Terms Explained: Habitable vs. Tenantable

Tenants are often surprised to learn that a landlord need not repaint on a schedule or replace worn carpet. He need not repair sinks that drain slowly or improve low-amp electrical service. That’s because state law requires nothing more of the landlord. Tenants deserve a higher bar. We need a local habitability standard!

Heat, hot water, plumbing, electrical service and weatherproofing are necessary for human habitation but are not sufficient for a comfortable dwelling. The difference reflects the evolution in our thinking about housing. At the dawn of the 20th century, a law was required to rid tenements of the worst conditions imaginable: tiny rooms without windows that were unsafe for human occupancy. Today we expect a higher standard but the irony is that all the law affords more than a century later is something “fit for occupancy by human beings.”

The Origin of ‘Tenantable’

Section 1940 of the state Civil Code explains the requirements a piece of real property must meet in order to be hired or leased. It says simply:

The lessor of a building intended for the occupation of human beings must, in the absence of an agreement to the contrary, put it into a condition fit for such occupation, and repair all subsequent dilapidations thereof, which render it untenantable...

The hiring real property law was adopted as early as 1872 and amended over time to enumerate specific obligations of the landlord. The following section (1941.1) lists them:

A dwelling shall be deemed untenantable for purposes of Section 1941 if it substantially lacks any of the following affirmative standard characteristics...
-Effective waterproofing and weather protection
-Plumbing or gas facilities that conformed to applicable law in effect at the time of installation
-A water supply approved under applicable law that is under the control of the tenant, capable of producing hot and cold running water
-Heating facilities that conformed with applicable law...
-Electrical lighting, with wiring and electrical equipment that conformed with applicable law...
-Building, grounds, and appurtenances...kept in every part clean, sanitary, and free from all accumulations of debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents, and vermin
-Floors, stairways, and railings maintained in good repair
-A locking mail receptacle

Today ‘tenantable’ is interpreted by state courts to literally mean “fit for the occupation of human beings” but nothing more. So long as the premises provides those services the tenant has no complaint!

Tenants in Beverly Hills have consistently called for a higher local habitability standard to supplement the bare-bones state requirement. No tenant should live with run-down furnishings and fixtures when we’re paying rent. A real habitability standard would obligate the landlord to at least provide the maintenance necessary to renew the premises as wear takes its toll.

By the same token, no landlord should expect that an apartment with the barest of accommodations should pass muster with anybody. Some landlords do have that expectation, though, as the kitchen above shows. That kitchen was featured in an apartment open house!

Local Habitable Standards

Beverly Hills has no local habitability standard, though. A call to City Hall to complain about worn carpets, low-amp electric service, slow sink drains and the like produces no enforcement because it does not run afoul of the law. (Read Habitability Code Violations: What You Need to Know for more about the limitations of state requirements when it comes to the unit’s interior.)

Some cities have established a much higher standard. West Hollywood for example requires the landlord to paint the unit interior every four years and to replace the window and floor coverings (yes, carpets!) every seven years if needed. Failure to meet the city’s habitability standard is grounds for a rent reduction!

City of Los Angeles at least requires mandatory, systematic inspections to ensure that rental housing meets even the minimal state requirements. That too would be an improvement over the complaint-driven code enforcement process we have.

Tenant advocates have called for both a higher habitability standard and a systematic housing inspection program because our neighbors have complained about non-functional heaters; plumbing that doesn’t work properly; problematic electrical outlets and fixtures; windows that don’t lock; and even water leaks (which will inevitably lead to rot and mold).

But tenants are sometimes afraid to call the authorities.

A higher habitability standard would require the landlord to continually refresh the furnishings and fixtures as they wear. ‘Ordinary wear and tear’ is recognized as inevitable in the law concerning the security deposit. But should wear and tear progress unabated over the life of a long tenancy? Maintenance should be obligated.

City Council has agreed that Beverly Hills needs a local habitability standard and the landlords didn’t disagree. The new Rent Stabilization Commission will likely come up with some ideas.

Tenants have also called for systematic inspections. A minority of landlords will respond to reasonable tenant complaints with only a shrug. But letting penny-pinching landlords maximize cash flow by under-maintaining the property allows dwelling units to fall into disrepair, which is a disservice to both to the tenant and to the community. (Read more about systematic housing inspections.)

A local habitability standard backed by systematic inspections (inside and out) will help to preserve the relatively-affordable rental housing we have. After all, it is renewable resource! When properly cared for it will continue to provide the housing we need for a segment of our community that has no other option in Beverly Hills.