California Tenants Bill of Rights

By Mary Gallagher
Tenant rights are incorporated in law and settled in court
Legal Law Justice image by Stacey Alexander from

According to the California Department of Housing and Community Development, about 7 million households in the state are renters. This amounts to over 40 percent of California's population. A host of California laws serve to protect renters. Together, these might be referred to as the tenants' bill of rights.

A Safe Harbor

A number of tenant right laws have to do with making sure the rental unit is safe and secure. A landlord may own the property, but he cannot barge in on a tenant on a whim. In fact, a landlord can only enter a unit when there is an emergency, after the tenant has moved out or abandoned the unit, to make necessary or agreed-upon repairs, to show the unit to a prospective tenant, purchaser or lender, conduct an inspection before the end of a tenancy, to inspect smoke detectors or a waterbed or as a result of a court order.

Except in an emergency, the owner must also give advance notice to the tenant and can only enter during normal business hours. The tenant is also entitled to a safe place to live. Landlords are require to maintain units to a standard of "habitability"--very often translated as meeting state and local health and building codes. Although under limited circumstances tenants must pay for necessary repairs, the landlord is required to make all repairs required to keep the unit habitable.

Security Deposits

Security deposits in California are limited. For an unfurnished unit, the maximum security deposit cannot be more than two months rent. For a furnished unit, it cannot be more than three months rent. If you have a waterbed, the security deposit can be increased up to one-half month's rent. Within 21 days of a tenant moving out, the landlord must return the deposit and/or mail or deliver an itemized statement listing the deductions from deposit and reasons for the deductions. Receipts for the charges must also be given to the tenant.

Withholding Rent

While in most cases a tenant cannot withhold rent--that is, not pay rent--there are circumstances which legally permit him to do so. If there is serious damage to the unit the landlord fails to repair even after written complaints, the tenant can withhold rent. The damage must be to the extent the unit no longer meets minimum standards of habitability and/or the tenant's safety is at risk. Examples include ongoing lack of heat in all rooms, continued presence of rats and an unrepaired collapsed ceiling.

Protection Against Retaliation

If a landlord attempts to evict or take other action against a tenant who has recently complained or filed a lawsuit about the condition of the unit or reported the unit to a local housing or building department, the landlord is assumed to have taken retaliatory action against the tenant. Retaliation can be a successful defense in an eviction case. Additionally, if a landlord retaliates against a tenant for complaining about the landlord's violations of the Fair Housing Act, the tenant may sue for damages.

An Outlet for Disagreements

Most tenant complaints can be settled amicably with the landlord. However, any tenant has the right to bring a lawsuit against a landlord for violations of the lease agreement and, in some cases, for violation of housing laws. While the remedy in some suits may be to enforce the law or lease, in others it may include damages and attorney fees.

About the Author

Mary Gallagher runs Mary Gallagher Planning (, an urban planning and consulting business in San Francisco. She is the former assistant planning director for San Francisco and planning director for San Mateo. Gallagher has been writing about real estate, development and land use for numerous websites since 1995. She holds a master's degree in historic preservation planning from Cornell University.