Interior Habitability: Weak Standard, Few Violations

Has your landlord shrugged at your request for interior maintenance? You are not alone! Longtime tenants in our older buildings often can’t get attention from the landlord. Water damage and other unsightly conditions impair habitability but some landlords don’t take such complaint seriously. The law says they don’t have to. Here’s what you need to know about ‘habitable’ premises.

’Fit to Live In’: What Does That Really Mean?

Landlords are required to provide a safe dwelling. That means maintaining the property to a state health and safety standard and “substantially” complying with building codes. That is a low bar! There is no requirement in the law that appliances need be replaced or even fixed; worn carpets and paint need not be refreshed; nor is there any standard for for utilities. Low-amp electric service and slow-draining tubs are par for the course in our older rental housing because the law requires nothing more.

To put it plainly, no Beverly Hills landlord needs to provide any accommodation that meets a standard higher than “fit to live in by human beings.” Seriously — that is the bar established by courts in California for a ‘tenantable’ dwelling. What does ‘fit to live in’ mean? Working locks, weatherproofing, hot and cold running water and vermin-free. Premises must also meet building codes (properly plumbed and wired) and fire codes (smoke detectors and fire exits).

Broken washing machines, worn carpets, old paint, kitchen cabinets that don’t properly close and even a non-working stove would meet the ‘tenantable’ standard. In fact many leases incorporate this clause promulgated by the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles that lets the landlord off the hook:

Except as provided by law, Owner shall not be required to make any improvements, replacements or repairs to the Premises and, if allowed by law, any such work shall be at Renter’s expense. Upon termination of the tenancy, Renter shall return the Premises to Owner in as good order, condition and repair as when received, ordinary wear and tear excepted.

The onus on the tenant: she obliged to repair a broken appliance at her expense and even must fix it before turning the apartment back to the landlord. The Apartment Association also boxes the tenant out from replacing a faulty appliance with one her own:

Renter shall not install or use any dishwasher, clothes washer, clothes dryer or air conditioner in or about the Premises except those which may be supplied by Owner.

Many tenants have signed a lease with these clauses and don’t even know it. Read your lease!

These clauses go to the heart of the issue: a tenant may have a different expectation for her apartment than the landlord is required to meet under the law. So a call to the Rent Stabilization Program office (310-285-1031) about a habitability issue or defects like the water damage pictured above will remind the tenant that under state law there is not much the office can do. Beverly Hills has no local habitability standard.

Still there are measures a tenant can take to hold an uncooperative landlord to account for problems that do warrant his attention under the law. It begins with the tenant serving as the city’s unofficial housing inspector.

Complaint-Based Code Enforcement: What Does it Mean for Tenants?

Beverly Hills uses a complaint-based enforcement program. The Community Preservation relies on tenants to report housing problems. But some tenants are loathe to approach the landlord because they don’t want to be the conspicuous nail that invites the hammer. Some fear ‘soft’ retaliation like getting the maximum allowed rent increase when other neighbors get something less. These fears discourage tenants from reporting problems even concerning health and safety.

Generally we encourage every tenant to work cooperatively with the landlord to resolve habitability problems. Filing a complaint should be the resort when the landlord has not been responsive to requests for repairs or maintenance AND when a problem is clearly a code violation. Contact the Rent Stabilization Program office if there is any question about what may rise to a level warranting a complaint.

Otherwise this brief guide provides some information about state and local codes realted to dwelling interiors and shows where tenants may or may not have an opportunity to force the landlord’s hand.

Problems and Suggested Steps

Carpet is worn. Carpet is a furnishing that wears over the life of a tenancy but landlords are reluctant to replace it because it earns no additional income from the current tenant. Indeed the landlord is under no obligation to replace it. Moreover, leases generally prohibit a tenant herself from replacing it.

What can a tenant do? Look carefully for areas that are torn or rippled, worn though or threadbare, raised seems where rooms meet or anything else that may present a trip hazard. Is the carpet discolored from prolonged exposure to moisture or does it smell bad? Either could be a sign of mold. The point is that merely ‘worn’ is in the eye of the beholder while these problems suggest a condition that is unsafe.

What can Beverly Hills do? Ideally the city would mandate a replacement schedule like West Hollywood. That way the tenant is not put in the role of a housing inspector or a ‘problem’ because the city would be able to force the landlord to replace threadbare carpets.

Paint is old. Paint is another furnishing that no local or state law addresses (unless it involves lead). Put simply, there is no schedule for refreshing the paint.

What can a tenant do? Repaint! Painting is much easier for most tenants than replacing the carpet. Cost is modest: $20 per can (two cans per bedroom) and a gallon to trim (two to three rooms). Five bucks per brush and ten for the roller. Our rule of thumb: painting will take twice as long as anyone might expect.

However leases will prohibit painting if they include this clause from the Apartment Association least template:

Renter shall not alter the Premises, nor paint, nor wallpaper any portion thereof, nor repair any damage thereto, without the written consent of Owner and except through licensed, insured professionals approved in advance by Owner in writing...

