Ask a Tenant Attorney: Can My Landlord Install Surveillance Cameras?
Ask a Tenant Attorney is your chance to learn how to survive as a tenant in San Francisco. Each month Tenant’s Rights Attorney Daniel Wayne addresses a different issue for residential tenants. This month: your landlord’s right to put up surveillance cameras. For more information about Daniel and his firm, Wolford Wayne LLP, check out his website at www.wolford-wayne.com. Have a suggestion for a landlord-tenant issue you want Daniel to address in the column? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will pass it along!
Many longtime tenants are understandably wary when they see their landlord making changes around the building. Security cameras are often a harmless addition — but they can also amount to harassment or an invasion of privacy.
Can my landlord install cameras in my building?
Unfortunately for tenants with privacy concerns, the short answer is probably “Yes” if the camera is located in a common area. The law favors a property owner’s right to record because they have a duty to provide tenants with security. Common areas include laundry or trash rooms, hallways, and shared entryways.
BUT landlords cannot use a camera to monitor a tenant’s personal life. You have a right to privacy in your home. If a camera is pointed at your front door your landlord may be violating your right to privacy. Likewise, if a camera is trained on one of your windows/where a camera might look into the inside of your home. In these cases, the presence of the camera could constitute a breach of your right to quiet enjoyment or tenant harassment.
Similarly, tenants in SRO’s (residential hotels) and boarding houses have a reasonable expectation of privacy inside their own rooms and bathrooms. However, landlords in those types of buildings may install cameras in shared common areas such as kitchens, living rooms, storage areas, and hallways.
Note that your landlord has NO right to install hidden cameras in your unit, which is a serious violation of your right to privacy, and potentially a felony offense punishable by jail time.
Context is Everything
Context matters, and so does a landlord’s intent. A landlord may install cameras in common areas, or facing outward from a building, in order to deter break-ins or other criminal activity. Your landlord cannot, however, abuse this right. That includes monitoring or commenting on your comings and goings, visitors, or other legitimate uses of the property. In other words, how is your landlord using the recordings? Does your landlord call you every time you have guests over? Do they question you about getting home late at night, or having packages delivered? Are you the only one in the building subject to surveillance? If so, this could be landlord harassment.
So if My Landlord is Abusing Their Rights What Can I Do?
If you feel your landlord’s installation or use of cameras crosses the line make feelings known. First, consider writing your landlord. Ask that they remove or reposition the offending cameras. Even if you believe that your landlord won’t respond favorably to this request, it is important to send the letter – and to hold onto a copy. This does two things. First, it puts your landlord on notice that you feel your rights are being impeded, and it creates a record that you made a request and tried to work with your landlord to resolve your dispute. And second, it can be helpful evidence down the road if things escalate and you have to take legal action against your landlord.
Additionally, if your landlord is harassing you, consider keeping a journal of your interactions with your landlord. Save or print out text messages or emails and store them somewhere safe. If your landlord speaks with you in person or by phone, jot down some notes with the date, time, location, and substance of the communication. (For more info on landlord communications, check out my blog post on the topic.) Again, in the unfortunate event that you end up in court, these simple records will come in handy.
Tenant Harassment is Illegal
Refusing to remove cameras may be within your landlord’s rights. Tenant harassment is always against the law. The distinction between the two is sometimes blurry. Is the conduct ongoing, intentional, serves no legitimate purpose, has it caused you significant distress? If so you may want to speak to a tenant attorney. You may have grounds to sue for damages, a restraining order, or an injunction.