Just Cause Eviction: California Landlord Rights

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Until very recently, California state law permitted a landlord to end a month-to-month tenancy for nearly any reason that was unrelated to discrimination or retaliation. The law only required proper written notice to the tenant. However, the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, effective January 1, 2020, changed all that. It imposes a requirement that every eviction be a "just cause" eviction. All California landlords and tenants need to understand their rights and responsibilities under this law.

Eviction and Termination of Tenancy

The Tenant Protection Act of 2019 is described as adding just cause eviction protections to state law. In fact, the Act amends both when a landlord can legally terminate a tenancy in California and when he can have the tenant evicted. While the word eviction is used by many as a synonym for termination of tenancy, the terms in fact mean different things.

Any time a landlord contracts with someone to rent a dwelling unit, a tenancy is created. Most tenancies are periodic tenancies without a set duration, usually month-to-month tenancies where the tenant pays rent at the beginning of each month in order to stay through that month.

While rent control ordinances in some cities limit when a landlord can terminate a tenancy, state law did not do so until the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 went into effect. The prior state law allowed a landlord to terminate a tenancy by providing written notice. If the tenant moved out after receiving the notice, she was not evicted. If she did not move out, the landlord filed an unlawful detainer action in court asking the court to order the tenant evicted from the premises. The just cause eviction regulations limit both the landlord's legal authority to terminate a tenancy and his ability to get the court to evict the tenant.

Just Cause Eviction

Just cause eviction is not a new concept in California. While state law did not include this term until the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 was signed into law, the just cause eviction requirement has been an integral part of some rent control ordinances, including that of San Francisco. Essentially, just cause eviction means that a landlord must specify his reason for evicting the tenant, and it must be a reason permitted under the law.

Prior California law did not set requirements for when a landlord could terminate a tenancy. It allowed a landlord to evict a tenant for almost any reason that did not trigger the anti-discrimination protections and was not designed to punish the tenant for reporting unsafe conditions to the authorities or exercising other legal rights like repair and deduct. A landlord could end a tenancy without stating any cause at all with 30 days' notice if the tenant had been there less than a year, and 60 days' notice if the tenant had been there longer.

The Tenant Protection Act of 2019 went into effect on January 1, 2020 and is codified in Civil Code Section 1946.2, which forbids termination of a tenancy without just cause if a tenant has lived in a unit for a set period of time.

Just Cause Protections

The just cause eviction provisions in the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 apply only to a tenant who has lived in his unit for over 12 months. If there are multiple tenants and they have changed over time, just cause protections come into effect when at least one of the tenants has occupied the premises for a minimum of 24 months.

A landlord who wants to end a tenancy can only do so for just cause. The term "just cause" is not left for the landlord or the courts to define. The law defines it by listing both at-fault just causes, where the tenant's behavior triggers the eviction, and no-fault just causes, where the tenant's behavior has nothing to do with the termination of the tenancy.

At-Fault Just Causes

At-fault justifications for evictions are reasons to terminate a tenancy based on the choices or actions of the renter. Under the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, a landlord in California can terminate a tenancy when the tenant has committed one of the faults listed in the law.

These include all the usual reasons for evicting a tenant. For example, they include failure to pay rent, one of the most common reasons for an eviction. They also include rent payments that are habitually late, violations of lease terms, use of the rental unit for criminal activities like drug sales, and the creation of a nuisance.

In many at-fault justifications for evictions, like failure to pay rent, the law requires that the landlord give a short, conditional notice. This notice, like the 3-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit, allows the tenant to correct his contract violation within three days and continue with the tenancy.

No-Fault Just Causes

Other legal reasons for a landlord to terminate a tenancy in California are not based on the behavior of the tenant. Rather, they are based on the needs of the landlord or compliance with a government entity.

For example, if the landlord or a family member wants to occupy the unit, the landlord may be able to terminate the tenancy to allow that to happen. Under the law, the landlord must have raised that possibility in the rental agreement. Another just cause that does not involve tenant fault is if the landlord intends to remove the unit from the rental market altogether. No-fault just causes also include government notices to vacate based on code violations, as well as the planned demolition of the unit.

At-Fault Vs. No-Fault Just Causes

While both at-fault and no-fault just causes permit the landlord to terminate a tenancy, there is one significant difference between the two: the requirement for relocation assistance or a rent waiver. The landlord is obligated to pay one or the other — equal to one month's rent — for no-fault just cause evictions. He is not obligated to pay relocation compensation if the tenant’s actions caused the eviction notice.

Under the new law, all termination notices must include a statement of the just cause that forms the basis for termination. If the just cause is not based on a tenant's activities, the notice to terminate the tenancy must also set out the tenant's right to relocation assistance.

Local Rent Control Rules

The state law should not be seen in any way, shape or form as a repudiation of local rent control ordinances. In fact, rental units already subject to local rent control and just cause ordinances, as of September 2019, are not subject to the state law. Nor are rentals subject to laws passed after September 2019 that provide greater tenant protections than the new state law.

Some local rent ordinances exempted properties that are more than 15 years old. Under the 2019 state tenant protection law, many of these properties are now subject to control under state law.

Note that the law is fresh off the books as of the time of publication, and that many of the details will be worked out by the legislature, the courts and local rent control boards in the future. But as of 2020, just cause protections have come to many California tenants.

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