Understanding marina tenancy

I am a 72 year old retiree living aboard my 48 foot sailing yacht in Northern California. Last month I had a dispute with one of my neighbors about a shorepower cord, and several weeks later I was advised by my marina that my lease was terminated. This will create a severe hardship for me because I am scheduled to have surgery several days before the effective date of the lease termination. I asked the marina manager for more time but she refused. Can you help me?

We have addressed marina evictions in several previous installments of this column, and I am always saddened when I hear the stories that accompany the inquiries. But I simply have no good news for our readers on this issue.

My previous articles on marina evictions have generated quite a few comments from readers, including readers who are attorneys specializing in landlord — tenant law. They disagree with my conclusions regarding the limited nature of the remedies available to tenants who face eviction. But their comments reflect a misunderstanding of the nature of a marina tenancy. The bottom line is that a marina tenant, even a liveaboard tenant, is not renting a home.  He or she is simply renting a parking space for a home that they already own.

The California Fair Employment & Housing Act extends its protections (pursuant to Cal. Government Code sec. 12927)  to people who live in “Housing Accommodations.”  A Housing Accommodation is defined as “any building, structure, or portion thereof that is occupied as, or intended for occupancy as, a residence  . . .”  Notably, the federal Fair Housing Act (pursuant to its definition of “dwelling” in 42 U.S. Code sec. §3602) uses the same definition to describe the scope of its protection.

State and federal fair housing laws prohibit discrimination in housing for various reasons, but as noted above, a tenant must be living in a building or structure to be protected under those laws. Various court decisions have included boats within the definition of a building or structure, so if our reader lived aboard a rented boat he may in fact be protected by fair housing laws. But he is not living aboard a rented boat and that is not the typical scenario we face with a marina eviction.

Liveaboard marina tenants usually own their boat and as such they own the “structure” in which they are living. Since a marina tenancy concerns a parking space rather than a dwelling, boat owners are not protected by federal or state fair housing laws, regardless of whether federal maritime law applies to the tenancy.

The only real protections available to marina tenants in California are found under two very narrow legal concepts.  The first is California’s Floating Home Residency Law. This law does offer some tenant protections, but only if the boat qualifies as a Floating Home under the definitions set forth in the law. Among other very strict requirements, a “Floating Home” must have a permanent shoreside sewer connection and continuous water and power service. This means that it must have sewer pipes and permanent electrical power with a meter rather than hoses and a plug-in shorepower cord.

The only remaining area of protection for boat is the prohibition against retaliatory eviction, which exists for any rental arrangement. A marina may not evict a tenant solely in retaliation for the tenant’s exercise of a legal right. We occasionally see this sort of thing where a tenant complains to the police or other legal authority that a marina operator is participating in some form of illegal activity and the marina responds by evicting the tenant. But this is extremely rare.

At the risk of sounding unsympathetic to our reader and others in the same situation, and with all due respect to the attorneys who specialize in landlord — tenant law on dry land, state and federal law assume that people who live aboard a boat do so as a matter of choice rather than necessity. As such, liveaboards are not afforded the same protections as people who live in more traditional spaces. With that said, no two cases are the same, and anyone who is facing eviction should seek independent legal advice.

David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and, as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.

David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates (weilmaritime.com) in Long Beach. He is an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law at Loyola University Law School, is a member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States and is former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at 562-438-8149 or at dweil@weilmaritime.com.

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