REDBOOK Blues – Just Seventeen

by Michael Payne, Allmark, AATC's Government Affairs Chair

Summer leasing season is upon us. Future residents have more daylight after work to shop for a new home. Many potential renters are busy with family and vacations, and some are interested in seeking a new home. When leasing gets super busy, we sometimes get lax in our screening processes. We take more risk.

One of the risks AATC members often face is what to do about seventeen-year-olds seeking to rent. Especially, sticky is the issue of teenage couples. Even more perplexing is what to do one is over eighteen and the other is seventeen are younger. Many AATC members have moral conflicts when it comes to renting to a teenage couple, even when their parents’ consent.

Should you rent to seventeen-year-olds and younger? What potential liability does a property owner/manager have in possible statutory rape situations? What if the couple has children or the teenager is pregnant? What about fair-housing? Fortunately, the REDBOOK has the answers to these questions.

Let’s look at the last question first – fair housing. Age is not one of the seven protected classes (race, color, sex, religion, national origin, disability, and family status). In other words, one of your rental criteria could be, you must be 21 years of age to rent a home at your community. When anyone (single, seventeen-year-old, teenage couple, mixed age couple, etc.) walks into your leasing office, treat them with the courtesy and respect you afford all potential residents.

If you do not address age in your rental criteria, rather than get flustered by an applicant’s perceived age, determine if they meet your other rental criteria (income, employment status, previous rental history, criminal history, credit, etc.) Texas law requires a property to make its rental criteria available to prospective residents in writing. Given all the issues surrounding disparate impact and resident screening, now is a great time to review your criteria. Applicants must sign an acknowledgment either on the criteria or on a separate document, such as a rental application.
Many times, prospects under eighteen will choose to end the leasing process at this early stage because they do not have the income, employment history, rental history, criminal background, etc. to qualify. Bottom-line—first determine if they qualify.

Let’s say the seventeen-year-old is a multimillionaire, teenage rock-star (in this case, offer to sell them the property). This is where the REDBOOK is your best friend. It says: “the age of majority in this state is 18 years.”  This law “declares that a minor is anyone under age 18. But there is no statute that says that a minor is not liable for his contracts. Instead, the doctrine of “minority” as a defense to contractual obligations was created purely by court decisions. Nonetheless, Texas courts have always held that a minor is bound by his contract for “necessaries.” The courts have held that “necessaries” include “board, lodging, wearing apparel, medicine, medical attendance, and education.” The minor is liable to pay if the contract’s for them.”

While minors can be held liable for rent and sign apartment leases, the REDBOOK does add the following caution. “It is usually safer not to rent to minors unless a guarantor is obtained on the lease (such as his parents.) This is because of the widespread (but incorrect) belief of many citizens and JPs that minors cannot be held liable on any contracts. It is, therefore, preferable to get the guaranty of a parent or guardian if you are leasing to a minor so that the temptation to assert or allow “minority” as a defense is minimized. Since a resident’s minority is not a defense to liability of the resident’s guarantor, the guarantor can always be held liable.”

What about minors with children or possible fair housing issues if a teenager is pregnant? The REDBOOK points out, “Under the law, a family consists of (1) one or more persons under 18; and (2) the parent or guardian of the minor . . . A parent under 18 is not disqualified from family status protection. A family also includes a single, pregnant female, including a teenager who is pregnant. “So, you have the risk of potential fair housing violations if you automatically reject everyone under eighteen-years-old. Again, does the pregnant sixteen-year-old qualify (income, employment, rental history, etc.)?

What about potential criminal and civil liability for knowingly allowing statutory rape? It is against the law in the State of Texas to have sexual relations or touching of any kind with a child who is under 17 years of age if you are more than three years older than the child or not the spouse of the child. A child under 14 cannot consent to sexual activity of any kind with anyone. Sexual assault of a child is a felony in Texas. Treat this situation like all potential criminal conduct, immediately contact local law enforcement. Police and the district attorney’s office are trained to investigate and prosecute such crimes.

You are not the police. So, if you have any concerns about potential criminal activity involving minors (human trafficking, prostitution, etc.) immediately contact law-enforce. Police are trained the investigate and handle these types of situation.

What about an authorized-occupant who is a minor? If you are informed or are aware that a minor is living at your property unauthorized, immediately contact the leaseholder of the unit in question and ask them about the situation. It could be as simple as adding the minor to the lease. If you suspect something other than proper intentions, you can hold the leaseholder accountable and, ultimately, evict the leaseholder. The TAA lease allows you to prohibit any guest from the property.

In summary, don’t let a minor headache become a major problem.