By Alan Pentico
Recent news coverage of the local landlord who has had numerous code compliance complaints filed against him by tenants concerned about health and safety violations is unsettling.
Many of those renters had to wait months or years for the violations to be corrected. But there is clearly no legitimate reason why anyone should be forced to live in substandard conditions. All renters, when faced with an intractable repair issue that affects health or safety, should be aware of their options – because the law is on their side.
California law states that rental units must be “habitable.” That basically means that the unit must be fit for people to live in. To be habitable, an apartment must meet state and local building and health codes related to health and safety.
Some repairs take longer than others, while some necessitate a higher priority. Property owners and renters each have responsibilities for certain kinds of repairs. Cleanliness of a unit, for example, is the responsibility of the tenant. It is the responsibility of the property owner or manager, however, to ensure the property is habitable.
When faced with a habitability issue, renters generally have seven options. You can:
- Notify your landlord or property manager of needed repairs. Make a call and send a letter. If you send an email, be sure to follow up with a written letter. Make sure to clearly identify yourself and the specific problem, and include the date of the communication.
- Make the repairs yourself (or hire a professional to do it) and deduct the cost from your rent. Exercise this option if you don’t get a response from your landlord within a reasonable amount of time. Legally, you can deduct no more than the amount of one month’s rent. This remedy covers serious conditions that impact health and safety, such as no hot running water or a gas leak.
- Abandon the unit if the problem is severe or life-threatening. You might consider this remedy if fixing the problem would cost more than one month’s rent. Before you do this, you want to be sure you’ve given the landlord a reasonable amount of time to fix the problem.
- Withhold rent until the repairs are made. To use this method, the defects or cost to repair them must be more serious than would justify use of the above options.
- Seek arbitration or mediation. Some landlord-tenant disputes can be resolved through dispute resolution centers or mediation services. The goal here is to settle disputes without having to resort to the courts.
- File a lawsuit. Depending on the amount of money involved, this would happen in small claims court or Superior Court. Keep in mind that you can sue without first trying any of the above options, but there are issues to consider, including costs and delays.
- Contact your city’s Code Enforcement Division. The city of San Diego suggests you utilize the complex manager, homeowner association, mediation services, or the civil courts to resolve disputes before you go to them. San Diego’s code compliance complaint form can be found online at sandiego.gov.
If you find yourself exercising options 2, 3 or 4, remember that you must give the landlord notice in writing. The letter should clearly explain the problem. Don’t forget to sign and date the letter and keep a copy.
The California Department of Consumer Affairs has more information on these options on its website. For more information on habitability, visit the DCA website.
Remember, no one should ever be forced to live in an uninhabitable rental property. There are several steps you can take. Read your lease and see if repair requests are specifically addressed and what the process entails. If corrective steps are taken, make sure you document everything. In other words, take the time to make copies of letters, save emails, make copies of checks, etc.
Everyone deserves to live in a safe and clean home. Anything short of that is unacceptable.
-Pentico is Executive Director of the San Diego County Apartment Association.