California might not be home to friendly rental prices — six out of the seven least affordable metropolitan areas in the U.S. can be found in the state, according to the Sacramento Bee, but it's fair to call many of the state's laws friendly toward renters. Legislation passed in January of 2020 institutes fresh forms of rent control and makes it more difficult for landlords to evict longtime tenants. The rights of California tenants don't end with caps on rent increases and evictions, though; numerous state laws make landlords responsible for overall rental habitability and for making prompt, reasonable repairs when that habitability isn't up to snuff.
The Right to Habitability
Much of the legality surrounding tenants' rights and landlord responsibilities when it comes to repairs circles around a concept known as the implied warranty of habitability. This implied warranty makes California landlords responsible for maintaining rental property that is fit and livable, or habitable, for human beings.
Buildings occupied by rental tenants must comply with the safety standards published in the state's Building Standards Code. A landlord's responsibility to repair premises occupied by a tenant are at their most serious when they break building standards or the implied warranty of habitability.
What Makes a Rental Habitable?
Among various state laws, California Health and Safety Code Section 1941.1 takes a deep, detailed dive into the specific factors that make a building habitable. According to these guidelines, some key habitability characteristics include:
- A functioning bathroom with bathtub or shower.
- A functioning kitchen sink.
- Plumbing fixtures with hot and cold running water that are compliant with health standards.
- Adequate heating system.
- Functional ventilation and adequate amounts of natural light.
- Operational electrical lighting.
- Room and space dimensions that meet building code minimums.
- Dry (not damp) living areas.
- Free of infestations from insects, rodents or vermin.
- Connection to a functioning sewage disposal system.
- Adequate garbage and rubbish storage, and removal facilities.
- Safe wiring in good condition and proper working order.
- Plumbing fixtures that adhere to building standards at the time of installation and have been maintained in good condition.
- Adequate weather protection.
- Accessible fire and emergency exits up to building standards.
- Secure windows.
- Doors with deadbolts.
- Safe, functional gas lines as needed.
- Safe and accessible stairways and railings.
- Smoke detectors.
- Tenant mailboxes with locks.
The code also notes that cities or counties in California may require real property to have security window bars with safety release mechanisms, and though this varies by locality, their installation and maintenance is a responsibility of the landlord in places where they are required.
Common Building Hazards
The state's various required elements for basic human habitation are one thing, but California landlords also have the legal responsibility to keep their rental property free from certain hazards. Building premises, including hallways and common areas, must be generally maintained and free of debris, weeds, garbage, standing water or any manner of hazardous materials.
Habitable buildings must also be free of structural hazards that are unsafe, defective or deteriorated, such as foundations; flooring or floor supports; exterior or interior walls; wall supports and partitions; ceilings, roofs and roof supports; and fireplaces or chimneys that may pose danger to tenants due to their condition.
Similarly, no dwelling units may contain lead-based paint, asbestos or other lead hazards. While the state's Health and Safety Code also gets into more esoteric requirements, such as guidelines for hotplates, rules for owner-provided bedding and when a building requires a live-in caretaker, these might not be applicable to potential repairs.
Landlord Repair Responsibilities
Knowing how the Golden State legally defines building habitability and safety requirements is key, because when a landlord fails to maintain these responsibilities or address building deficiencies by way of making repairs, the rights of California tenants enter the picture in a big way.
It virtually goes without saying that tenants are totally within their legal rights to request repairs for just about any defects on the premises they inhabit. However, in terms of the retaliatory measures tenants can legally take to protect their rights as renters, there's some distinction to be made regarding necessary repairs. For tenants to be within their rights to take measures into their own hands, such as withholding rent or making their own repairs, and deducting those expenses from their rent, the unaddressed repairs must be serious in nature. They must affect safety or habitability, rather than be frivolous or strictly cosmetic.
Tenants can bolster their legal protections by making specific, clearly stated and well-documented repair requests to their landlords, property owners or property management companies as soon as serious issues arise. If the landlord does not address necessary repairs within a reasonable timeframe, tenants can legally withhold rent payments until the repairs are made. In California, that reasonable timeframe is up to 30 days for many habitability repairs, although more urgent repairs, like a lack of electricity, must be addressed more quickly.
