CITY HALL —  What you don’t know can hurt you.

That seemed to be the message of the day after last week’s Rent Control Board meeting in which Commissioner Robert Kronovet tried to explore the concept of requiring renters with pets to get renter’s insurance, including cases of service animals.

Renter’s insurance is a policy that tenants can take on to provide property and liability insurance to protect against theft, damage and certain kinds of lawsuits.

First of all, asking tenants with service animals to carry the insurance for those pets is not legal, the board’s attorney Stephen Lewis was quick to point out.

In the case of service animals, like seeing eye dogs or “emotional support animals,” it’s actually against state and federal law for a landlord or anyone else to require that a tenant spend more money on provisions for the pet, be it an additional security deposit or something like renter’s insurance.

“You can advise tenants to get such insurance, but you cannot require that a policy of insurance be purchased,” Lewis said.

More generally, it would be fine for a landlord to require new tenants to carry the insurance as part of the lease.

“It’s not uncommon, and it’s a good idea because renter’s insurance is fairly affordable,” Lewis said.

Affordable, and it also covers some fairly unexpected things, said Pete Moraga, spokesperson for the Insurance Information Network of California, or IINC, a nonprofit, non-lobbying media relations organization supported by the property-casualty insurance industry.

“It covers your belongings and gives you liability coverage,” Moraga said.

If that doesn’t sound important enough, consider this, Moraga said.

When an apartment building burns down or some other kind of damage occurs, a landlord’s insurance only covers the physical structure, not belongings of individual tenants.

That means your television, stereo system, computer, smartphone and other pricey devices are at risk, he said.

“Most renters are under misinformation and think that the landlord will cover them if something happens to the building,” Moraga said.

As Kronovet tried to imply, Fido can be an even bigger problem.

In 2011 alone, dog bites cost insurers $479 million nationwide, or roughly one-third of all liability claims.

California accounted for $92.7 million of that total, with 2,400 claims statewide. The average amount per claim came in at $29,396.

“That’s sobering,” Moraga said.

In a practical sense, renter’s insurance protects both the tenant and the landlord.

Landlords can be included in dog bite lawsuits, even in situations over which they had no control.

“If you don’t have the insurance, even though it’s your dog because it’s in the building that’s owned by the landlord they can be included in these lawsuits,” Moraga said.

That was part of Kronovet’s motivation to get the board to at least discuss the item last Thursday.

“It still has teeth, it’s still a danger,” Kronovet said of service animals in advance of the meeting. “How can an owner be liable if he has no power?”

On Thursday, he couched it in more tenant-friendly terms, characterizing the insurance as a way to protect tenants against unknown dangers.

Although none of his fellow board members seconded his motion, which should have precluded conversation on the item, the board spent 12 minutes going back and forth between Lewis’ legal advice and Kronovet’s attempt.

“I don’t think it’s a Rent Board issue,” said Chair William Winslow.

Boardmember Todd Flora was slightly more charitable, acknowledging the need to think outside the box in order to best address the various needs of renters in the community.

“We’ve already made progress on this simply in having the discussion,” Flora said.

 

ashley@smdp.com

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