How Tenants Can Protect Their Legal Rights in California’s HOT Rental Market

by | May 23, 2017 | LANDLORD TENANT | 0 comments

Recent statistics from the US Census Bureau show an average vacancy rate of 4% in the California rental market through the first quarter of 2017. In SoCal, both the Los Angeles and San Diego rental markets have seen a vacancy rate of 3.6% in 2017. Such low vacancy rates mean quick turn around time between tenants. Landlords rarely need to do more than place a few pictures on the internet and open the unit up for viewing. With the overabundance of renters and scarcity of available units, most apartments will be re-rented without so much as a good sweep in between tenants. Many property owners are happy to take advantage of this preferable market by neglecting their duties as landlords. However, as tenants paying for a habitable living environment, you should know that California law provides you with many rights, which landlords simply cannot ignore, no matter how favorable the current market may be.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prevents a landlord from rental discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin. Additionally, under the Common Law(Historical/Judge-made law), landlords have a duty: to deliver possession (of the unit), to maintain common areas, to disclose latent(hidden) defects, to provide a habitable premises, and not to breach the Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment. Each of these duties is legally provided by any California lease (whether written in the terms or not) and a breach of any duty is a violation of the lease on the part of the landlord.

Following is an overview of a landlord’s basic duties in the State of California.

DUTY TO DELIVER POSSESSION

The landlord has a duty to deliver possession of the unit, on the date specified in the lease agreement.  Delivery means that the landlord “makes the unit available” for the tenant, usually by providing a key to allow access. Generally, this duty also includes ensuring that the unit is not otherwise occupied by other tenants who would interfere with the new tenants’ right to the property. The premises must additionally be habitable, as discussed in detail below.

Failure to deliver possession on the agreed date is a breach of the landlord’s obligations under the lease. This breach subjects the lease agreement to termination and entitles the tenant to damages.

DUTY TO MAINTAIN COMMON AREAS

The landlord has a duty to maintain common areas in a reasonably safe condition. All areas outside the exclusive control of a tenant are considered common areas. Common areas can include hallways, elevators, lobbies, laundry facilities, stairwells, entryways, rooftops, patios, garages, and more. In general, these common areas must be kept clean, safe, and secure. While there are few strict guidelines regarding what constitutes “reasonably safe maintenance,” landlords can be held liable for conditions that are later found to be unsafe. In unfortunate circumstances, inadequate lighting, lack of security, and lack of proper cleaning/maintenance can have disastrous consequences including personal injuries or criminal activity. Landlords can be held liable, in the form of damages, for any injury a tenant suffers as a result of common area neglect.

Tenants should keep in mind that they are responsible for the repair of any damages that they or their guest have caused. Therefore, tenants should not attempt to report a landlord for any damages caused by the tenant.

DUTY TO DISCLOSE LATENT DEFECTS

California law provides certain protections, designed to alert tenants to potential threats to health, safety or comfort, by requiring landlords to provide prospective tenants with notice regarding a wide range of subjects. Landlords are legally required to disclose any hazards of which he/she knows or should reasonably know. Landlords are also required to disclose:

  • An address for delivery of lawsuit papers and other official notices
  • Name, Telephone Number, and Address of Person to whom you are to pay rent
  • Presence of any lead hazards or carcinogens (such as asbestos)
  • A list of all pesticides used, including a schedule of treatment
  • Prior methamphetamine lab contamination
  • The registration of any sex offenders
  • The prior death of any tenants within the rental unit
  • Any pending building demolition or condominium conversion applications
  • Any utilities shared by tenants and the manner of allocation
  • The known presence of mold exceeding exposure limits or posing a health threat
  • Any no-smoking policies
  • Any notices of default received (only buildings of 4-units or less)

This list is not exhaustive and only represents the most common landlord disclosures. Under special circumstances, landlords may also be required to disclose any hidden dangers that they either know or should know of. These disclosures can range from a slippery staircase to a loose plumbing fixture where the landlord has knowledge of a history of prior incidents.

