Can a renter be held responsible for violating the San Bernardino Municipal Code?

By Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law

Can a renter be held responsible for violating the San Bernardino Municipal Code related to property maintenance?  The short answer is yes.

When I was a Deputy City Attorney for the City of San Bernardino, I prosecuted many renters for property maintenance violations.  The City of San Bernardino’s property maintenance ordinance is found codified in Chapter 15.24 of the San Bernardino Municipal Code.

“Maintenance requirements for single family residences, multiresidential, commercial and industrial property. Any person owning, renting, occupying, managing, or otherwise having charge of any single family residence, multi-residential, commercial and industrial property shall maintain the property in accordance with the following minimum standards. Failure to comply with these minimum standards shall constitute a violation of this Code.”  San Bernardino Municipal Code section 15.24.040, emphasis added.

Often, a criminal defendant or someone who had been served an administrative citation or who had a notice of violation would ask why the City was prosecuting the renter instead of the owner.  The reply was that the City had the power under the Code to charge the renter or occupant.

Some people would say that their rental agreement or state law required the owner or landlord, or landlord’s agent to maintain the premises.  Those people (including lawyers) would be told, either by city lawyers, or by the administrative hearing officer, that those were legal obligations between the landlord and the tenant, not between the City and the tenant (or for that matter, between the City and the landlord).

What is the public policy behind this ordinance? The City of San Bernardino wants code compliant properties.  They seek to find the party most likely to bring about the transformation from code deficient to code compliant.  Often, that is the person actually living at the property, not the out-of-town or out-of-state landlord.  Sometimes, both the landlord and the tenant are cited.  It may not seem fair for the tenants are responsible, especially if there are contractual terms that require the landlord to provide property maintenance. However, the ordinance provides that the City can cite the tenant.

When I was a Deputy City Attorney, section 15.24.040 only applied to single family properties and duplexes and triplexes.  In 2009, (after I had become Assistant City Attorney for the City of Redlands) that section was merged with 15.24.050, which applied to commercial, industrial and multi-family residential properties.  I would suspect that tenants are not being cited for algae-covered pools in large complexes.  I would expect that there would be a defense to such a citation.  A much closer case would be a situation where an out-of-town landlord has designated one of the tenants as their “on-site manager” in exchange for a reduction of rent.  Often these people do not have apparent or express authority to make changes to the property, and they certainly do not have the means to make changes.  Arguably, if cited, those tenants were not managing or have real charge of the property, they were just the face of the landlord at the property, so that the landlord did not have to deal directly with the other tenants.

Therefore, for tenants faced with code enforcement citations or penalties in the City of San Bernardino, there is no defense of “just a tenant” to Chapter 15.24 violations, at least not in single-family residences.

The information you obtain at this blog is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is established by reading or commenting on this blog.  You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.
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