California statute dictates that tenants have a right to livable conditions whenever they rent a unit or lease it from a landlord. A property with habitable conditions refers to one that meets the basic structural, safety, and health standards and is in good repair. However, some landlords fail to maintain the habitable conditions of their rental. They may also fail to fix any issues arising in rental units, like a broken water heater or a leaky roof. What do you do in this situation? Also, it’s possible that because of the rented property conditions, you decide that you simply cannot live there any longer and vacate it. What legal rights do you have if you decide to do this? Let’s find out.

Guarantee of Livability

California law provides that landlords only lease or rent units considered livable. This merely means the property is suitable for anyone to reside there. But the law is specific as to what it means for premises to be deemed habitable. The state’s Civil Code provides that landlords have to make sure that given conditions exist prior to leasing or renting property to tenants, including:

  • Appropriate locks, including a deadbolt lock on every main entry door and window security for all the windows that can open
  • Well-maintained railings, stairways, and floors
  • Sufficient dumpsters and trash cans
  • Grounds and the building are kept hygienic and pest/debris-free
  • Proper lighting
  • Appropriate and well-maintained heating facilities
  • A water supply producing both cold and hot water
  • Proper and well-maintained gas and plumbing facilities that were up to code at the time they were installed
  • Effective waterproofing of the exterior walls and roof

The law requires landlords to make repairs, if any, to ensure these conditions remain unchanged unless a tenant:

  • Fails to maintain the cleanliness of the unit,
  • Improperly uses the utilities,
  • Fails to dispose of garbage properly,
  • Uses the premises in a way for which it wasn’t designed (for instance, utilizing a residential unit as commercial property and vice versa), or
  • Permits guests to destroy the property

Landlord’s Duty to Maintain

We all know that apartments, houses, and rental units are bound to wear and tear, and with time, some of their parts cease working properly. Roofs leak, walls crack, and water heaters break down. It’s a fact we can’t evade. Usually, if something in your house is out of shape, you ask your landlord to fix it. Generally, landlords have a grace period of thirty days to repair any damage to property. The thirty days start running from the day the repair request is made.

What options do you have if your landlord doesn’t fix the issues in your rental unit within a reasonable period and the unit becomes uninhabitable? In this situation, you have the right to:

  • Pay for the repair yourself, then deduct the repair charges from your rent
  • Withhold rent
  • Call a local or state building health inspector
  • File a petition to the rent control board in your city for a reduction of the rent until the landlord does the repairs
  • Vacate without notice
  • Sue the landlord

It's unlawful for a California landlord to revenge/retaliate against any tenant who exercises their legal rights, like the legal right to vacate without notice.

Repair and Deduct

Should your landlord fail to fix problems in your apartment, the law allows you to take over the matter, pay someone to repair whatever damage it is, and then deduct the charges from your following month's rent. But repair and deduct is an option only under limited circumstances. You also have to abide by the state’s law to carry out the process correctly. Should you take any misstep, you may end up having issues with the landlord and being incapable of deducting the repair cost. If there's a serious problem in your rental unit that needs repair and the landlord isn't responding, you ought to reach out to a tenant rights lawyer for help right away.

When It's an Option

The repair and deduct remedy is an option if the problem in your dwelling causes it to be in an unlivable condition. The problem could be, but isn't limited to:

  • Holes in the floor
  • Lack of hot or cold water
  • Broken windows or doors
  • No functioning gas power
  • No functioning toilets, bathroom, or kitchen
  • Lack of functioning plumbing
  • Broken, unsealed, or leaking walls and roofs
  • Lack of weather protection
  • Unsafe stairs and floors
  • No locking mailbox for every unit
  • Lack of enough community trash facilities
  • No sanitary and clean common areas
  • No proper and safe electrical wiring
  • Lack of operable and well-maintained windows
  • No operable door and window locks
  • Lack of adequate ventilation
  • Lack of operable appliances, such as a refrigerator and stove
  • Lack of sufficient waterproofing that's free from water intrusion

Essentially, what's considered an uninhabitable condition varies depending on the existing facts. However, generally, there have to be high risks to the tenant’s safety and health for a problem to be considered as making property to be in an uninhabitable condition. A minor leak in the roof wouldn’t qualify to make premises unlivable. But if that leak causes a situation where the unit becomes overgrown with toxic mold, then this would be deemed uninhabitable. If you aren't sure if a given issue makes your house be in an unlivable condition, reach out to a tenants union, lawyer, or the California Department of Consumer Affairs.

Proceeding With Repairing and Deducting

You have to inform your landlord concerning the habitability problem. To make sure the landlord is fully aware of the issue, the ideal way to notify them is by sending them a letter describing the issue, how it impacts your living circumstances, and how you wish the problem fixed. However, you could also notify them via email, in person, or over the phone. You ought to document then keep all copies of your correspondence concerning the issue with your landlord.

