California Tenant Rights: Overview of Laws & Protections

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Landlords and tenants need each other. Indeed, they can be seen as having a symbiotic relationship or engaging in a partnership, since neither can exist without the other. But in California, with its urban housing crunch, landlords often have the upper hand. Tenants rely on state landlord/tenant laws to protect their rights before they sign on the dotted line; while they occupy the premises; and when the occupancy is over. Note that rent control ordinances enacted by some California cities may give tenants even greater protections than do state laws.

Tenant Protections Before Move-In

Protection From Discrimination

The federal Fair Housing Act makes it illegal for any landlord in any state to refuse housing to a tenant based on race, nationality, sex, familial status, religion or disability. The California law that forbids housing discrimination is the Unruh Civil Rights Act, found in Civil Code Section 51.

The Unruh Civil Rights Act supplements federal discrimination protection. It prohibits housing discrimination based on race and color; ancestry and national origin; religion; mental or physical disability; sex and gender; sexual orientation and gender identity; genetic information; marital status; familial income or source of income.

Disclosures to Prospective Tenants

In California, state laws require that landlords disclose certain information to tenants before contract signing and requires still other information in the contract itself. For example, under Civil Code Section 1710.2, a landlord must disclose to a prospective tenant if anyone has died in the unit in the past three years.

Additionally, if gas or electric service is shared with other units, California Civil Code Section 1940.9 requires the landlord to inform the tenant before the contract is signed. He must also tell the tenant how the utility costs will be divided and establish what is a fair and equitable way to divide the costs.

California Health & Safety Code Section 26148 requires the landlord to also tell the prospective tenant if there is any mold in the unit that may pose a health threat. He must also give the prospective tenant a consumer handbook describing the potential health risks from mold. A landlord must also advise prospective tenants in writing, under Civil Code Section 1940.6, if he or anyone on his behalf has applied for a permit to demolish the rental unit. He must also give notice if the property has been contaminated. This is mandated by Health & Safety Code Section 25400.28.

Disclosure in Rental Agreement

Civil Code Section 2079.10(a) requires that a landlord include language in the rental agreement about sexual offenders. It must advise the tenant about the internet website where she can find information about specified registered sex offenders in the local community or ZIP code area.

Any limitations on smoking tobacco products on the property must be described in the rental agreement under Civil Code Section 1947.5. Similarly, under Civil Code Section 1940.8, the landlord must give the prospective tenant notice of any pesticide applications in the unit. If he has retained a periodic pest control service for the dwelling, this notice must include documents from the pest control company detailing the pests and the pesticides to be used. The information provided should also outline the risks of pesticides and where the tenant can get further information.

If the property is in a special flood hazard area or an area that had flooded in the past or is likely to flood, the landlord must include this information in the rental agreement in at least eight-point type as required under Government Code Section 8589.45.

Security Deposit Laws

When a tenant rents an apartment, she must give the landlord the first month's rent. In addition, she is usually required to provide certain other moneys that serve as security in case she fails to live up to the terms of the agreement. California law protects a tenant by forbidding nonrefundable deposits. Any nonrefundable deposit is illegal, and the tenant can contest it.

All of these moneys, no matter what label the landlord gives them, are included in California's definition of security deposit. Even the amount charged in advance for last month's rent is considered a security deposit since it is not currently due. This is important because the total amount of all security deposits permitted is limited under Civil Code Sections 1940.5g and 1950.5.

Security Deposit Caps

State law sets out a formula for setting a cap on the amount of security deposits. For most tenants, the cap for an unfurnished unit is two times the monthly rental amount and for an unfurnished unit, three times the monthly rental amount. For example, a tenant renting an unfurnished unit for $2,000 cannot be asked to deposit more than $4,000 in security deposits or $6,000 for a furnished unit.

However, a 2020 California law sets a special cap for tenants who are members of the armed services. For tenants in the service, the unfurnished unit cap is equal to one month's rent, and the furnished cap is two month's rent. In the example above, the unfurnished cap would be $2,000, and the furnished cap would be $4,000.

Tenant Protections During Occupancy

Right to Quiet Enjoyment

Under California Civil Code Section 1927, every tenant in California has the right to the quiet enjoyment of his rented property. This is called a covenant and is implied in every rental contract in the state. It means that a tenant has the right to enjoy the rental unit without “substantial interference” from the landlord or anyone under the landlord's control. This can include the manager of the building, as well as other tenants in the building.

