It’s almost time for New Year’s resolutions. Along with pledges of extra hours at the gym, you ought to be thinking about how to resolve your housing situation. Come Jan. 1, the City of Fort Collins will begin enforcing the “Three Unrelated Rule.”
Exactly what is allowed? Occupancy is restricted to one family, plus one additional person – or – two adults and their dependents, plus one additional person. “Family” means any number of persons who are related by blood, marriage, adoption, guardianship or other duly authorized custodial relationship.
Violations are civil, not criminal, but the fines are stiff: $1,000 per person (tenants and landlords) for each day the violation continues. Houses that have officially been designated “Boarding Houses” are excepted from the rule, as are a few properties that were pre-approved for four tenants. (Ram’s Crossing, The Lofts at Campus West, Ram’s Point and Ram’s Village)
How likely are you to be fined $1,000 per day? While the City Council hasn’t yet passed a final ordinance on the enforcement process, officials have publicly outlined their intentions. They say that for a first violation, you will be given “reasonable time” to correct the situation. If you correct within this time, no citation or fine will be given. Staff from the Neighborhood Services Office says that “reasonable time” will probably be 30 days and the first fine (second violation) will probably start at $500 and go up for subsequent violations.
Officials also say that the enforcement officer will not patrol for violations but will respond to complaints. Anonymous complaints will not trigger an investigation – the city will only send a notice and informational materials. For full complaints, where the complainer identifies himself and provides supporting information, the city will make an investigation.
The enforcement officer will ask the owner for a copy of the “Occupancy Limit Disclosure” form that your landlord should have given you to sign when you entered into the lease. Your landlord can be fined for not having this form, but, while there is some ambiguity in the City Code, it isn’t likely that you will be fined for lack of this form.
Next, the enforcement officer will probably want to get inside your home. The ordinance pending before City Council requires the officer to present proper credentials and request entry from you. If you refuse, the officer can seek an inspection warrant from the Municipal Judge, and I believe the warrant will be easy to get. You must allow entry when there is a warrant, or you are guilty of a misdemeanor.
What if you’re not home when the officer comes calling? The proposed ordinance is unclear. It says that if the building is “unoccupied” the officer shall make reasonable effort to locate the owner or “other persons having charge or control of the building” and request entry. I don’t consider being away from home to mean the dwelling is “unoccupied,” but an officer or judge might. Thus, it’s possible the officer will locate your landlord and your landlord will let the officer in. Another possibility is the officer goes straight for the warrant and gains entry with the warrant, with or without your presence.
We’ve come to the scariest part of all of this. If a neighbor calls the police and says they suspect I have illegal drugs in my home, I don’t think that is enough to support a search warrant, given the Fourth Amendment. But if a neighbor complains to the city about the number of cars regularly parked in front of your home, this might be all it takes for an enforcement officer to obtain a warrant to enter your home to count beds and toothbrushes.
Depending on timing, you might not have any notice and you might not be there when the inspection takes place. And though the officer isn’t there to look for drugs, if he sees them, you can bet he won’t ignore them. What started out as a civil matter could turn criminal.
What about defenses? Depending on your religious beliefs, you might consider that we are all related by blood and marriage dating all the way back to Adam and Eve. The ordinance in no way defines the degree of relatedness required, and it is silent on what sort of proof of relationship will suffice. Will you need “official” genealogy trees from Salt Lake City archives or is it enough to assert that you and your housemates are third and fourth cousins?
What is clear, is that if you’re appealing a finding of violation to a Municipal Court Referee, you testify under oath and subject yourself to perjury charges if you lie.
So, what exactly should your New Year’s resolution be? The best course is to come into compliance. Collaborate with your housemates and landlord to reach a solution where you reduce tenants to three and adjust the rent. If you can’t reach an agreement, it’s my opinion you can break the lease without liability for future rent as long as your landlord was in on the deal. Courts don’t enforce illegal contracts, so if your landlord knew there would be more than three in the dwelling (whether all were officially on the lease or not), I don’t believe a judge would hold you to the lease.
I do not advise you to break the law. If you are thinking of staying in an over-occupied situation, make sure you first weigh your risks. Draw a line down a sheet of paper and list your “good facts” on one side and “bad facts” on the other.
BAD FACTS: Not friendly with neighbors; past complaints about noise; lots of students on the block.
GOOD FACTS: Quiet street with few students; friendly with neighbors and even shovel their walks; no previous complaints; the extra housemates will graduate soon so you don’t intend to keep the status quo for long.
Make sure you also take into account your need for peace of mind. How well do you sleep waiting for an inspector to come calling? What might an inspector find that could get you into bigger trouble? How easy will it be for you to move out quickly?
Next column I’ll discuss whether there are possible court challenges to the ordinance itself that might be winnable.
This column is provided by Student Legal Services. It appears every other Monday in the Collegian. To learn more about the services offered by SLS or to make an appointment, visit the office in Room 182, Lory Student Center, and visit the Web site at www.sls.colostate.edu.