If the landlord doesn't respond to your notice in due time, you can move ahead with fixing the problem yourself then deduct the expenses from your rent for the next month. You should consult with a lawyer or housing authority before proceeding with the remedy. Should you fix the problem so soon before giving the landlord a reasonable period to rectify it, you might be incapable of deducting the repair cost.

When It Isn't an Option

Generally, you can't fix a minor problem on your own, then deduct the expenses. Even if that problem is inconvenient or unsightly, you mustn’t move forward with repairing and deducting if it doesn't change your safety or health status.

There are several other lawful limitations on the repair and deduct remedy, too, including:

  • The problem that requires repair ought not to have been caused by you, your guests, family, or pets, and it also cannot be something that's your duty, like taking out the garbage.
  • Do not use the remedy more than one time within the same twelve-month period.
  • Don't make a repair whose cost is beyond the rent for one month

What Could Go Wrong?

Failure to strictly comply with the law on fixing an issue and deducting the charges from rent, your landlord may require that you pay the whole rent amount. If you decline, they could evict or sue you.

Withholding Rent

Rent withholding essentially means you cease paying your rent until the landlord fixes the problem at hand. However, before doing this, you have to ensure you meet these requirements:

  • It is a serious habitability or repair problem, not only annoying. Just like under repair and deduct, there has to be a genuine habitability issue that affects your safety and health.
  • Also, like repair and deduct, the issue mustn’t be something you, your guest, or your family member caused either intentionally or through neglect or carelessness.
  • You have withheld a reasonable rent amount comparative to the issue at hand. Unless you have had to vacate the rental property due to uninhabitable conditions, you're not supposed to cease paying rent altogether. You have to pay the landlord the reasonable value of the rental unit in its unlivable condition or deduct the rent amount depending on the value of the part of the unit impacted by the problem.
  • You informed the landlord of the issue and gave them a reasonable chance to repair it. Set a realistic deadline and notify the landlord that you intend on withholding rent if they don't resolve the problem. We mentioned that the law grants landlords thirty days to repair habitability problems. However, the same law provides that problems warranting immediate attention can be fixed in less than thirty days. For instance, a broken main door lock needs immediate attention and not thirty days.
  • You have adhered to the local laws regarding rent withholding, like the requirement that you pay the withheld rent directly to a city escrow account.

Even though tenant organizations advise withholding rent if the landlord fails to do the repairs, we don't recommend it because withholding rent makes you susceptible to an illegal detainer action. Defending an unlawful detainer action isn't only risky, but it's also costly to litigate. If you're considering withholding rent, talk to a tenant lawyer before proceeding.

Petitioning the Rent Control Board

If you live in a city with rent control, for instance, San Francisco, you may file a ‘Decrease in Services’ petition with your local rent control board requesting a rent reduction. If the judge rules the petition in your favor, the landlord will be compelled to decrease your monthly rent until they complete the repairs.

And if the landlord has given you notice for rent increment, you can bring a Failure to Repair and Maintain petition with the board. In this petition, you'll claim that the landlord doesn't have the right to increase the rent because they have refused to do the requested repairs as the law requires.

The burden of proof with these petitions lies with you. You must show that you've requested the landlord to make the repairs, and they haven’t done so even after giving them a reasonable period.

All unresolved petitions lead to administrative hearings where both the landlord and tenant have the chance to submit their proof. The hearing is presided over by a hearing officer, who then renders their decision within forty-five days. You can appeal the hearing officer's decision to the Rent Board Commissioners within fifteen days.

Suing the Landlord

You could also sue your landlord for a rent refund for the period you were paying rent while living in severe repair or habitability problems. If you are suing for ten thousand dollars or less, you could file your case in Small Claims Court. Here, no attorney is necessary. However, if you wish to file your case in Superior Court, reach out to a legal clinic or lawyer. And apart from being refunded rent, you may also recover damages for emotional distress, annoyance and discomfort, and punitive damages. Under certain circumstances, the landlord might also be required to pay for you attorney fees.

Constructive Eviction

If it reaches the point where the premises aren't habitable anymore, and your landlord hasn't rectified the underlying problem, the law (Civil Code Section 1942) allows you to move out in the middle of your rental agreement under the constructive eviction principle. By this, it simply means the landlord has effectively evicted you by not making sure the property is livable. You should have documentation of all the issues, such as pictures and letters, to claim constructive eviction. You need not give the landlord notice that you're vacating the premises, but you want to write them a letter stating your intentions to exercise your legal right to pack out. However, this remedy isn't something to take lightly, as you'll be held responsible for the lease should the situation not warrant you abandoning the premises.

Find an Experienced Eviction Attorney Near Me

Landlord and tenant laws are intricate. They often require thorough documentation plus an understanding of the precise issue at hand. A skilled lawyer is often required to preserve your legal rights and make sure you obtain favorable results. If you live on a premise with unlivable conditions and the landlord isn't cooperating, a lawyer's help may be necessary. The legal experts at Los Angeles Eviction Attorney have helped Los Angeles tenants obtain the outcome they deserve for several years. Schedule your initial, complimentary, and confidential consultation by contacting us at 310-695-5536.