Jesse Tree provides emergency rent assistance to individuals and families based in the Treasure Valley. (Mia Maldonado / Idaho Capital Sun)
Case managers and legal interns at Jesse Tree have discovered questionable and illegal clauses written in the leases of Treasure Valley tenants.
Jesse Tree is a Boise-based nonprofit whose mission is to prevent eviction and homelessness. It provides financial assistance and case management to households who are unable to pay rent. This summer, Jesse Tree’s legal interns conducted a project looking into the legality of their clients’ lease agreements. During the project, the interns came across many lease clauses that do not conform with Idaho code.
The rising costs of today’s housing market puts pressure on some prospective Treasure Valley tenants to sign a lease regardless of what is stated in the contract.
“There are leases with terms that we’re not sure if they’re illegal, but then there are some that are confirmed illegal,” said legal intern, Nicole Davidson.
Several of the lease clauses reviewed by the nonprofit are explicitly illegal under Idaho law, such as entering a property without properly notifying a tenant or shutting off utilities for missing a rent payment. The legal interns also found many leases with questionable rules such as charging fees on various ways of paying monthly rent.
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“About 40% of the 40 leases we have read have questionable clauses,” Jesse Tree legal intern Alex Silveira said.
With many leases ranging from two pages to 50 pages, many of these illegal and questionable lease clauses may be difficult to spot. The team at Jesse Tree is hopeful their findings will inform renters of what they should be aware of when signing a lease.
Unethical fee structuring
In their findings, the nonprofit staff found unethical fee structuring.
Except for a city ordinance limiting how much a property management company can charge for application fees in Boise, Idaho code does not limit rental fees. That means many property management companies in the Treasure Valley can charge up to a $500 flat fee for late payments or up to $50 per day. Jesse Tree also found property management companies that charge $50 for a rent check payment or a 4% fee for paying rent with a card, limiting tenants to pay by direct deposit.
DJW Property Management was one company found to have multiple questionable lease clauses, such as waiving a tenant’s right to trial by jury and having unethical fee structuring. Renters filed 13 complaints against the company in the past five years, according to records received through a public records request to the Idaho Attorney General’s Office. They described problems such as failure to return refundable security deposits, expensive move out fees and an inaccessible rent payment system.
The company declined to comment on this story.
One tenant described his frustration with the company in a complaint to the attorney general’s office after the company closed the staffed onsite office in Boise and required that tenants mail their rent to a P.O. Box address in Eagle. In his letter to the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, there were 12 signatures of fellow tenants who shared a similar experience, many of whom wrote that they are retired, veterans or terminally ill.
“A lot of the residents relied on the convenience of hand delivering their rent checks to the office,” the tenant said. “A lot of us are on fixed incomes with payday being on the third of the month, but rent is due on the fifth!”
With the stress of mailing in their rent to the offsite location, many tenants were not able to make payments on time. The tenant said in the complaint that the property management company would threaten eviction if the $50 late fee was not sent in immediately.
“For a disabled veteran or a senior citizen, to receive an eviction call, past due call or recieve a letter can feel devastating and embarrassing,” he said.
Mike Flanick, a property owner of apartment complexes in Boise, stepped in to advocate on behalf of his tenants after someone reported that the property management company was charging tenants extra fees to renew their leases and to pay monthly rent. In 2018, Flanick filed a complaint against DJW Property Management with the Idaho Attorney General’s Office.
Flanick said that he understood the financial strain of his tenants having to pay extra fees. The tenant who contacted him was a retiree working at a public school as a custodian.
“I think tenants know their rights, but they don’t have the resources to fight against it,” Flanick said. “I tried to help where I could, because as the property owner, I want the tenants to be happy and in good standing. I need good tenants just like they need a good place to live.”
Flanick still owns his three unit apartment complex in Boise, but he no longer works with the management company.
“What they were doing was criminal,” he said. “The company was not charging me directly, but they were hurting the tenants. I advised the tenants to go through Idaho Legal Aid because there are people who can help them.”
