Arizona Tenants Union fights vigorously to enforce the rights of tenants who are having problems with their landlords.  One of the reasons we are able to be effective at this is that we have developed protocols for almost all types of situations.  If you’re having a personal issue with someone in management, we recommend that you send a formal demand requesting repairs, no matter what they are, because then any subsequent action against you taken by the landlord is presumed to be retaliatory.  If you receive a 10-day notice to cure, we recommend that you answer it, even if you think you’ve straightened out the problem with the landlord, because you don’t have the right to cure the same violation a second time.  Only by challenging the first notice to cure can you force the landlord to litigate both alleged instances of lease violations if they take you to court on the second one.  If you need to terminate your lease, we look for every single technicalities that allows you the remedy of lease termination because we know we need to overwhelm the landlord with demands to be effective.  We understand that’s the only way to keep the landlord from complying (or pretending to comply) with the single issue that actually is your problem.  If you did not get a full refund of your security deposit, we know to have you send an initial demand letter all over again before you go forward on a lawsuit because most tenants don’t do this properly and the law does not require the landlord to return the security deposit until a demand is made.  In short, by being practitioners in tenants rights, we know how to go beyond the language of the statutes and put the tenants in an actual position where they can win.

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But when it comes to tenant-on-tenant disputes, it puts us in an awkward position.  These types of disputes take on many different forms, but usually there is not a correct way to deal with it and preserve tenants rights across the board.  Sometimes tenants don’t get along: one tenant wants to break his lease and the other doesn’t.  It would be easy for us simply to sign the one tenant up as a member and then help him, as we do all members.   But that leads to a contradiction: leases are almost always constructed so that all the tenants have “joint and several” liability for the rent.  This means that the landlord can go after either tenant, usually whichever is easiest.  If we help one tenant break his lease, we put the other tenant in a position of weakness with respect to the landlord.  He’s the one who remains and he’s the one who the landlord generally is going to go after for the rent.  Normally, we don’t question the reason a tenant wants to break his lease: it may be that the underlying purpose has nothing to do with a bad landlord; the tenant just wants to move in with his girlfriend.  But it is not our place to judge our clients’ reasons for wanting to do what they do.  We are not neutral arbiters; we are on the side of tenants, and if the landlord is out of compliance with its responsibilities, we’re going to take them to the task, even if tenant is not operating in the best of faith.  That ‘s the only way to force landlords to follow the law and to build a tenants movement.

So what are we supposed to do when one tenant asks us for help against another tenant.  Do we represent him because he got to us first?  What if the other tenant calls us five minutes later?  Do we make a judgment call on the situation and decide who is right or who “deserves” our help?  Do we want to be involved in tenants fighting tenants, when that plays into a landlord strategy of divide and conquer?

A situation came into our office recently which really underscored this problem.  A woman was evicted and contacted us, requesting help recovering her security deposit.  She joined as a member, paid her dues, and we started the process by writing a letter on her behalf.

Shortly thereafter we got a call from another tenant who is a member of the tenants union, and who complained that she rented out a room in her apartment and the new tenant was not paying rent.  Now, she was in a landlord/tenant relationship with that tenant and was the landlord in that situation.  However, she was also a member of the union.  I wrote a letter for her to give the delinquent roommate demanding the rent.

Well, lo and behold, it turned out the delinquent roommate was the one who we were helping recover her security deposit.  And she called us too, asking for help against her roommate who, she said, was asking for rent that she wasn’t required to pay.  Suddenly we found ourselves in a conflict of interest situation.  We had no way of knowing that a tenant member from one situation would find herself having a problem with a roommate who was also a member in another situation.  But that’s what happened: two members wanted our help fighting the other.

It did not work out well.  Both sides thought we sold them out.  We gave refunds of their membership dues – but why should we have had to do that?  Every time we lose a member we weaken the union.  Moreover, at least one of the tenants was actually interested in doing further work with us advancing the cause of tenants’ rights.

The end of the story is that we have made a policy decision not to represent tenants who are in disputes with other tenants, even if one is a member and the other isn’t.  It’s too complicated and contradictory.  We have enough contradictions in the movement to deal with as it is: tenants who break their leases are, in effect, giving the landlord a free pass.  And sometimes if we help an individual with his or her problem she loses the motivation to go around and knock on doors and get a meeting together of tenants who share the same problem.  A situation like this is particularly ironic because often the only way the tenant can really get what she is entitled to is by banding together with the other tenants and exerting their strength in numbers.  Yet this is a slow process and it can leave the underlying problem about which the first tenant called us unresolved.

But there is another end to the story.  Don’t fight each other; ORGANIZE!  If you’re having a problem, even if it’s with another tenant and the landlord won’t do anything about it, call us and we will see if we can’t solve it by getting the tenants together in a group.  We will go around with you and knock on doors with you and try to get a meeting set up.  Who knows, maybe the problem tenant will come to the meeting and the issue will resolve itself.  Or maybe that tenant is selling drugs or engaging in other criminal activity and by banding together you can exert real pressure to have the situation dealt with.  In any event, join the Arizona Tenants Union.  Make the tenants’ movement in Arizona real.

As Benjamin Franklin said, if we don’t hang together, we hang separately.