What You Need to Know About Tenant Rights in California

What renters in the Golden State should know before they go toe-to-toe with their landlord.

U.S. News & World Report

What to Know: California Tenant Rights

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Renters in California are protected from housing discrimination and all tenants have the right to live in a habitable property.(Getty Images)

You may be a couple days late on making your rent payment. You may have lost hot water for the fourth time in two months, with your landlord now avoiding your phone calls. You may still be waiting on your security deposit long after you moved out of your last apartment.

Whatever the issue may be, you’re certainly not the first renter in California to wonder what your rights are when living under a landlord. Unfortunately, most tenants don’t wonder until there’s already a problem.

Ken Carlson, a California attorney who specializes in tenant-landlord law, explains that there are good landlords who respect their tenants, charge fair rent and keep long-term tenants. But there are also bad landlords who take advantage of the legal system and threaten eviction to avoid making necessary repairs.

“If landlords treated their tenants like any other business person in America would to their customers, especially those who pay tens of thousands of dollars per year, I would have to change my specialty,” Carlson wrote in an email. “But I’m safe. It will never happen. I owe a very successful practice to landlord arrogance.”

Regardless of whether you’re dealing with a good-natured landlord, you should know the conditions and treatment you’re entitled to as a tenant in California.

Civil Rights and Fair Housing

Housing-related civil rights violations are protected by federal law under the Fair Housing Act, which was originally passed in 1968 and has been amended since to include more protections. The Fair Housing Act restricts landlords nationwide from refusing housing to tenants based on race, nationality, sex, familial status, religion or disability.

Beyond these protections, California prohibits housing discrimination based on race or color, ancestry or national origin, religion, mental or physical disability, sex or gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, genetic information, marital status, familial income or source of income. These laws are enforced by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Concerns about discrimination that violate federal fair housing rights are often handled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. There are also state organizations, like the Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, that can provide insight and education and even investigate suspected cases of discrimination covering both federal- and state-protected classes. In cases where discrimination is detected, the nonprofit organization can even file a lawsuit on behalf of the complainant or serve as the complainant, says Casey Epp, supervising attorney for Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California.

Eviction

In California, a landlord may file for eviction if:

  • The tenant does not pay rent on time.
  • The tenant breaks the rules of the lease and is unwilling to right them.
  • The tenant or guest of the tenant causes damage that leads to loss in property value.
  • The tenant is a repeated nuisance to neighbors or other tenants.
  • The tenant commits a crime on the property.

Additionally, if the tenant stays beyond the lease expiration or if the landlord provides proper notice of lease termination, eviction can occur. Unless a county or city ordinance rules otherwise, Epp explains that a California landlord can "terminate (the lease) for no reason at all. All you need is a 60-day notice." Rent control established by a city or county is often a scenario where further reason is needed for a landlord to terminate a lease.

To file an eviction, the landlord must give the tenant three days to pay rent or remedy the rental agreement violation. Following that, the landlord provides a three-day unconditional notice to quit, which means the tenant has three days to either pack up and move out or choose to fight a formal eviction, which would involve going to court to argue the landlord improperly provided notice or otherwise violated the tenant's rights in providing notice, which required documented proof. If the tenant has not moved out by the end of the notice to quit, the landlord may file for eviction.

When fighting eviction, the tenant has a right to remain at the property. But the scariest part of fighting an eviction is that if the tenant loses, the eviction is on his or her record, which can make it difficult to rent in the future. Carlson puts it simply: “Evicted tenants are blacklisted for life, so the risk of asserting rights is dangerous.” As a result, many tenants who receive notice will move out before the landlord goes to court. While no formal eviction has taken place, it feels that way to the displaced tenant.

Habitability

All tenants have a right to live in a habitable property. This means there must be running water (both hot and cold), electricity and heating or air conditioning in extreme outdoor temperatures. Measures must also be taken to ensure the tenant's physical health and safety. Mold growth or a pest infestation are two examples of potentially uninhabitable conditions that pose a danger to the tenant’s health.

If the landlord has allowed the property to become uninhabitable and will not make repairs, tenants in California have the right to withhold rent under the warranty of habitability. Before choosing to withhold rent, be sure you’ve documented the uninhabitable conditions thoroughly by taking photos and noting the dates major issues occurred, and ensure you have dated proof of requests to fix the issue.

However, the landlord can still pursue eviction as soon as the tenant fails to pay rent. Like with all eviction cases, tenants have a right to fight an eviction in court, but keep in mind that proceedings can drag on and the outcome may not be ideal. Carlson notes that the fear of eviction in cases like this is why many tenants choose to simply move rather than deal with the possibility of expensive court proceedings or an eviction on their record.

Security Deposit

The size of a security deposit for a rental in California is limited to two months’ rent if the property is unfurnished, and three months’ rent if the property is furnished. California law even gets specific enough to note that a landlord may charge an extra half month’s rent if the tenant has a waterbed, presumably for the potential water damage that could occur if the bed breaks.

Landlords can deduct money from a security deposit in order to repair damage to the property caused by either the tenant or guests, pay for the cost to clean the property after the tenant moves out to return it to the state it was in prior to the tenant moving in or to cover any unpaid rent. Deductions cannot be made to repair or replace items that are based on normal wear and tear, however.

The landlord has 21 days from when the tenant moves out to return a full or partial security deposit, along with information about why any money was withheld. When all or part of the deposit is kept by the landlord, he or she is required to write a letter explaining the decision, provide an itemized list of deductions and include a check with the remaining deposit being refunded and copies of all receipts that led to the total cost of the deductions.

Rent Control

Rent control or stabilization may limit the size of a rent increase, provide limits on causes of eviction or require assistance to help relocate tenants. Rent control is often limited to specific sections or neighborhoods of a city.

California does not establish rent control at the state level, but local governments are allowed to have rent control under municipal or county ordinances. Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Beverly Hills and Berkeley are just a few of the roughly dozen cities throughout the state with rent control.

Just because a city has rent control established, however, does not mean that all landlords know how to properly implement it. The Los Angeles Housing + Community Investment Department, or HCIDLA, receives as many as 10,000 complaints per year regarding the city's Rent Stabilization Ordinance, says Anna Ortega, director of the Rent Stabilization Division at HCIDLA.

Finding Resources and Fighting Back

When the tenant doesn’t know his or her rights and the landlord is either equally ignorant or willfully disregarding them, it’s too easy for the tenant to be taken advantage of. Don’t be afraid to seek the help of a professional in a local tenant rights organization, an attorney or other rental housing specialist.

The California Attorney General recommends resources such as seeking legal aid programs for low-cost assistance, consulting tenant rights organizations and contacting the county court or the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, among other options.

It may also be useful to contact the housing-related department for your city. HCIDLA, for example, investigates complaints and code violations and also operates a hotline for all housing questions and puts on workshops for landlords and tenants. "A lot of people get in touch just for information," Ortega says.

To be able to argue a case in court – be it over unpaid rent, uninhabitable conditions or an eviction filing – it’s important to keep a record of all contact with your landlord and property manager. Save emails and handwritten notes, document face-to-face interactions and send follow-up emails when possible. You want to be able to show the court when you requested maintenance, paid rent and allowed the landlord to enter your home, for example.

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