Tenant's Rights in California: Rights & Restrictions on Tenants Without a Written Lease

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A residential tenant in California has many rights, whether or not he has signed a written lease. The federal Fair Housing Act and the California Civil Code protect renters from discrimination based on a number of factors, such as ethnicity and gender. The California Civil Code requires that landlords provide only habitable units to rent. It also sets requirements that landlords must follow for the eviction process and establishes ways for a renter to recover damages when a landlord does not follow the rules. The California Civil Code, as well as city and county ordinances, protect renters from rent increases.

When There Is No Written Lease

A landlord and a tenant may enter into an arrangement regarding residential housing without a written lease. If the lease term is one year or less, the parties do not need to create a written agreement. They have created a verbal agreement, which forms a valid lease. California’s Statute of Frauds requires that a lease be in writing if the lease period is longer than one year. The statute also requires a lease to be in writing if the lease period is less than one year, but expires more than a year after the agreement is formed. One example is a lease for a term of nine months that begins four months from the date when the agreement was reached.

When a landlord and a tenant enter into a verbal arrangement for a period to last longer than one year, the verbal lease is unenforceable. Yet by forming an agreement, the parties enter into a tenancy at will. This is a type of rental arrangement, defined by the fact that the agreement could terminate by the unilateral decision of either party, at any time. If the landlord accepts rent every month, the court will treat a tenancy at will as a month-to-month tenancy. California requires that a party who wants to terminate a month-to-month tenancy provide an advance 30-day notice of termination. A landlord who wants to terminate a tenancy at will must also provide a reason for the eviction.

Rights Regarding Just Cause Evictions

Assembly Bill 1482, also known as the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, is a recent state law that took effect January 1, 2020. It established a new state rule regarding just cause evictions. This rule requires a landlord to have just cause to evict a tenant. There are two types of just cause evictions: at-fault eviction and no-fault eviction.

An at-fault eviction occurs when a tenant has engaged in behavior that breaches the lease, such as causing extreme damage to the unit. A no-fault eviction occurs when the tenant has not created any concerns, but the landlord needs to terminate the lease nonetheless. Reasons for a no-fault eviction include intent to demolish or substantially remodel the unit or withdrawal of the unit from the rental market.

AB 1482 requires that a landlord provide a reason for the eviction and that the reason falls within permissible reasons stated in the statute. The just cause rule takes effect after 12 months of tenancy. It provides a tenant with one month’s relocation payment or a rent waiver in the event of a no-fault eviction.

Rights Regarding Rent Increases

AB 1482 limits rent increases throughout the state to 5 percent plus the rate of inflation per year. This law covers most multifamily housing, like apartment complexes. It does not apply to single-family homes and condominiums. It also does not apply to housing built within the last 15 years.

City and county ordinances can limit the amount, timing and frequency of rent increases. For example, Oakland’s city ordinances mandate that rent can be raised only once a year. The increase must occur 12 months after a tenant’s move-in date or 12 months after the last increase. Oakland’s rent law prohibits rent increases higher than 10 percent, even for units that are not covered by AB 1482.

The Permanent Rent Stabilization Ordinance for unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County take effect on April 1, 2020. The ordinance places an annual cap of up to 8 percent, tied to the Consumer Price Index, on rent increases, even for units not covered by AB 1482. There are exemptions to the rules. Santa Monica’s rent control ordinance applies to certain single-family homes and condominiums. A tenant who wants to learn more about her local rent control rules should research city and county websites regarding housing ordinances.

Rights Regarding Habitability and Safety

Even if the tenant and landlord have not signed a written lease, the landlord has a duty to provide the tenant with a habitable unit. The unit must have necessities like running water, a front door that locks and unbroken windows. A tenant also has a right to privacy. Although a landlord has the right to enter the unit to make repairs and show the unit to prospective renters, he must give proper notice to the tenant.

A tenant also has rights with regard to security deposits, service animals, rental application procedures and other aspects of the landlord/tenant relationship. When it comes to state laws like these that are generally applicable, a landlord must treat a tenant without a written lease in the same manner as a tenant with a written lease. A landlord is not allowed to discriminate against a tenant because of factors such as the tenant’s race, religion and source of income. A tenant who wants to clarify her rights should review her local court's self-help webpage for tenants. She can also contact a landlord/tenant attorney who specializes in tenant rights.

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