California tenants and the right to decent and habitable housing
The implied warranty of habitability
Landlords and property managers cannot get out of the obligations included in the warranty by clever language in the lease agreement, or because the property has been a dump for a long time. It is this “no excuses allowed” feature of the legal mandate that makes it an implied warranty.
The Court decision that recognized the implied warranty of habitability in residential rental agreements has been around for four decades. In Hinson v. Delis the Court held that when a landlord fails to “substantially obey the housing codes and make the premises habitable” then that landlord was in material breach of the rental agreement with his tenant.
In Green v. Superior Court the California Supreme Court expanded the warranty and affirmed that when a landlord´s maintenance of a rental property fails to keep the home or apartment in decent and livable condition, then a tenant is justified in withholding the payment of rent.
Green v. Superior Court compares the implied warranty of habitability to the warranty of fitness that is implied whenever a product is placed into the market for public consumption. The decision explains why the conditions within a rental unit are relevant to the issues a court must decide when hearing an eviction lawsuit.
Today the habitability of the dwelling unit has become the very essence of the residential lease; the landlord can as materially frustrate the purpose of such a lease by permitting the premises to become uninhabitable as by withdrawing the use of a portion of the premises.”
What does habitable mean?
- The California Civil Code Section 1941.1 requires that the landlord provide all of the following to any residential rental property.
- Effective waterproofing and weather protection of the roof and exterior walls, including unbroken windows and doors.
- Plumbing, electricity, and gas facilities maintained in good working order.
- Hot and cold running water and a sewage disposal system.
- Sufficient heating facilities maintained in good working order
- Electrical lighting, with wiring and electrical equipment which is maintained in good working order.
- Working electrical outlets in each room.
- Floors, stairways and railings maintained in good repair.
- An adequate number of containers for garbage, kept clean and in good repair.
- Building and building grounds free of trash, rubbish, rodents, and other pests.
- A working toilet, washbasin, and bathtub or shower, in a room which is ventilated.
- An operable dead bolt lock on each main swinging entry door.
- At least one working telephone jack and phone line.
Section 1941.1 also incorporates Section 17920.30 and 17920.10 of the Health and Safety Code. This portion of the Health and Safety code defines “substandard building.” A building can be substandard if it has inadequate sanitation, structural hazards, any nuisance, faulty wiring, faulty plumbing, or faulty mechanical equipment. This section is very detailed. Click here if you would like to read the entire text.
If the problem you have with your rental falls within one of the categories of defects described in the Civil Code Section 1941.1, or if it a substandard building as defined by Section 17920.30 of the Health and Safety Code, and it prevents you from enjoying the property, then you have good reason to complain, and every right to expect that the situation will be taken care of.
Habitable is not in the eye of the beholder.
How many times have you heard from the landlord that you are the only tenant that complains? That everyone else seems to have no problem with the cockroaches, and that the good tenants understand the heating system just doesn’t work. The fact is many landlords and management companies are under the impression that tenants need to be able to tough it out. That is not the law in California. Landlords do have a responsibility to their tenants.
Habitable means more than your landlord may be willing to admit. It means your landlord cannot simply tell you to put up with the leaking roof and windows. Your landlord cannot make you responsible for the cost of maintaining the plumbing that constantly backs up. Tenants are not required to just put up with the rubbish the landlord refuses to move out of the backyard. None of these situations described above will literally stop a tenant from being able to inhabit the rental, but they are each an example of a breach of warranty of habitability.
Effective communication is critical
It is important to remember that the relationship with the landlord is centered upon a contract. It might be a friendly relationship, but that doesn’t change the fact that your landlord expects you to pay the rent. Tenants also have a right to insist that the landlord live by his or her legal obligations. Some tenants fear that their landlord will be put off by complaints about the property , and it is true that a few landlords do react negatively. But whether your landlord likes it or not, certain kinds of problems are his responsibility to fix, and you have both a legal right and responsibility to make the landlord aware of the problem. If you do not make a complaint to your landlord about the problem, then he or she will always have an excuse to leave it alone. It may be the case that the landlord knows that the roof leaks, but maybe not. Don’t be shy about asserting you right to habitable housing.
If the problem you have is a serious enough bother complaining about, then you should make the complaint in writing. Make sure to sign and date the letter or email, and make sure you include your address. Keep a copy for your records. If the landlord doesn’t act on the problem , then follow up. If you get nothing but excuses, or are told to stop being difficult, then you shouldn’t hesitate to contact a lawyer. Nothing says “you need to pay attention” like a demand letter. It lets your landlord understand that you are serious about your contractual and legal rights, and often results in a degree of respect from your landlord that is all too frequently in short supply.
Preparing your evidence
Once you have made complaints concerning the conditions that violate the warranty, make sure that you have lots of photographs. Don’t just keep them on your phone. Print the photographs out, or save them to the hard drive of a computer, or put them on your Google Plus page, but make sure you don’t lose them. If your landlord wants to make some arrangement to change the rental agreement, or offers some concession or explanation why the problem cannot be fixed, then ask them to put these into written form.
In Green v. Superior Court the California Supreme Court summed up the law over three decades ago with the following:
Get professional assistance
Parties that go to court without a lawyer should expect the worse. Eviction lawsuits are not small claims cases, and it is not a good idea to defend against one without an attorney.
It is equally unwise to assume that simply because the law requires your landlord to live up to the warranty of habitability the process to getting the problems in your house or apartment resolved will be straight-forward.
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