What to Do If a Roommate Breaks the Lease: California Tenant Law

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California may be unique for everything from its economy to its topography, but just as in every other state, the question of what to do if a roommate breaks a lease doesn't have a one-size-fits-all answer in the Golden State. Laws, such as the California Civil Code and beyond, dole out rights on both the tenant's and landlord's side of the lease agreement. Before a roommate becomes an ex-roommate for breaking a lease, it's essential to understand whether or not they are within their rights.

Roommate Agreements

When a new roommate moves in, it's common for roomies to create some sort of agreement covering everything from cleaning duties and food sharing to how much each resident pays for their share of rent and utilities. While different types of roommate agreements can be a simple handshake or a legally binding written contract, these agreements never supersede the lease because they typically don't involve the landlord — it's simply an arrangement made among roomies, which can range in formality. On legal matters, the lease agreement remains the definitive legal document for tenant/landlord relationships.

Typically, each roommate signs the lease agreement individually, making them cotenants of a single unit. Every co-tenant is held responsible to the obligations detailed in the lease, and landlords must hold up their legal obligations for each co-tenant, too. Essentially, the landlord makes a contract with all of the roommates. Subletting is an option, too, but it's very common for lease agreements in California to explicitly disallow subletting.

Breaking a Lease: Abuse

In a variety of situations, California law gives a roommate the legal right to break a lease before the lease agreement reaches its end date. Among those reasons, abuse is paramount. Per California's Civil Code Section 1946.7, any tenant who is the victim of domestic or sexual abuse, elder abuse or stalking may terminate the lease early, though they may be required to provide some form of proof, such as a restraining order taken out against the abuser.

The same Civil Code allows tenants to break a lease early if they're also subject to abuses from the landlord. These abuses may include a violation of privacy rights or harassment enacted by altering the premises, such as changing locks without notice or cutting off utilities.

Breaking a Lease: Habitability

Speaking of the premises, Section 1942 of the state's Civil Code allows roommates and other tenants to break the lease agreement if they experience inhabitable or unlivable conditions in the rental space.

For this to be the case, the rental unit must be generally unsafe or violate the regulations set out for rental properties in the California Health and Safety Code, such as a lack of basic utilities, heating, lighting or locks. Lacking minor repairs typically doesn't make a rental uninhabitable in the eyes of the court, but serious health and safety issues or deficiencies very well might.

Breaking a Lease: Active Servicemembers

Federal law, in the form of the Civil Relief Act, also takes the side of active military servicemembers. If a tenant is part of any of the U.S. uniformed services, which include the armed forces, activated National Guard, commissioned corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or the Public Health Service, the servicemember may terminate her tenancy if she is called to enter active military service.

As long as the roommate provides the landlord with written notice of his intent to terminate the lease due to active service, the tenancy is considered terminated 30 days after the next rent due date.

Evicting a Tenant

Just as the tenant has rights, so does the landlord, even in roommate situations. Landlords, property owners or property management companies may rightfully evict a cotenant renter for numerous reasons in California, such failure to pay rent on time or a violation of any of the provisions in the lease agreement. Tenants may also be evicted for materially damaging the rental property, bringing down the property's value or using the rental property for unlawful purposes.

Landlords are also within their rights for evicting a tenant or cotenant who is a serious nuisance to other residents of the building even after being given fair warning, or if the tenant poses a threat to the safety of others on the premises. However, per the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 (Assembly Bill 1482, effective January 2020), landlords must provide "just cause" in order to evict a tenant. Moreover, if the tenant has lived on the premises for at least a year, the landlord must give the tenant the opportunity to address the perceived violation. However, some localities in California have their own distinct just cause laws, notably Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Glendale.

Booting a Roommate

Under a regular cotenant lease agreement, cotenants cannot evict other cotenants, as eviction is the legal process approved by a judge by which a landlord and a tenant end their contractual relationship. So landlords can evict roommates, but roommates beholden to the same lease can't evict each other. Of course, cotenants may choose to kick out another roommate, but this is most often an informal process rather than a legal one. The current tenants are still bound to provide the full rent amount as laid out in the lease which, by the way, the landlord will likely want to re-sign upon learning of a replacement roommate.

Outside of sublets, if one roommate in a cotenant lease believes that another roommate has violated the rental agreement, he may request that the landlord evict the offending roommate. In this case, the long arm of the law isn't just long, it belongs to someone else, but the eviction process will proceed for the contenant just as it would for a regular, singular tenant.

Subletting to Roommates

More rarely than a cotentant lease, roommates are in a sublet situation. Under a sublet, one tenant, who is bound by the landlord's lease agreement, makes a contract with a subtenant under terms laid out in a separate contract. The subletting tenant may file eviction proceedings against the subtenant but must provide a minimum of 30 days' notice for subtenants on a month-to-month lease. If the subtenant has performed actions that meet the criteria for lawful eviction, the tenant may provide a three-day notice to address the reason for eviction, such as late rent.

If the subtenant refuses to comply and remains in the rental unit, the tenant may file for an unlawful detainer lawsuit against them. As a court complaint, this officially starts the formal eviction process. The subtenant then has five days to vacate the premises or oppose the complaint by filing a response with the court. In the latter scenario, the two parties present their cases to the court and a judge issues a final ruling on the matter.

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