Right to Withhold Rent
Under Section 1942.4 of the California Civil Code, landlords cannot demand rent, collect rent, issue an eviction notice or issue a rent increase if they've failed to maintain the rental property on a substantial level.
Even so, withholding rent isn't always a cut-and-dried right for the tenant. For instance, tenants lose the right to withhold rent if their own reckless or neglectful behavior, or the behavior of guests under their purview, led to the need for repairs in the first place. If the issue in need of repair was not caused by the tenant's actions (or lack thereof), and a reasonable amount of time relative to the issue has passed since the tenant's repair request without adequate attention from the landlord, the tenant can deduct a portion of the rent payment until the issue is addressed.
When tenants are within their rights to withhold rent, the portion deducted should be relative to the problem in question. This generally means that tenants do not have the right to withhold all of the rent. Think of it in terms of percentages: deducting 100 percent of the rent indicates that the unit is 100 percent uninhabitable, and if the tenant is still living there, that's clearly not the case.
Right to Repair and Deduct
Withholding a percentage of the month's rent isn't the only right California law affords tenants awaiting substantial repairs. California Civil Code Section 1941.1 offers renters a right commonly known as "repair and deduct," which is pretty much what it sounds like.
When a landlord fails to perform timely repairs to the detriment of a rental property's livability, a tenant may either repair the problem herself or enlist a professional to fix the issue. Either way, that's money out of the tenant's own coffers. To offset these losses, the tenant may deduct what she spent on repairs from the total monthly rent.
Of course, the landlord has some protections from tenants potentially exploiting this right, too. For one, tenants cannot deduct more than 100 percent of the total amount for a single month's rent. Also, California tenants only have the right to make two "repair and deduct" deductions over the course of a one-year period. And just like with rent withholding, the necessary repairs in question must not have arisen from the tenant's willful or neglectful behavior.
Read More: Rent Withholding in California: Tenant Rights to Repair & Deduct
Breaking the Lease
On top of rent withholding and repair and deduct measures, California renters are allowed to vacate rental property without notice if the property is genuinely uninhabitable. Under normal conditions, Californians must provide at least 30 days' notice to end a monthly tenancy. But when the tenant is in provable danger, or when continued living in the premises poses a legitimate health risk, the tenant may break his lease agreement immediately and move out before its original end date.
This is often an extreme case, however. At HG.org, Palm Springs attorney R. Sebastian Gibson notes that tenants may need to obtain evidence in order to prove that the building is causing illness, danger, health risks or safety risks, especially if the situation escalates to a court trial between the tenant and landlord. A statement from a doctor; inspection documents from the local building inspector or health department; statements from other tenants; photographic proof of the issues; and proof of the tenant's attempt to request repairs from the landlord fit the bill here.
Tenant Protections From Retaliations
Renters' rights in California don't just empower tenants to retaliate against landlords slacking on making repairs, they protect tenants against predatory retaliations from the landlord. For example, if a tenant exercises his right to deduct rent after making necessary repairs, the landlord cannot retaliate with what California law considers harassment, such as cutting off utilities, jacking up rent prices or serving an eviction notice to the tenant.
In California, numerous organizations help renters exercise their rights to repair and more. Renters are free to enlist the aid of building health inspectors from their local public works departments or report landlords to the California Department of Public Health. They can also turn to resources such as the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department, which can, in severe cases, place rental properties into an escrow program in which the city takes over as management company and slices tenants' rent payments in order to fund necessary repairs.
- The Sacramento Bee: In 2020, California Renters Get New Protections. Landlords Get New Restrictions
- California Legislative Information: Civil Code Sections 1940 - 1954.05 Hiring of Real Property
- HG.org Legal Resources: Uninhabitable Conditions in California – The Right of a Tenant to Move Out and Break Their Lease
- NOLO: California Tenant Rights to Withhold Rent or "Repair and Deduct"
- Stimmel, Stimmel and Roser: Landlord Obligations for Habitable Premises – The Basic California Law
- California Tenant Law: Uninhabitable Conditions
- National Conference of State Legislatures: California Landlord and Tenant Duties: 1941.1 Untenantable Dwellings
- Tobener Ravenscroft: Stopping Landlord Retaliation
As a freelance writer and small business owner with a decade of experience, Dan has contributed legal- and finance-oriented content to diverse sources including Chron, Fortune, Zacks.com, Motley Fool and MSN Money, among others.