That is a good rule to follow if there is a resident manager! But an absent landlord will improve the odds of painting under the radar and those odds get better for the longtime tenant and when the color is close to the original paint color. However be mindful that painting may violate the terms of the lease (which is a reason for termination) and may pose a problem later at move-out.

What else can a tenant do? Give the existing paint some extra scrutiny. Is it peeling anywhere? Has there been water damage that suggests plaster repair and repainting? Is lead paint suspected? Any could be a valid basis for asking for new paint.

What can Beverly Hills do? The city could avoid putting the tenant in the position of housing inspector by amending the rent stabilization ordinance to render unenforceable a prohibition on tenant painting if the landlord is not willing to repaint at some specified frequency. That’s why we need a local habitability standard!

Appliances do not function properly. A professional landlord should be amenable to a request to repair an appliances. But we have heard from tenants who hear “You fix it” from the landlord. (One such tenant brought that AAGLA lease term to our attention.) The notion that a landlord won’t maintain his property simply because his AAGLA lease immunizes him is a reminder that Mayor Gold had it all wrong when he observed, “Leases protect tenants.” Of course it works the other way around!

What can a tenant do? Again extra scrutiny may be rewarded. Does the washer or dishwasher leak water? Is there an electrical short or some other fire hazard? It is also worthwhile to check if the lease even includes the term putting the repair on the tenant. Moreover, if the appliance is included in the lease’s inventory of amenities the tenant has a toehold to argue that a broken appliance is a housing service denied (and she should request a rent reduction).

What can Beverly Hills do? Simply include a term in our rent stabilization ordinance that requires the landlord to repair any appliance that comes with a leased apartment. After all, the washer and dryer is a selling point, right? So why surprise the tenant with a repair on her dime.

Plumbing that doesn’t work as it should. The state Health and Safety Code requires working plumbing, but both state law and local ordinance are silent on how well it should work. Incredibly, some landlords invoke “eye of the beholder” when it comes to plumbing: how fast does the sink need to drain anyway? So once in a while it clogs? A responsible landlord will clear the sink trap and root the drainpipe when necessary. Indeed a professional landlord will understand that this system needs to be replaced when it reaches end-of-life.

What can a tenant do? Highlight to the landlord the ill effects of a drain that drains too slowly. Make a video. See if the drain smells brackish. Is the toilet not usable on some regular basis? Document the dates. These issues contribute to an unsanitary condition. Also the faucet: does it drip-drip? That runs counter to the city’s conservation requirements (and could prevent the landlord from later passing through a water penalty surcharge to tenants). Documentation goes a long way toward convincing a city code enforcement officer that the landlord is not keeping his plumbing in good repair.

What can Beverly Hills do? Beverly Hills can establish a local habitability standard and specify in plain language that drains must drain within a reasonable time and toilets must flush reliably. Disputes can then be referred to the new rent commission. Common sense should prevail!

Electricity doesn’t work as it should. This will be familiar to residents in our older buildings: the electrical service is insufficient for demand and circuit-breakers trip when overloaded. Maybe certain outlets don’t function properly or, worse, they arc when an appliance is plugged-in (these outlets need to be properly grounded). It can be difficult to get help from the landlord because electricians — unlike a dime-store handyman — must be licensed. The work is expensive. But when we are talking about faulty wiring, that is a fire hazard – and the city will definitely take the call.

What should a tenant do? Give the landlord an opportunity to address it first. Then file a complaint. In our experience no branch of the city family is as responsive as the BHFD. Concerned about retaliation? The landlord who retaliates against a tenant for a fire-related complaint will have a difficult time justifying his action before the rent commission or a judge.

What should the tenant not do? Do-it-yourself electrical repairs. Leave it to the pros!

What can Beverly Hills do? Inspect rental properties! Indeed there is no better argument for a proactive, systematic inspection program than the fire hazards of substandard electrical systems (for example). The city should hire housing inspectors, not code enforcement officers, who are properly trained to inspect housing.

Mold. Mold gets a separate explainer post because according to the Health and Safety Code, the landlord is obligated to remediate mold under one specific condition: it is visible. According to Health and Safety Code § 17920.3(13):

Visible mold growth, as determined by a health officer or a code enforcement officer, as defined in Section 829.5 of the Penal Code, excluding the presence of mold that is minor and found on surfaces that can accumulate moisture as part of their properly functioning and intended use.

Mold is especially challenging because the law specifies no threshold for the hazard. ‘Visible’ is in the eye of the beholder. Consequently, what may be of concern to the tenant may be dismissed by the landlord – and by the County health inspector.

What could a tenant do? Hire a private testing outfit. But it is expensive and it may be a challenge to get a landlord to act. However it is a data point for discussions and, looking ahead, leverage should the tenant need to file a claim. As a preliminary step, invite an LA County housing inspector over to look. If the inspector will not flag the suspected mold as a problem, then the landlord would be obligated to abate it. Perhaps look for a new place but do report it to the Rent Stabilization Program!