DUTY TO PROVIDE A HABITABLE PREMISES

Every residential lease in California provides tenants with a Warranty of Habitability. This Warranty guarantees that the premises will be delivered and remain in habitable condition, or fit for living, throughout the term of the lease. The California Department of Consumer Affairs states that the minimum requirements for a habitable unit include:

  • Effective waterproofing/weatherproofing of roof, exterior walls, windows, and doors
  • Plumbing facilities, including hot and cold water, in good working order
  • Gas and/or heating utilities in good working order
  • Clean/Sanitary buildings and grounds, free from debris, filth, garbage, rodents, and vermin
  • Adequate trash receptacles in good repair
  • Floors, stairways, and railings in good repair
  • A working toilet, wash basin, and tub/shower in a private, ventilated room
  • A kitchen with a sink made of non-absorbent material
  • Natural lighting and ventilation in every room(window/skylight)
  • Safe fire/emergency exits with stairs and hallways free of litter
  • Operable deadbolts on all main rental doors and operable locks on all windows
  • Working smoke detectors in all units(for multi-unit buildings) and in common stairwells

Under California law, the landlord must repair any problems that make the property uninhabitable – except for problems caused by the tenant or the tenant’s guests, children or pets.

When the Warranty of Habitability has been breached, the tenant can take one of the following actions:

  • Move out immediately (within a reasonable time) and terminate the lease
  • Continue making payments under the lease and sue the landlord for damages in response to the breach of the Warranty of Habitability
  • Repair the condition and deduct the costs from any rent due (not to exceed one months rent)
  • Reduce or withhold rent until repairs are made or a court decides that rent is owed

(Funds must be held separately and be available should the court find that rent was due)

The Implied Warranty of Habitability cannot be waived.  Any lease term stating that the landlord has no duty to provide a habitable premises will be considered invalid.

DUTY NOT TO BREACH THE COVENANT OF QUIET ENJOYMENT

The Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment, which exists in every California lease, provides every tenant with the right to quiet enjoyment of the premises without the interference of the landlord. This covenant is breached by a landlord who seeks to wrongfully evict a rightful tenant in court.  This interference with the tenants use of the property constitutes a breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment.

In addition, when a landlord substantially interferes with a tenant’s use and enjoyment of the property, courts will often find a “constructive eviction.” A constructive eviction is usually found when the landlord’s interference with a tenant’s enjoyment is so severe that the property is no longer suitable for the purpose for which it was rented. However, many California jurisdictions have lowered this burden, finding a constructive eviction for relatively minor habitability violations. Consult with a local attorney to determine the applicable laws in your area.

A constructive eviction generally has 3 requirements:

  • The landlord acted wrongfully or neglected to maintain the premises so as to substantially interfere with the tenant’s enjoyment of the property.
  • The tenant gave the landlord notice of the problem and the landlord failed to take the necessary steps to remedy the situation within a reasonable time.
  • The tenant actually leaves the premises because of the interference.

Under such circumstances, the tenant is justified in treating the lease agreement as terminated and vacating the premises immediately.  The duty to pay rent, and all remaining duties under the lease are discharged as of the date the premises are vacated.  The tenant can also pursue the landlord in court for damages relating to the wrongful eviction.

However, tenants must exercise caution in effecting a constructive eviction.  If a court later decides that a tenant was not justified in vacating the premises, he/she may be liable to the landlord for any damages resulting from the early termination. Seek the advice of a local attorney before treating any lease agreement as terminated.

RETALIATION

Finally, a landlord has a duty not to retaliate against tenants for reporting a building/housing code violation. In general, any price increase, service decrease, or attempted eviction within one year of a complaint to a city building/housing code official will be presumed to be retaliation by the landlord.  This is true even if the landlord has otherwise valid grounds for seeking to evict the tenant. Seeking eviction in retaliation for a tenant exercising his legal rights constitutes an illegal eviction and subjects the landlord to an additional wrongful eviction suit.  However, a tenant’s obligation to pay rent is generally not forgiven, and so a landlord may seek eviction for failure to pay rent on time.

TENANTS BASIC LEGAL RIGHTS

According to the California Department of Consumer Affairs, all tenants have the following basic legal rights, NO MATTER WHAT IS STATED IN THE ACTUAL LEASE AGREEMENT.

  • Right to a security deposit refund, or a written accounting of how it was used, after you move
  • Right to sue the landlord for violations of the law or your rental agreement/lease.
  • Right to repair serious defects in the rental unit and to deduct certain repair costs from the rent, under appropriate circumstances (Consider consulting an Attorney).
  • Right to withhold rent under appropriate circumstances (Consult with an Attorney)
  • Rights under the warranty of habitability
  • Right to be protected against retaliatory eviction.

Regardless of the leverage that your landlord may seem to hold over you, all tenants are entitled to exercise their rights freely. If your landlord has violated their legal duty, there are several options available to you. Contact our office or a local attorney to discuss your rights and potential resolutions today.

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