Illegal Landlord Actions in California: What Tenants Can Do

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About half of all renters in the Golden State — a group that amounts to over 3 million people — spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, according to 2019 reports from CalMatters. That percentage more than qualifies for the federal government's definition of "rent burdened," and it may offer some insight as to why California law pays a substantial amount of attention to renters' rights. As the state grapples with the two-pronged dilemmas of gentrification and homelessness, legislation both old and new aims to put power into the hands of tenants by detailing exactly what landlords are not legally allowed to do. When landlords break the law, renters can turn to local government agencies, nonprofit advocacy groups or the state's court system.

Illegal Landlord Actions: Rent and Fees

California law isn't short on its list of illegal landlord actions. The state's Civil Code, primarily Sections 1925 through 1954, and Sections 1961 through 1962.7, cover many of these prohibited actions. Naturally, landlord offenses related to rent are a common issue.

For instance, rent may not be raised during the period of the lease agreement, unless the lease allows. When rent is raised within legal parameters, the landlord must provide at least 30 days of notice to increase the rent by amounts less than 10 percent of the lowest amount of rent charged in the past 12 months, or 60 days' notice for increases of more than 10 percent. If the tenant is late in paying, only the reasonable, rent-control permitted late fees are enforceable, and only if specified in the lease.

Illegal Landlord Actions: Deposits and Fees

Legislation in the El Dorado state is characteristically specific when it comes to the subject of renters' security deposits. In California, it's explicitly illegal for landlords to overcharge for security deposits, and the law lays out detailed regulations for returning those deposits, too. Likewise, landlords are prohibited from gouging tenants with ancillary fees with laws like these:

  • The Civil Code imposes a maximum security deposit of two months' rent for unfurnished rental units or three months' rent for furnished units.
  • Nonrefundable fees are not permitted.
  • Security deposits can be withheld only for unpaid rent; cleaning to the point of the unit's condition when the tenant moved in; repair of damages caused by the tenant  — not normal wear and tear; and the cost of restoring furniture or personal property, only if specified in the lease agreement.
  • If any deposit amount is withheld, the landlord must provide an itemized list of damages and charges.
  • Security deposits must be returned, whether in full or in part, within 21 days of the tenant moving out. 

Illegal Landlord Actions: Notices and Eviction

California landlords are also bound to provide their tenants with specific windows of notice for certain actions. These are often intertwined with the legality of eviction, which itself requires ample notice. The state requires that landlords provide:

  • A copy of the lease agreement to the tenant within 15 days of the lease's start date.
  • At least 60 days of notice before terminating any periodic lease of a year or more for any tenants who have lived in a rental unit longer than one year.
  • At least 30 days of notice before terminating a month-to-month lease or a week-to-week lease.
  • At least 30 days of notice before terminating a lease due to selling the rented property. Here, the landlord must also have opened escrow with a licensed agent and given the notice no later than 120 days after opening that escrow.
  • At least three days' notice to remedy lease violations before filing for eviction, including in cases of nonpayment.
  • At least 24 hours' notice before entering any occupied rental unit, except in case of an emergency.
  • At least 48 hours' notice of a date and time before a move-out inspection.

Illegal Landlord Actions: Habitability

Per the California Civil Code and the state's Uniform Housing Code, habitability is a hugely significant part of a landlord's legal responsibility to tenants. These laws, many of which are found in Civil Code Sections 1941.1 and 1941.3, declare that a dwelling is untenantable, or uninhabitable, if it substantially lacks essential features such as:

  • Effective weatherproofing, waterproofing and weather-proofed windows and doors.
  • Deadbolt locks on important points of entrance and egress, including doors and windows.
  • Functional gas and plumbing fixtures that are up to current building code standards.
  • Hot and cold running water under the renter's control, up to par with current water safety standards.
  • An operational kitchen sink and a working toilet.
  • Operational heating facilities.
  • Electric lighting and electrical wiring that safely meet current building codes.
  • Clean, hygienic buildings and building grounds free of garbage, filth, debris and pests.
  • Sufficient garbage receptacles in good condition.
  • Safely maintained floors, stairways and railings.
  • Paint free of lead hazards.
  • A mailbox with a functioning lock for each residential unit.
  • Rental premises free from considerable nuisances, meeting the tenant's right to "quiet enjoyment" of the premises.
  • Rental premises that do not subject tenants to factors detrimental to their well-being or to morally reprehensible events, such as crimes plainly occurring on the property.  

Tenant Repair Rights

Before turning to the court system or to means of mediation, California law affords tenants some important and useful legal options for remedying common landlord offenses, chiefly related to repairs and habitability. For one, tenants can withhold rent if the landlord fails to provide essential services, such as water or heat, until those issues are sufficiently remedied.

No more than twice a year, tenants may also conduct their own repairs or hire professionals to perform repairs and then deduct their costs from the total rent amount, not exceeding the cost of one month's rent. This is known as the right to "repair and deduct." Tenants can put this right into action if a landlord fails to address serious repair issues, and the tenant has requested repairs and waited for them for at least 30 days.

About Assembly Bill 1482

In late 2019, San Francisco Assemblyman David Chiu's Assembly Bill 1482 passed in the state senate, going into effect on January 1, 2020. This game-changing bill, also known as the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, offers what CalMatters calls "some of the nation's strongest protections against rent hikes and evictions." Among those protections, AB 1482 makes certain landlord behavior illegal in a sweeping fashion.

