California Landlord Responsibilities for Tenant Safety

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When a landlord rents a dwelling unit in California, he assumes a variety of obligations to the tenant, some written in the contract, some specified by pertinent landlord/tenant laws, some implied in the contract. Among these obligations is a landlord's duty to provide "habitable" premises that are fit to live in and safe from dangerous defects. A landlord also must take reasonable steps to keep the tenant safe from criminals. If he fails in these duties, a tenant has more than one option.

Warrant of Habitability

The "implied warranty of habitability" is a fancy legal term that describes a simple concept: a landlord's duty to make sure that his rental unit is fit to be lived in. While some rentals in California are luxurious, and others are spare, all must contain certain basic necessities like heating units in working order, running water, electricity and plumbing that is well maintained, a roof that doesn't leak, and windows that are not broken.

These and similar building code requirements are included in the warranty. But in California, the implied warranty of habitability extends beyond the building to include general notions of what a unit must have to be fit to live in, as well as court decisions that describe what constitutes decent housing.

Clean and Decent Housing

A California landlord who rents out a unit is said to "warrant" that the unit is fit and habitable as a dwelling place for the tenant. That provision may not be found in the language of the rental agreement, but it is implied in the contract under California Civil Code Section 1941.1.

That statute also specifies that the premises, including common areas, must be clean and sanitary, and that the grounds must be free from debris, garbage, rodents and other vermin. The owner should also provide serviceable garbage cans in clean condition and in good repair.

Safe Housing Requirement

A California landlord is also required to provide a safe living environment for the tenant. While safety requirements may or may not be part of the implied warranty of habitability, they are obligations found in the statutes and/or described by the courts.

For example, under California Civil Code Section 1941.3, a landlord is obliged to install a deadbolt lock on every entry door in a rental unit. He must also provide locks or security devices for every window that can be opened. And a string of well-known court cases holds that a landlord may be liable when tenants are attacked by criminals if the landlord has failed to provide appropriate lighting and lock systems.

Landlord's Duty to Maintain Premises

A tenant is entitled to assume that a landlord will provide a safe and habitable unit on move-in day. The landlord is also obligated to make all repairs that are necessary to keep it in that condition. The only exception is if the tenant, her pets or her guests caused the damage to the unit.

While the landlord is assumed to know the condition of the unit at move-in, the courts will only hold him liable for repairs that become necessary afterward if he knows of the problem or should have known. It's always a good idea for a tenant to advise the landlord in writing as soon as possible after a problem has developed.

Tenant's Right to Leave the Premises

If the landlord fails to maintain the premises in a habitable condition, the tenant can vacate the unit. That means that she can pack up and move out without having any outstanding obligations under the rental agreement. This is not a very attractive option in urban areas of California where rentals are hard to find, and the tenant may be protected under local rent control ordinances. But if the tenant would like to move from an unfit unit, she is likely free to do so under Civil Code Section 1942.

Tenant's Right to Withhold Rent

A tenant's obligation to pay rent is dependent on the landlord providing a habitable unit. If the landlord doesn't maintain the unit in fit condition for occupancy, the tenant need not pay full rent. She can simply pay the value of the rental in its uninhabitable condition. Usually this amount is left to a court to determine in an unlawful detainer action for eviction.

In California, a breach of the warranty of habitability is a defense to an unlawful detainer action that is brought for nonpayment of rent. To use this remedy, the violation of the warranty of habitability must be substantial. Minor issues, like a leaking sink, may not be sufficient to justify a failure to pay rent, but lack of running water or heat in winter may be.

Tenant's Right to Repair and Deduct

If a tenant gives the landlord notice of a problem in the unit that she did not cause, she does not have to wait forever for him to act. After a "reasonable time," the tenant can arrange for repairs, performing them herself or hiring someone to come in and conduct the repair and subtract the cost from the rent owed. Some statutory limits apply.

Action for Damages

Even the most protective landlord cannot guarantee the safety of a tenant. However, a California landlord does have a legal obligation to take steps to secure the rental unit and its grounds to prevent foreseeable crimes. If he does not do so, and allows unsafe conditions to exist on the property that allow a crime to occur, he can be held liable for foreseeable harm.

Doesn't the fact that a third-party criminal actually perpetuated the crime eliminate the landlord’s liability? It does not. If the crime could have been prevented had the landlord taken reasonable measures to protect the tenants, a court may hold him liable for foreseeable harm.

A landlord cannot get around the implied warranty of habitability by putting a provision in the contract requiring the tenant to waive it. Under Civil Code section 1942.1, the warranty is ​non-waivable.​ The sole exception is if the parties agree that the tenant shall make repairs to make the property habitable as part of the consideration for renting the property. And note that the tenant has a statutory duty (Civil Code section 1929) not to damage the property herself and to take reasonable care of it.

Violations of Warranty of Habitability

Not every individual violation will breach the warranty of habitability. Some failures, though irritating, would not be considered sufficiently substantial to constitute a breach of the warranty. For example, a heater that stops working in mid-winter is definitely a substantial failure. A kitchen sink faucet that drips may not be.

No tenant should take possession of a property that is not habitable, but sometimes it happens. For example, if a landlord promises to make repairs soon after move-in day but fails to do so, the tenant should remind him of his promises and advise him of the situation in writing as quickly as possible.

If the unit is livable when the tenant occupies but something breaks and requires repair, the tenant must also advise the landlord. The tenant cannot expect the landlord to repair something he does not know about. The courts will only allow a tenant to take action against the landlord for violations of the warranty of habitability that he had actual knowledge of or should have known about.

Reasonable Time to Repair

A tenant who informs the landlord of a substantial problem in the unit must then allow him a reasonable time to repair the problem and make the unit habitable again. What is a "reasonable time"? That depends on the problem. If the heater breaks in the middle of winter, the landlord has a much shorter "reasonable" period of time to repair it than if it breaks in summer.

On the other hand, if the landlord makes it clear that he does not intend to repair the problem, the tenant need not wait. Once that happens, or a reasonable time to repair has passed, the tenant can take action.

Withholding Rent

A tenant’s obligation to pay rent depends on the landlord providing a unit fit for human habitation. That means that the two obligations are mutually dependent. If the landlord refuses to repair something substantial that is broken, the tenant can withhold rent.

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