It also means that the landlord's access to the unit is limited. He can enter without notice only in the case of an emergency. Otherwise, he can enter only in certain situations, such as to make agreed-upon repairs or to show the property, and he must give reasonable notice to the tenant. It is illegal for a landlord to enter a rental unit simply to inspect it, even if the rental agreement gives him this right.

Right to a Habitable Unit

California law also implies a warranty of habitability in all rental contracts in the state. It provides that rented dwelling units must meet certain minimum standards. These are set out in Civil Code Section 1941.1 and Health and Safety Code Sections 17920.3 and 17920.10. This means, among other things, that the unit must have hot and cold running water, electricity, heating and also air conditioning in hot climates.

A rental unit is not habitable under the law if its roof, walls or windows leak; has broken plumbing; damaged stairways or railings; or filthy or rodent-infested common areas and yards. Other conditions, like a pest infestation or mold on the walls that can harm the tenant's health, are also covered by the implied warranty of habitability. The landlord must act to clear up the problem.

Right to Repair and Deduct

If the tenant gives the landlord notice of conditions on the premises that make it uninhabitable, he is obligated to repair the problems. If he does not do so, the tenant has a number of legal options. She can move out after giving the landlord reasonable notice or she can call the local city code enforcement inspectors and health department to inspect the unit. She can also withhold some rent, paying only that amount that would be reasonable taking into account the defective conditions. Or, the tenant can sue for damages.

Often the most practical course is the "repair and deduct" option. After notice to the landlord and, if the landlord fails to fix the problems within a reasonable time, the tenant can bring in workers like plumbers or electricians to undertake the required repairs. The tenant can then deduct the repair costs from the rental amount, giving the landlord a copy of the repair bill along with the reduced rent check. The maximum amount that can be deducted is one month’s rent, and the tenant can do that up to two times per year.

Right to Not Be Retaliated Against

Tenants are protected by California Civil Code Section 1942.5 from retaliatory eviction, retaliatory rent increases or other "punishment" for exercising their legal rights. This is essentially a state-of-mind prohibition. Even though a landlord can generally terminate a tenancy at any point with legal notice, he is not permitted to do so if he is acting in reprisal against the tenant for exercising her legal rights. The rights that usually trigger landlord retaliation are: asking for a government agency to inspect the condition of the unit or repairing and deducting the repair costs from the monthly rent.

The landlord need not be motivated solely by the desire to punish the tenant. Retaliation only has to be one of the motives. Since this can be difficult for a tenant to prove, California law creates a presumption that the landlord has a retaliatory motive if the landlord tries to take retaliatory action within six months after the tenant asked for a public agency inspection; used, or threatened to use, the repair and deduct remedy; initiated a legal action against the landlord; or complained about the condition of the unit to the landlord or to a government agency.

The tenant bears the burden of proving that she did one of these things within the statutory time frame. If she makes this proof, the landlord has the burden to overcome the legal presumption by proving that he did not act in order to retaliate. A landlord found to have acted in order to retaliate against a tenant can be liable for actual damages, punitive damages if he acted with malice, attorney fees and court costs. He can also be stopped from raising rent or evicting the tenant for at least 180 days.

Statewide Rent Control

The state of California enacted a rent control law known as the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 (Civil Code Section 1946.2) that went into effect as of January 1, 2020. It doesn't invalidate municipal or county rent control laws, but imposes a state-wide cap on rent on qualifying units.

The law caps a permissible rent increase at the lower of 5 percent plus inflation or 10 percent of the lowest gross rental rate charged during the 12 months before the increase. In addition, it limits rent increases to one increase in any 12-month period.

Reasonable Late Fees

A tenant is responsible for paying monthly rent on the due date that is set out in the lease or rental agreement. Generally, this is the first day of the month. The rental agreement may also specify the late fee a tenant will be charged if he doesn't pay the rent on time.

Under California law, however, late fees must be related to actual damages. This means that a court will only enforce a late fee provision if it finds the fee to be a reasonable estimate of the amount that the late payment will cost the landlord. Bounced check fees are another type of regulated fee. The law permits a charge of $25 for the first bounced check and $35 for each additional bounced check.

Tenant Protections at End of Tenancy

Right to Terminate Tenancy

A tenant in a month-to-month tenancy has the right under state law to terminate her tenancy at any point. She must give the landlord 30 days' written notice. For example, if she plans to leave at the end of September, she must give the landlord written notice by the end of August.

