What Can I Do About Uninhabitable Conditions in My Unit?
All tenants in California, regardless of immigration status, have the right to safe, habitable housing. Landlords provide an implied warranty of habitability by renting a property and are required to perform maintenance and repairs as needed to ensure the property that have rented remains safe and habitable for tenants.
If you are living in a rental property with uninhabitable conditions and your landlord refuses to make repairs, you have several options under California law. If the landlord refuses to fix a serious problem like a broken heater or a leaking roof, you may:
- Withhold rent
- Pay for the repairs yourself and deduct the cost from your monthly rent
- Call local or state building health inspectors, who can order the landlord to make repairs
- Sue the landlord
- Move without giving required notice
A California landlord cannot retaliate against you for exercising your rights, including all of those listed above.
What are Habitable Conditions?
Landlords must offer housing that is habitable when it is rented and maintain it in this condition throughout the rental term. This means that, at a minimum, rental housing should have:
- No lead paint hazards
- No nuisances, which refers to something that can be dangerous to human life, morally offensive and obnoxious (like allowing drug dealing), or detrimental to health
- Clean and sanitary building and property grounds, which means free of garbage, filth, vermin, and rodents, with adequate trash receptacles for tenants
- Functioning heating, plumbing, and electrical systems, which includes a functioning hot water heater, kitchen sink, and toilet
- Effective weatherproofing of the roof and exterior walls, which means doors and windows should also be unbroken
- Well-maintained railings, stairways, and floors to prevent safety hazards
- Deadbolt locks on some windows and doors to protect the tenant’s safety
Additional city building and housing codes set in place minimum standards for heating, ventilation, light, and other factors that contribute to safe and habitable housing.
Keep in mind tenants also have responsibilities to maintain a habitable environment. According to California housing law, tenants must:
- Keep their rental unit as clean and sanitary as premises allow
- Dispose of garbage in a clean and sanitary fashion
- Properly using all plumbing, gas, and electrical systems
- Not willfully or negligently destroying, damaging, impairing, or removing any part of the structure or dwelling unit
Informing Your Landlord of Necessary Repairs
The first approach to take is putting all repair and maintenance requests in writing. While you can call your landlord first, be sure all requests are in writing and describe the issue, how it effects you, what you want to be done, and when. If a defect like a broken lock on the front door poses a safety hazard, say so. If your landlord agrees on a plan of action, put it in writing and send a copy to the landlord. To protect yourself, be sure correspondence can be tracked, which can mean certified mail and photocopies of your documentation. You will need all of this documentation if your landlord attempts to evict you.
If this approach does not work to get your landlord to make necessary repairs or maintenance, California law offers several approaches that are within your legal rights.
You have the right to withhold rent until repairs are made, but all of these circumstances must be in place first:
- It must be a serious repair or habitability issue, not a nuisance. This means it should be something that imperils your safety or health, not a minor issue like a leaking faucet.
- The problem must not be something that you or a guest caused deliberately or through neglect.
- You must tell the landlord about the problem and give your landlord the chance to fix it. California law grants landlords 30 days to fix habitability issues unless they require immediate attention, like a broken front door lock.
- You must withhold a reasonable amount of rent, relative to the problem. You cannot stop paying rent entirely; you must still pay the landlord the reasonable value of the rental unit and deduct rent based on the value of the affected part of your unit.
“Repair and Deduct” Remedy
The most popular strategy is hiring a professional to repair the problem yourself and subtracting the cost from next month’s rent. To use the “repair and deduct” method:
- You cannot spend more than 1 month’s rent
- You cannot use this remedy more than twice in a 12-month period
- You cannot have caused the problem and it can’t be an issue that is already your responsibility
You also have the right to abandon or move out of the defective rental property without giving the notice you would otherwise need to give your landlord. A tenant can use the abandonment remedy if the defects would cost more than one month’s rent and be ineligible for the “repair and deduct” remedy, but this isn’t required.
To use the abandonment remedy, the rental property must have substandard or inhabitable conditions that breach the landlord’s implied warranty of habitability, such as serious defects that imperil your health and safety. You and your guests must not have caused the defects and you must still give your landlord notice that repairs are necessary and give the landlord a reasonable amount of time to fix the problem.
Once these conditions are met, you can notify the landlord in writing of your reasons for moving and leave the property. Be sure to protect yourself by providing sufficient notice in writing via certified mail and maintaining evidence of the property condition in the form of photos or videos in case your landlord tries to sue you later. You can also have local health or building officials inspect the property before you leave.
Filing a Lawsuit Against Your Landlord
Tenants have another legal option: filing a lawsuit against their landlord to recover damages if the landlord fails to repair serious defects to the property in a timely fashion. A lawsuit can be filed without attempting another remedy like the “repair and deduct” remedy or withholding rent.
If you win the lawsuit, the court can award you your actual damages plus “special damages” of $100 to $5,000 which are costs that you incur, such as the cost of staying in a hotel. You are also entitled to recover your cost of bringing the lawsuit and attorney’s fees. The court can even order the landlord to stop a nuisance and repair substandard conditions. Your landlord cannot retaliate against you for filing a lawsuit within your rights.
Contact a Landlord Tenant Attorney in Los Angeles
If you are living with uninhabitable housing conditions and your landlord refuses to fix the problem, you have many solutions available under California law. A landlord tenant attorney can help you explore your options and avoid pitfalls that may result from pursuing action if you have not met the requirements. Contact Soliman Law Group for a free consultation with a Los Angeles landlord tenant attorney to discuss your case.