California Housing Standards: Is Your Residential Rental Safe?

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California requires a residential landlord to keep a rental property in livable condition. The requirement is not codified in state law. It is provided in the holding of a landmark case, Green v. Superior Court (1974). In Green, the court held that a landlord has an implied warranty of habitability. The factors that make a property habitable are listed in California Civil Code Section 1941.1. The statute says a property is not habitable if it lacks:

  1. Effective waterproofing and weather protection of the roof and exterior walls, including unbroken windows and doors.
  1. Plumbing or gas facilities that conformed to applicable law when they were installed. These items must be maintained in good working order. 
  1. A water supply approved under applicable law capable of producing hot and cold running water. The supply must be under the control of the landlord or a system under the control of the landlord, furnished to appropriate fixtures. The supply must be connected to a sewage disposal system approved under applicable law. 
  1. Heating facilities that conformed with applicable law at the time of installation, maintained in good working order.
  1. Electrical lighting with wiring and electrical equipment that conformed with applicable law at the time of installation and maintained in good working order. 
  1. Building, grounds and appurtenances (accessories associated with living) and areas under the control of the landlord that are kept in every part clean, sanitary and free from all accumulations of debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents and vermin.
  1. An adequate number of appropriate receptacles for garbage and rubbish that are in good condition and repair, with the landlord providing appropriate serviceable receptacles thereafter.  
  1. Floors, stairways and railings that are maintained in good repair. 

These requirements seem to be straightforward on their face. Yet there are many grey areas in the statute. For example, what should a tenant do when an earthquake damages the unit?

When there is a concern that affects a tenant’s safety, the tenant should give notice to the landlord immediately. This enables her to address it.

Minimum Heat Requirement

The city or county in which the unit is located may modify its code to improve living conditions for tenants. In January 2020, San Francisco amended its housing code to establish minimum heating requirements for residential rental units. The city code requires that a permanent heating source be provided that is capable of maintaining a minimum room temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit at a point 3 feet above the floor in all habitable rooms, excluding bathrooms and hallways. If a landlord does not provide the minimum amount of heat, the tenant should contact a building inspector at the city’s Department of Building Inspection. If the landlord fails to provide adequate heat after the tenant and a building inspector have requested it, he may file a Tenant Petition at the city’s rent board for a rent reduction based on a substantial decrease in housing services.

A city can also approve housing facilities that are built without heat, electricity or plumbing. In 2019, Oakland took this step to codify building standards for Tuffshed encampments. The Tuffsheds are to be used as housing for the homeless in an emergency shelter crisis. State law allows the city to temporarily waive building requirements for as long as a declaration of emergency shelter crisis lasts.

Privacy and Safety

California Civil Code Section 1714 requires a landlord to use reasonable care to protect tenants from the negligent or intentional criminal conduct of third parties. A landlord who fails to do so can be held liable for damages. What reasonable care means depends on the location where the tenant lives. In an area where there has been a high rate of break-ins, it would be reasonable for a landlord to put bars on a unit’s windows and lock the door to a parking garage.

Tenant Remedies

A landlord usually has a 30-day grace period to address a tenant's concern and engage in repairs. If the landlord fails to do so within this time period, the tenant may repair the problem herself. She should subtract the cost from the rent she owes. Alternatively, she may vacate the unit and be free from the obligations of the lease. A landlord cannot collect rent for a property he has not maintained to a substantial level.

A tenant should consult an attorney before engaging in self-help remedies. If a landlord deems the repair too expensive or inappropriate, the tenant runs the risk of getting embroiled in a legal action that may cost more than the repair. Yet if the landlord is unresponsive, the problem will continue, and the tenant risks having the unit become unlivable. In addition, the tenant could see her belongings suffer damage. An attorney can help a tenant determine what repairs to make. Such advice may be particularly valuable for tenants in older units and units that require unique repairs.

References

About the Author

Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.