One more caveat! The law does put some responsibility on the tenant to keep her premises clean and sanitary. Section 1941.2 of the Civil Code explains:

(1) To keep that part of the premises which he occupies and uses clean and sanitary as the condition of the premises permits. (2) To dispose from his dwelling unit of all rubbish, garbage and other waste, in a clean and sanitary manner. (3) To properly use and operate all electrical, gas and plumbing fixtures and keep them as clean and sanitary as their condition permits. (4) Not to permit any person on the premises, with his permission, to willfully or wantonly destroy, deface, damage, impair or remove any part of the structure or dwelling unit or the facilities, equipment, or appurtenances thereto, nor himself do any such thing.

The AAGLA lease template echoes that in a clause (section 26 of the lease template) that requires the tenant to:

(i) keep the Premises well- ventilated, clean and dry any signs of mold or mildew from all surfaces, (ii) promptly notify Owner of any dampness (from leaks, overflows, water intrusion, etc.); and (iii) promptly notify Owner of any malfunction of ventilation, air conditioning or heating systems.

We emphasize the tenant should conduct a thorough inspection before leasing. Think like an inspector. And take pictures!

Issues that Must Be Addressed By Law

We’ve covered some of the issues where a tenant may find some traction on an issue. In other areas, though, the law offers no help at all if it falls outside of requirements for a ‘tenantable’ dwelling. Tenantable requirements must be addressed so let’s recap them in more detail.

  • Effective waterproofing and weather protection of roof and exterior walls.
  • Secure (i.e. unbroken and with locks) windows and doors
  • Plumbing or gas facilities that conformed to applicable law in effect at the time of installation, maintained in good working order.
  • A water supply…that produces hot and cold running water, furnished to appropriate fixtures, and connected to a sewage disposal system approved under applicable law.
  • Heating facilities that conformed with applicable law at the time of installation, maintained in good working order.
  • Electrical lighting, with wiring and electrical equipment that conformed with applicable law at the time of installation, maintained in good working order.
  • Building, grounds, and appurtenances at the time of the commencement of the lease or rental agreement, and all areas under control of the landlord, kept in every part clean, sanitary, and free from all accumulations of debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents, and vermin.
  • An adequate number of appropriate receptacles for garbage and rubbish, in clean condition and good repair…
  • Floors, stairways, and railings maintained in good repair.
  • A locking mail receptacle for each residential unit

The Health and Safety Code also calls a ‘substandard’ certain deficiencies like deteriorated flooring or floor supports; ceilings that sag or buckle; and deteriorated, crumbling, or loose plaster or drywall. But these conditions come with a caveat: ‘substandard’ requires that it “endangers the life, limb, health, property, safety, or welfare of the public or the occupants thereof.” The image of crumbling plaster or water damage or amateur handyman fixes won’t meet that bar.

Sometimes a Complaints is Necessary

The first stop on many issues is the city’s rent stabilization program. Reach RSO by phone at (310) 285–1031. Ask if your problem is a code violation or what other measure the office may be able to take. Take the complaint number. For more information refer to our explainer, Code Complaint Primer.

We prefer to report a problem online online because it generates an official record. Setting up a user account is easy. Once an account is established then a problem can be reported online. Here are the steps:

  1. Visit the comcate system and click on ‘login’
  2. Enter the username and password
  3. Click on ‘submit request’ in the top menu
  4. Choose the ’renters issues’ topic tab
  5. From the drop-down menu select the only choice: ‘renters issues’
  6. Click ‘next’ to advance, then click ‘next’ to advance again to the complaint screen
  7. Choose the ‘complaint’ radio box, describe the problem, and using the ‘attach a file’ link provide any relevant documentation (up to five files)
  8. Click ‘submit’

For a walk-though of the online complaint process read our explainer, How to File a Code Complaint. The key is follow-up! We have seen cases summarily closed for one excuse or another. Follow-up ensures the case stays active. Within a week after reporting the problem call Community Preservation at (310) 285–1141 to learn which officer is assigned to the case. Don’t be reluctant about contacting the officer directly to see how it is progressing.

Do you have an experience filing a code complaint but your problem wasn’t sufficiently addressed? Renters Alliance is interested to hear about it. Get in touch.

We Need a Local Habitability Standard!

Most of our rental housing stock was constructed in the 1930s boom and a follow-on boomlet in the 1960s. That makes our rental stock 50 to 90 years old! It shouldn’t take a tenant’s complaint to force a landlord to maintain his property and, when necessary, replace systems as they reach end-of-life.

Instead we need a local habitability standard that specifies a replacement schedule for furnishings and fixtures; requires landlords to repair any landlord-provided appliance; and would compel the landlord to address any issues that flow from a lack of maintenance. Or even negligence like using a tarp to cover a roof that leaks.

And of course a local habitability standard backed by systematic inspection would avoid putting a tenant in the position of acting like an unofficial housing inspector. But we are in that role for now. Renters Alliance hopes this guide helps you do that job effectively! And have a look at the habitability factsheet posted by tenant advocacy organization Tenants Together.