While Jesse Tree’s main focus is to help with rent assistance, it partners with other housing organizations in the Treasure Valley. When it comes to cases of evictions and tenant rights issues, Jesse Tree refers clients to Idaho Legal Aid.
Unethical fee structuring is one example of what Jesse Tree’s legal team discovered in their project. The legal interns also discovered lease clauses that go against the formal process of eviction under Idaho code.
What is the legal process for eviction in Idaho?
The Treasure Valley is now facing a surge in eviction rates. Depending on how busy a court is, the legal process for eviction can take from a week to a month.
Morgan DeCarl, the eviction court case manager at Jesse Tree, said that clients are misled by the language used in some three-day notices.
“The language that’s written in the notice is very misleading,” she said. “It states that it’s an eviction notice, and it says you have three days to pay or you must vacate the unit at the end of the three days. This leads people to believe that if they are not out in the three-day period, they are getting evicted and the process is over. They have no options or rights.”
DeCarl said that on average, the legal eviction process takes two weeks. After a landlord files for eviction with the court, the court must schedule a hearing and send a summons to the tenant to attend. Once the hearing happens, a judge must enter a judgment for eviction. Finally, the sheriff can come and remove a tenant’s property after 72 hours of court judgment.
Landlords cannot engage in self-help evictions. It is unlawful for a landlord to force a tenant out of a unit by themselves without going through the legal process. Landlords cannot shut off utilities, confiscate personal property or change the locks of a unit without going to eviction court.
Unlawful and questionable lease clauses in Treasure Valley rentals
Many lease clauses pressure tenants with high fees and personal consequences should they be late on a rent payment. However, landlords must follow the legal eviction process when a tenant does not pay rent or when there is a violation of the terms of their lease.
Confiscating personal property
Several property management companies have lease clauses stating that if a resident fails to pay rent, the landlord can detain and sell a tenant’s personal property. Other leases would charge tenants to put their items in a storage unit when rent is late. According to the Landlord and Tenant Manual under the Idaho Office of the Attorney General, it is unlawful for a landlord to confiscate the tenant’s personal property without following the formal eviction process.
Shutting off utilities
Similarly, several lease clauses in the Treasure Valley claim that landlords can turn off utilities including heat and water for failure to pay rent. Similar to confiscating personal property, this action is unlawful without going through the eviction court process.
Davidson said that lease clauses threatening to shut off utilities pose a health and safety risk to tenants who are struggling to pay rent.
“The clause about switching off utilities can be really dangerous depending on the time of year it is,” she said. “If a landlord switches off your heat for not paying rent, it can be really dangerous if it’s freezing outside and you have kids in the house.”
Property entry without notice
The team at Jesse Tree found lease clauses allowing the landlord to enter a unit without notice. Under Idaho law, a landlord cannot enter the premises without notice to the tenant. In the Idaho Landlord and Tenant Manual, claims to enter a unit without notice are even used as an example of an improper lease provision.
Waiving right to trial by jury
The nonprofit staff found clauses waiving a tenant’s right to a trial by jury or agreeing not to sue a landlord under any circumstance. However, tenants cannot be forced to waive their legal right to a jury trial.
“Tenants have a right to trial by jury in eviction cases in Idaho, and the right to sue a landlord for not fulfilling their rights and responsibilities,” Jesse Tree executive director Ali Rabe said in a press release.
Rabe said that many of the lease issues stem from large property management companies who are investor owned and operated outside of Idaho who come to invest in property because there is very little regulation.
With increasingly high housing costs and eviction rates, the case managers and legal interns are hopeful that their work will raise awareness on tenants’ rights and keep clients in their homes.
“I think the nature of Idaho being so in favor of landlords makes it really hard on the tenants to try to negotiate a lease, even if they do read it and see things that aren’t right,” Davidson said. “They are not in a great position to negotiate because it’s hard enough to find housing as it is. The landlord probably has other applications that won’t question their lease.”
In the current housing crisis, Jesse Tree urges Idaho tenants to closely read their lease and seek legal advice if they do have questions on the agreements.
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