are complete no former tenant will move back into the building?

Keep track of these time delays by visiting your apartment building to check on the construction.  Talk with your neighbors about how the construction is proceeding.  Make it known to your landlord you intend to return. If the landlord requests an unreasonable extension, they might be asked to offer you alternative housing in other units, or provide other assistance to mitigate your financial hardship.

What if Repairs are Completed and The Landlord Rents to Someone Else?

Sometimes landlords deliberately extend the time it takes to make repairs, so they can “refresh” their tenant base by getting rid of low rent long term tenants and raise rents.  They may expect you to give up, lose interest in moving back to your home and move on.  Are other tenants in the building being invited back in to the building, but you are not?  Are new tenants living in your apartment, but you did not receive any notice from the landlord that repairs are complete?

You could now have a case for wrongful eviction. Did your landlord notify you on the proper timeline? Did you respond in a timely manner? Post-fire landlord-tenant negotiations can be very complicated. Contact an experienced tenant attorney to help review your situation.

Know Your Rights. Protect Yourself.

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Mary Catherine Wiederhold

Real Estate Attorney
1458 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA 94109

Mary Catherine Wiederhold
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