Ask a Maritime Attorney: Am I protected by the new COVID-19 relief laws?

Question:

Under Maritime Law, how much notice must a marina give prior to increasing slip rates?  My marina notified me that my rent will increase next month, and they are also increasing their security deposit. Can they charge me a new rate and increase the deposit on short notice like this or am I grandfathered in? Am I protected by the new COVID relief laws?

 

Answer

We field a lot of questions for this column, but the most common questions, by far, concern the relationship between boat owners and their marina. Many of the questions raise new issues but regular readers of this column will see a common thread: The various laws that protect apartment dwellers simply do not apply to boat owners who rent a slip in a marina, even if they live aboard their boat.

A slip rental agreement is, as our reader suggests, a maritime contract. But what does that mean? Maritime law is simply a set of legal rules, concepts, and processes that relate to navigation and commerce by water. But it does not cover every aspect of nautical commerce, and where it is silent, state law may step in to fill the gap. For example, the foreclosure of a maritime lien that may arise from a failure to payslip rent would proceed under maritime law principles.  But the slip rental contract is prepared according to California state law and it may provide remedies that circumvent the procedures used under maritime law.

So what does California law say about a slip rental agreement? Not much. California has enacted a number of tenant protection laws over the past few years, including both general protections relating to rent increases and evictions and laws that are specific to COVID. But these laws do not apply to marina tenancies. Most of the statutes that provide protection to renters in California are set forth in sections 1940 through 1954 of the California Civil Code.  Section 1940 specifically limits those protections to persons who rent “dwelling units” in California. Dwelling units are then defined as a structure on real property.

A boat is not a structure on real property. More to the point, a boat slip is not a structure on real property. Marina tenants who live aboard their boats are not renting their homes. They own their home and are renting a parking space. There are no statutes or regulations enacted in California that specifically apply to a slip rental agreement.

We should note that California has an interesting set of laws that regulate a similar environment. The California Mobilehome Residency Law (Cal. Civil Code sec. 798) regulates occupancy, rental, and eviction procedures relating to mobile homes in California. A mobile home park is similar to a marina, in that the tenant owns the unit but rents a parking place. But as noted above there is no specific set of laws dealing with a marina tenancy.

So with this in mind, is there any legal framework that controls the rights and remedies of the parties in a marina tenancy? The answer is “yes,” but we need to refer to general contract law.  Slip rental agreements are month-to-month commercial contracts for the rental of a patch of water with an adjacent dock. Month-to-month agreements may be terminated or modified – by either party – on 30 days’ notice. This means that the boat owner may terminate the tenancy by providing 30 days’ notice. But of course, the more problematic event is when the marina exercises this right, similar to the problem faced by our reader.  Returning his question, the marina is free to raise the rent and the security deposit at any time, so long as they provide 30 days’ notice to their tenants. And there are no “grandfather” rights.

Boat owners don’t have a lot of options when faced with a slip rent increase or an eviction. Contact an experienced attorney if you are faced with any of these issues.

 

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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