Ask a Maritime Attorney: What are my rights as a liveaboard?

Question:

I am having a dispute with my marina. I am a legal liveaboard and I have been in and out of the hospital a lot over the past year, but I have paid my monthly slip fees like clockwork. Last month I received a 30-day notice to vacate my slip but no reason was given for the eviction. I know I have rights as a liveaboard, but I would think they would need to give a reason for the eviction regardless of my liveaboard status, especially in a case like mine where I am not delinquent with my slip rent. What are my legal options in a case like this where my rights have obviously been violated?

Answer

I have authored this column regularly since 2006, and during that time I have been asked to address this question over and over. The answer remains the same. The bottom line is that our reader can’t do anything to protect his rights because, based on the information provided, nobody is doing anything to violate his rights. It may be time for a refresher.

The concept that people seem to have the most trouble grasping is the characterization of a slip rental agreement as a storage agreement for personal property. In other words, a boat owner, even a liveaboard boat owner, is not renting a home. He or she is renting a parking space and nothing more. It is a place to store your stuff.

Marina tenancies are generally characterized as a form of commercial tenancy, even if the boat owner lives aboard the boat. The tenancy falls somewhere between a rented storage garage and a space rental at a mobile home park, though unlike those two arrangements California law does not specifically address a marina tenancy.

Most of the laws that restrict the behavior of a landlord in California and in other states are limited to “dwelling units,” and the definition of that term clearly does not extend to a boat.  And at least one court has held that “the right to dock  one’s boat at a particular berth or marina cannot be equated with the right to decent low-cost housing even if one chooses to live aboard the boat.”

As a commercial tenancy, the consumer protections that are available to residential tenants are generally not available to marina tenants, and a month-to-month slip lease may be terminated – without cause – on 30 days’ notice. This is exactly what happened in our reader’s case. He is suspicious about the basis for the eviction because the marina refused to give him a reason, but the marina is not required to give a reason. It is important to note that this is not a one-sided arrangement and that both parties to the agreement – the boat owner and the marina –  are each free to terminate the lease on 30 days’ notice without providing a reason.

Our discussions with boat owners inevitably lead to a discussion of California’s Floating Home Residency Law (Cal. Civil Code §800). However, this law applies only where the vessel has a permanent sewer connection (i.e. a pipe actually plumbed into the city sewer system), and where at least 10 percent of the slips in the marina are occupied by these types of vessels. As such, the application of this body of law is mostly limited to several areas of San Francisco Bay- particularly in Sausalito.

The one area of protection that boat owners share with their friends who are renting a landlocked home is the prohibition against retaliatory eviction. 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 reports a marina operator for some form of illegal activity taking place on marina property and the marina responds by evicting the tenant. But this is extremely rare.

Based on the information provided by our reader, it appears that he was properly served with a notice of termination of his month-to-month slip rental agreement. If he refuses to leave the slip after the expiration of the 30-day period he will become a trespasser, at which point the marina may take steps to physically evict the boat, regardless of his liveaboard status.

We always encourage readers to contact an attorney if they have a case similar to the cases we discuss in this column. Here, it is especially important to work with an experienced maritime attorney, since the law in this area differs so much from residential landlord-tenant law.

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 (www.weilmaritime.com) in Seal Beach. He is certified as a Specialist in Admiralty and Maritime Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization and a “Proctor in Admiralty” Member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States, an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law, and former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at 562-799-5508, through his website at www.weilmaritime.com,  or via email at dweil@weilmaritime.com.

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