Right to Notice if Landlord Terminates Tenancy

Under state law, a landlord can terminate a tenancy even if a tenant does nothing wrong and for any reason, as long as the action doesn't violate the anti-discrimination provisions and is not a retaliatory eviction. However, he is obligated to give the tenant advance written notice. The law requires 30 days' notice for tenancies of less than a year, but 60 days' notice for tenancies that have lasted more than a year.

Right to Conditional 3-Day Notice

Failure to pay rent is one of the primary reasons for eviction. But a tenant has a limited right to pay up a little late. That is, a landlord who is evicting a tenant for failure to pay rent is obligated to give the tenant three days to pay the overdue rent. He cannot simply send an eviction notice, but must first use a conditional 3-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit. The notice allows the tenant to pay and stay, or to vacate. She has three days from the date she gets the notice to pay the rent.

Likewise, the landlord must use a three-day conditional notice if he wants to evict someone for violating any other covenant of the rent agreement, like keeping a pet against the rules. In this case, if the tenant takes care of the problem within three business days, she can stay in the unit and the tenancy continues.

Right to Just Cause Eviction

The Tenant Protection Act of 2019, effective January 1, 2020, limits a landlord's right to terminate a tenancy and evict. The law only permits just cause evictions. Just cause is defined in the law to include tenant-fault evictions like failure to pay rent, habitual late payments of rent or breach of contract terms, and no-fault causes like when the landlord wishes to occupy the unit or remove the building from the rental market. Landlords must pay tenants rehousing assistance for no-fault evictions. Tenants already protected under rent control ordinances do not lose that protection.

Note that in California, an eviction is not accomplished through a notice, but is a legal procedure. The notice simply advises the tenant that the landlord is terminating the tenancy, either conditionally with a 3-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit or unconditionally. Once the time given in the notice expires, the landlord must head to the courthouse and file a Complaint for Unlawful Detainer.

Like every other court action, a wrongful detainer complaint must be officially served on the defendant (in this case, the tenant) who then has a period of time to respond. This can be as short as five business days if someone hands the papers to the tenant personally, but is longer if another type of service was used. The tenant has a legal right to respond. He can attack the validity of the service of the papers or the court pleading with with a motion made to the court. He can file an answer raising any defenses he has, like retaliatory eviction. And he has a legal right to appear and present arguments at trial before the court decides the case.

Right to Walk-Through With Landlord

Under Civil Code Section 1950.5, the landlord is required to notify a tenant that he has the right to an inspection walk-through with the landlord before moving out. This is called the initial inspection and should take place during the final two weeks of the tenancy. During this walk-through, the landlord must show the tenant any damage or cleaning issues that could result in the withholding of security deposit monies.

Based on this initial inspection, the landlord must put together a detailed statement of repairs or cleaning. These are the problems that the landlord believes the tenant must deal with to avoid deductions from the security deposit. The law requires the landlord to give this report to the tenant, together with a copy of California's security deposit statute, particularly the sections that mention what a security deposit can be used for. When the tenant moves out, the landlord can withhold for damage or cleaning only what was on the report, unless the problem was covered up by the tenant's possessions.

Security Deposit Rights

Under Civil Code Section 1950.5, a landlord can withhold parts of a tenant's security deposit only for unpaid rent, for cleaning charges or for the cost of repairing damage to the rental unit. The tenant is obligated to leave the premises as clean and in the same state of repair that it was when she moved in. That means that if the refrigerator was filthy when she moved in, she doesn't have to clean it; if the window was cracked, she doesn't have to replace it.

In addition, the landlord cannot charge the tenant for normal wear and tear of the unit. Normal wear and tear means the type of damage that one would expect to happen to a unit during occupancy — the normal degradation that often occurs through regular use. The longer the tenant has lived in the unit, the more normal wear and tear it will have. For example, the paint will fade or discolor, the carpets will be worn and the floors may be scuffed.

The basic timeframe for return of a security deposit is 21 days from move-out. If the landlord is returning the entire security deposit, it must be mailed within three weeks of move-out. If the landlord is retaining some portion of the security deposit, he must send the tenant an itemized accounting of the costs of cleaning and repairs, plus a check for the remainder of the security deposit. If he hasn't managed to repair or clean in that time, he must send an interim accounting and a final one within 14 days of completion of the repairs. The tenant can contest the landlord's security deposit determination in small claims court.

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