In California, a landlord of a residential property can be responsible for criminal activities that occur on the property and that relate to a landlord’s legal responsibilities. For example, a landlord is required to maintain a common area, like a pool, in a way that would discourage criminal activity. A landlord has a duty to use ordinary care to manage a rental property, including a responsibility to prevent foreseeable harm. A landlord who does not use reasonable care to protect tenants and their guests can be held liable for a third party’s negligent or intentional conduct.
Windows and Doors
California’s warranty of habitability prohibits a landlord from renting a unit with broken windows or doors. In addition, the state’s Civil Code requires a landlord to install an operable deadbolt lock on every main swinging entry door of a dwelling unit. These locks must meet certain specifications, such as having a bolt that extends a minimum of 13/16 of an inch beyond the strike edge of the door.
A landlord must also install and maintain window security or locking devices for windows designed to be opened. She must install locks on exterior doors that provide ingress and egress to a common area, like a pool. A tenant must notify his landlord if a door or window lock does not work.
Foreseeable Unsafe Conditions
An unsafe condition in a rental property is reasonably foreseeable when there has been a prior incident due to the unsafe condition. For example, if three tenants have had packages stolen from an unlocked mailroom, it is foreseeable that a fourth tenant will also have a package stolen from that room. Ordinary care might involve installing individual post office boxes with individual keys. A landlord should conduct reasonable periodic inspections of the property to determine and repair unsafe conditions.
Other unsafe conditions range widely, from excessive shrubbery where tenants have discovered evidence of drug dealing to poorly lit areas in which tenants’ guests have been robbed. There are many actions a landlord can take to address these concerns, including hiring a doorman; removing or reducing certain bushes and shrubbery; prohibiting unit key duplication without permission; and changing the locks when a tenant moves out. A landlord should purchase insurance to cover potential losses due to crime.
Understanding Security Issues
A landlord can also become more aware of security and safety issues on the rental property by paying attention to complaints by tenants and guests. A landlord can educate tenants and guests about security concerns through signage, in-person communications and written communications like emails or flyers. A tenant or guest who has noticed that a security or safety issue remains unresolved should document her multiple, repeated written statements to the landlord and/or to a property manager regarding her concerns.
Crime in Common Areas
A landlord must install and maintain reasonable security measures to prevent crime in common areas. In a multi-family dwelling unit, common areas may include a pool, paths through the complex, a gym room, on-site apartment-owned recreational facilities like a basketball court, the lobby of a building, stairways, elevators, halls, shared backyards, on-site parking and shared laundry rooms. Reasonable security measures may include additional lighting, brighter-than-normal lighting, motion-sensitive lighting, a locked security gate to the entrance and exit of the complex, video surveillance, and the presence of a security guard.
A landlord who has observed or received complaints of criminal activity like illegal drug dealing is aware that individuals who are tenants or guests of tenants are at risk of harm. A landlord should attempt to reduce the number of individuals engaged in such activity by posting no-trespassing signs and communicating with law enforcement about her concern. These may be part of the landlord’s reasonable security measures.
Problem Tenants and Guests
In California, a landlord does not have to run a criminal background check on a prospective tenant. In fact, the city of Oakland passed an ordinance that took effect in January 2020 which expressly prohibits this. A landlord cannot refuse to rent to a prospective or current tenant because she thinks the tenant might be engaged in criminal behavior. A landlord can refuse to rent to or continue to rent to a tenant who she knows is a danger to others.
Proof that a tenant or a tenant’s guest is dangerous can range from the witnessing of an act of violence to a recent conviction for a crime related to the concern. A landlord who knows that a tenant or a tenant’s guest poses a foreseeable harm and who does not take measures to prevent the harm can be found negligent in failing to warn the troublemaker. A landlord may have to pay damages to a tenant, guest or minor trespasser under the age of 18.
Drug Use and Addiction
The federal Fair Housing Act (FEHA) and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing rules provide that a landlord cannot decline to rent to a prospective or current tenant because the tenant has a history of drug use. FEHA prohibits discrimination based on disability, and an addiction to drugs or alcohol is considered a disability. A landlord can refuse to rent to a prospective or current tenant because the tenant is currently using, manufacturing, buying or selling illegal drugs. Usually, a residential lease addresses such concerns by prohibiting the renter from engaging in illegal activity on site. A landlord who fails to warn or ban a troublesome guest or fails to warn or evict a troublesome tenant who violates local, state or federal laws, can be held liable. The liability must relate to the injuries that the troublesome tenant or guests cause to other tenants, other tenants’ guests or to minor trespassers.
Restraining Orders and More
A landlord must take action to protect a tenant who has filed a police report or obtained a restraining order against another person. He has a duty to protect a tenant from nontenants and other tenants when the victim’s restraining order or police report contains information that the aggressor engaged in domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. After the tenant provides notice to the landlord in writing about the police report or restraining order, the landlord must change the locks on the doors to the tenant’s unit within 24 hours. The tenant can change the lock herself, but must tell the landlord she has done so within 24 hours and give the landlord a key. A landlord does not have a duty to prevent a criminal act that takes place off the rental property. He is not responsible for conduct that takes place on a public street or property adjacent to the rental property, even if those areas are right next to the rental property.
A tenant or a tenant’s guest can recover damages for bodily injuries, emotional harm and property damage. If a landlord engaged in extreme negligence, a tenant may also be able to recover punitive damages. If a landlord retaliates against a tenant’s complaints or lawsuit, the tenant can initiate an investigation with the city agency that deals with housing. The tenant can also file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and initiate a civil lawsuit.
- CNN: Oakland Is the First California City to Ban Criminal Background Checks on Renters
- California Civil Code Section 1714.1 Obligations Imposed by Law
- U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: Guidance on Application of Fair Housing Act Standards to the Use of Criminal Records by Providers of Housing and Real Estate-Related Transactions
- California Civil Code Section 1941.1 Hiring of Real Property
- Stanford Law School: Ann M. v. Pacific Plaza Shopping Center (1993)
- California Penal Code Section 602 Malicious Mischief
- California Civil Code Section 1941.3
- FindLaw: Madhani vs. Cooper, 106 Cal. App. 4th 412 (2005)
- California Department of Fair Employment and Housing: State law prohibits discrimination in housing
- California Civil Code Section 1941.5
- California Civil Code Section 1941.6
- The U.S. Department of Justice: The Fair Housing Act
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.