Restrictive Covenant Prohibiting Rentals to College Students Upheld

The SPUR at Williams Brice Owners Association, Inc. v. Lalla, No. 2013-001479.

In this recent Court of Appeals ruling, the Court affirmed the lower court’s holding that a restrictive covenant prohibiting the lease of condominium units to students unrelated to the unit owners was valid.

The Association filed the original action as a covenant enforcement suit and declaratory judgment action seeking determination from the court whether the covenant was enforceable and whether the Lallas were in violation. The covenant at issue provided as follows:

The rental of any unit to any student currently enrolled in a two (2) or four (4) year college, institute, or university is strictly prohibited. Additionally, any tenant of any unit shall be prohibited from having any roommate that is enrolled in a two (2) year or four (4) year college, institute or university. Any tenant in violation of this Restriction shall have their lease automatically terminated and shall have thirty (30) days to vacate the Unit.

The Master Deed goes on to create an exception for the children or grandchildren of unit owners who are students and authorizes them to reside with one other student roommate.

The Lallas argued that the covenant should be overturned based on the following grounds: (1) it is unreasonable and unenforceable; (2) it violates the Equal Protection clauses of the South Carolina and United States Constitutions; (3) it violates the Federal Fair Housing Act and South Carolina Fair Housing Laws; (4) it should be nullified on the basis of changed economic conditions; and (5) the Association waived the right to enforce the covenant.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that the covenant should be upheld as enforceable as it is binding on the unit at issue and the Lallas failed to demonstrate the covenant discriminates against a protected or inherently suspect class. Neither the Federal Fair Housing Act nor the South Carolina Fair Housing Laws recognize students as a protected class. Both laws protect against discrimination on the basis of familial status, which means a person under 18 being domiciled with a parent or someone with legal custody or the designee of such parent or person having legal custody. The court held that this classification was “wholly unrelated” to the rental restriction at issue.

The court succinctly stated its holding as follows:

[W]e find no error in the circuit court’s ruling that when the [Lallas] became owners of a unit in [The SPUR], they voluntarily and intentionally bound themselves by the restrictive covenants barring the rental of any unit to college students who are unrelated to the unit’s owner. Accordingly, we affirm the circuit court’s ruling that the rental ban provision of the restrictive covenant is binding upon the Lallas.

Emphasis added.

This site and any information contained herein should not be construed as legal advice. Seek a competent attorney for advice on any legal matter.

Use Caution When Reviewing Leases

Many governing documents provide the association with the authority to review and either approve or deny the leases of community members. This authority can be helpful in that the association can ensure the lease document complies with the association’s governing documents, the association can have a record of the new tenant’s name and contact information, and the association can be sure that the number of units or homes leased does not exceed a set percentage if there is such a requirement in the governing documents.

However, with this authority comes great responsibility. Associations must use caution not to violate the Federal Fair Housing Act when reviewing leases.  By enacting a reasonable policy for lease reviews and applying it evenhandedly to all leases, the association can avoid the pitfalls of discrimination complaints.

A tenant cannot be rejected on the basis of her race, color, religion, age, sex, ethnicity, national origin, family status, or handicap. If the tenant participates in the Section 8 Voucher Program, denying the lease could be a violation of the Fair Housing Act on the basis of disparate impact. Similarly, conducting criminal background checks for tenants may also be a disparate impact violation under the Fair Housing Act in some circumstances.

The best approach for community associations is to formulate and enact a reasonable leasing policy and stick with it. Making exceptions in some cases and not others can open the door to litigation.  Leasing policies should focus on length of the lease and compliance with the governing documents rather than the background and identity of the tenant. However, having the tenant’s contact information and a copy of the lease on file will promote better communication within the community. 

This site and any information contained herein is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Seek a competent attorney for advice on any legal matter.