There’s a landlord in Central, a small town in South Carolina, who is threatening to evict or double the rent on the wife of a U.S. soldier. The soldier is Army Sgt. William Bolt who has returned home for the holidays to be with his wife and their newborn baby, who live in an apartment under a lease signed by the wife, but not Sgt. Bolt. The lease prohibits guests from living at the apartment for periods longer than seven (7) days. Sgt. Bolt has been away from home for the past six months.
Is the landlord being an unpatriotic Scrooge?
Absolutely. Yes, he is.
The facts speak for themselves in this case. On moral grounds, it is hard to defend the landlord’s refusal to allow Sgt. Bolt to stay with his wife and newborn child, after serving and defending our nation, particularly during the holiday season.
Is the landlord within his rights?
Probably. South Carolina state law would control the legal issues of the case, but most states would turn to the contract between the parties to determine whether a tenant can allow guests to stay for extended periods of time. Here, that contract is the lease agreement signed by Sgt. Bolt’s wife.
Under Indiana law, a landlord can limit the amount of time guests can stay in a rental unit. In some cases, that is important in order to make sure that the tenant does not permit another family to move in and stay indefinitely. Having two families living in one rental units causes big problems. First, the tenant might trigger a zoning violation by having too many people living in one unit. Secondly, too much wear and tear usually results from having too many people in one living unit. Thirdly, the landlord should have a contract with every adult person living in his rental property, so that the landlord can seek redress in court against those adult persons. And finally, fire, health and safety concerns are implicated by having too many people living in one unit.
Of course, only one of these four issues is a legitimate concern in this case – Sgt. Bolt cannot be held liable under the lease, because he did not sign the lease. However, that is not a big issue here, because the landlord could not sue Sgt. Bolt while the soldier is on active duty, and Sgt. Bolt is leaving soon to return to duty. The only other legitimate concern might be that other tenants could complain that Sgt. Bolt’s wife is being given preferential treatment. However, as long as the landlord is not basing his decisions of the race, age, national origin, religiosity, sexual orientation or other protected class status of his tenants, then the landlord may treat tenants differently, particularly under circumstances like those of Sgt. Bolt.
The Easy Solution
It seems to us that there are two simple solutions for this landlord. The landlord could simply let Sgt. Bolt stay with his wife and newborn. After all, Sgt. Bolt has waited six months, while serving our nation, to see his family. And, it is the holiday season. Sgt. Bolt will be back on active duty soon enough. There’s no real harm.
Or, the landlord could have Sgt. Bolt personally guarantee the lease for any damages suffered by the landlord during the short time that Sgt. Bolt is staying in the living unit.
What About Your Lease?
If you are a landlord, there are three lessons to learn from Sgt. Bolt’s story-
- Review your lease form to determine how the lease addresses long-term guests that have not signed your lease agreement as tenants.
- Consider whether you should develop a written policy to give preferential treatment to members of our military, or others who serve the public away from family for extended periods of time. That policy might include a limited personal guarantee to cover situations like Sgt. Bolt’s situation.
- Remember that it often makes little sense to enforce a lease provision, when no harm would come of selective enforcement.