Most notably, AB 1482 limits rent increases to 5 percent, plus the rate of inflation annually while a tenant is still residing in a rental unit. Importantly, it also offers "just-cause" eviction protections. This means that landlords must provide specific lawful reasons for evicting a tenant, such as consistently late rent payments or participating in illegal activity in the rental unit. If landlords exercise their right to evict a tenant in order for a family member to move in, they will have to pay one month's rent to the tenant to help cover relocation costs. However, this bill mostly exempts single-family homes owned by independent landlords (though homes owned by investment firms are still subject to its reach, and it does not remove or replace local eviction and rent control regulations.

Legal Actions for Tenants

Typically, a tenant's first course of action in California, as elsewhere, is to inform their landlord of illegal actions and personally seek a remedy. As the state's Department of Consumer Affairs puts it: "It’s usually best to talk with your landlord before taking other action. Your landlord may be willing to correct the problem or to work out a solution." Of course, these person-to-person or, in some cases, person-to-property-management-company solutions don't always pan out. When common sense measures don't cut it, and the situation escalates, tenants can file a lawsuit against landlords, property owners or property management companies in response to being the victim of illegal actions.

The majority of California tenants' rights cases end up in small claims court, which handles cases seeking damages under $10,000. Once a lawsuit is filed with the Superior Court of California, it takes about 11 months to go to trial after a complaint is served on the landlord, as estimated by Mosbrucker and Foran, tenants' rights lawyers of San Francisco. The same source also points out that about 95 percent of civil cases, such as landlord-tenant disputes, end up settling out of court without a trial. Upon reaching a settlement, the landlord or, typically, the landlord's insurance company, usually issues payment within 30 days of signing settlement papers.

Key Government Organizations

Numerous state government organizations work to ensure that rental laws are enforced, either before a tenant brings suit against a landlord as an ally in helping to provide and document evidence in the midst of a trial, or simply as assets that help educate and empower tenants. In some cases, these organizations help landlords and tenants mediate disputes without going to court.

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing enforces the state's litany of civil rights laws, dealing with unlawful discrimination in the areas of employment, public accommodations and housing. Tenants who have suffered illegal discrimination on the bases of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship status, age or disability, for example, can turn to the DFEH. The California Department of Consumer Affairs serves as a regulator, investigating consumer complaints and issuing fines, citations, letters of reprimand and even probation or suspension of certain licenses if landlords, realtors or property managers are found to be in violation of the law. Finally, the California Department of Real Estate offers complaint resolution programs to help resolve disputes between renters and licensees or subdividers and developers.

Tenants Rights Organizations

Speaking of education and empowering, state government agencies aren't alone in the realm of tenants rights. California is home to a wide assortment of nonprofit tenants' rights and advocacy groups, both of the government run and independent varieties. These organizations can help renters better understand the law, familiarize themselves with their rights and possibly even point tenants toward appropriate legal solutions when landlords overstep their legal bounds. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the California Department of Consumer Affairs particularly recommend these local resources:

  • Alameda Rent Stabilization Program.
  • Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board.
  • California Apartment Association.
  • Citizens of Inglewood Tenant Association.
  • City of Bakersfield Office of Fair Housing.
  • Coalition for Economic Survival (Los Angeles).
  • Fair Housing of Sonoma County (Santa Rosa).
  • Fair Housing Council of Orange County (Santa Ana).
  • Fair Housing Council of Riverside.
  • Fair Housing Council of San Diego.
  • Fair Housing Council of the San Fernando Valley (Panorama City).
  • Fair Housing Foundation (Long Beach).
  • Fair Housing Napa Valley (Napa).
  • Fair Housing Program of Marin County (San Rafael).
  • Heartland Human Relations and Fair Housing (El Cajon).
  • Fremont Fair Housing and Landlord Tenant Service (Fremont).
  • Housing Rights Center (Los Angeles; Pasadena – serving Camarillo, Filmore, Moorpark, Ojai, Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Santa Paula).
  • Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco.
  • Human Rights/Fair Housing Commission for the City and County of Sacramento.
  • Inland Fair Housing and Mediation Board (San Bernardino).
  • Los Angeles Housing Department.
  • Midpeninsula Citizens for Fair Housing (Palo Alto).
  • Oxnard Housing Department.
  • San Francisco Rent Board.
  • San Francisco Tenants Union.
  • Santa Monica Rent Control Board.
  • Santa Monicans for Renters Rights.
  • Tenants Legal Center (San Diego).
  • Tenderloin Housing Clinic (San Francisco).
  • West Hollywood Rent Stabilization Commission.

Likewise, county bar associations may offer lawyer referral services or help low-income tenants find cost-efficient or free legal aid.

Landlord Retaliatory Acts

Even when tenants exercise their legal rights in response to illegal landlord actions, that might not be the end of the story. California's Civil Code Section 1942.5, prohibits landlords from retaliation against tenants who have exerted their "repair and deduct" remedies; exercised their reasonable rent-withholding rights; reported the landlord to a government authority or to a tenants' rights organization; or filed a lawsuit. Just because these actions aren't fun for the landlord doesn't stop them from being rights that belong to renters in the state of California.

Unlawful retaliatory efforts by the landlord may include terminating a lease or refusing to renew a lease, increasing the rent, limiting access to services on the rental property, or blackmailing tenants. Retaliation may also manifest in the form of landlord harassment, illegal in any case, retaliatory or not, such as shutting off utilities; locking the tenant out of the premises; removing a tenant's belongings; forcibly entering the dwelling; or harassing the renter into leaving the rental unit. By explicitly outlawing actions such as these in response to tenants enjoying their state-given rights, California hopes to ensure that tenants can enjoy those rights without unjust consequences.

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