The Landlord-Tenant Law Layer Cake Explained

Landlords generally know landlord-tenant law. They deal with it all the time on a professional basis. They also get a big assist from well-funded industry associations at the local, regional, state and national levels. But tenants are seldom familiar with the laws that govern every aspect of our tenancy. Here’s the situation in a nutshell.

To make sense of the overlapping federal and state statutes and local ordinances that both protect and constrain tenants we think the layer cake is a good analogy. Let’s start with federal law.

The federal Fair Housing Act sets the table by prohibiting discrimination in housing. It is a group of statutes that over time amended the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Though both law and policy the Act prohibits discrimination (in leasing and afterward) with respect to race, religion, sex, familial status, disability and more.

Discrimination on its face is difficult to substantiate, but when a pattern or practice in operations suggests some ‘disparate treatment’ of tenants, the federal courts can provide relief from the practice (and damages to the tenant).

Beverly Hills mega-landlord Donald Sterling is an excellent example of a landlord who violated the federal Fair Housing Act and paid a whopping penalty simply because he took few pains to hide his contempt for certain kinds of tenants (arguably all tenants).

State law is the base layer of landlord-tenant law. It provides a legal framework for most aspects of tenancy from fair screening to enumerating the reasons (and process) for eviction. State laws that govern the hiring of real property date to the late 1800s but over time the law was amended to codify additional regulations.

For example, today the law requires a fixed-term lease to transition to a periodic (month-to-month) tenancy on the same terms if the landlord continues to accept rent. (The majority of renting households in Beverly Hills are periodic tenancies without a fixed-term lease in effect.) State law also enumerates the requirements for a ‘tenantable’ dwelling, such as heat, hot water, weatherproofing and more.

Gaining an understanding of state tenancy law is an exercise in frustration for a layperson. For one thing, there is no single state tenancy law; unlike local ordinance, at the state level there are many statutes that come into play. They are enumerated in a complex amalgam of codes, including the Government Code, Code of Civil Procedure, Administrative Code and, most significantly, the Civil Code, each of which has some bearing on tenancy. (Sections 1940 – 1954 of the Civil Code define many aspects of residential tenancy for example.)

Parsing state codes is frustrating too because codes sections frequently refer to other codes. They incorporate by reference other sections in the same code. And of course the legalese (“notwithstanding,” “may,” and “shall” etc.) is somewhat impenetrable. Add to that the case law that has interpreted those sections and clauses and it’s a lot for a tenant to digest.

State protections for tenants remain quite basic in California (like nearly every state) because property owners’ industry associations wield great clout in Sacramento and beyond. That’s why our state still allows unlimited annual rent increases and no-just-cause tenancy termination.

Rent stabilization is the middle layer of the landlord-tenant cake. A locality may choose to impose price controls, mandate relocation fees, and provide tenants with a wide variety of other protections too — effectively stepping in where the legislature has not done so.

Rental housing in Beverly Hills is regulated by our rent stabilization ordinance. The ‘ordinance’ as it is known is comprised of two chapters of the Municipal Code.

Chapter 5 of the ordinance regulates tenancies that began at $600 or less;

Chapter 6 regulates all tenancies that began above $600. The ordinance categorically exempts from rent stabilization single-family homes, guest houses, any rental building occupied after 1995 and most (but not all!) condominiums.

For decades these chapters offered tenants different protections. The two-tier approach to rent control greatly benefited some longtime tenants but extended very few substantive protections to vast majority of Chapter 6 renting households.

When City Council in the fall of 2018 ended no-just-cause eviction, Chapter 6 tenants were extended nearly all of the protections long enjoyed by Chapter 5 tenants. Today the amended Beverly Hills rent stabilization ordinance protects against unlimited rent increases and no-just-cause termination among other things. Contact the Rent Stabilization Program office at (310) 285-1031. (Read more about our ordinance.)

There is a caveat when it comes to the rent stabilization ordinance however. When state law prevails the tenant must find her remedy in superior court (though small claims provides an alternative).

The topmost layer of the landlord-tenant cake is the lease or rental agreement. The contract specifies terms-of-tenancy at a much more granular level. That may include who can and cannot reside there; whether pets are allowed; limitations on visitors; fees and utilities charges; and various tenant obligations.

A rental agreement also protects the landlord. Take for example the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles lease template, which many landlords use for their leases. Over 28 major sections and 3700 words it circumscribes what a tenant may do in her home while it lets the landlord off the hook for obligations that we might expect in exchange for the rent (such as the repair of appliances).

The fine print of the Association’s lease template hold other surprises for the tenant. The tenant must notify the landlord of any musical instrument on the premises. Attorneys fees to the tenant in an adverse judgment are limited to $500 (too little to entice an attorney to work on contingency).

The lease template indemnifies the landlord against damages for mold when the tenant fails to affirmatively ventilate the apartment or notify the landlord promptly about “dampness.” The tenant is required to carry insurance to protect herself against losses due to insect infestation (pest control is the responsibility of the landlord).

Summarizing the analogy… The tenancy is a slice of a landlord-tenant layer cake that was baked by the landlord according to a recipe provided by state and local law. He supplies the frosting that is the rental agreement that that is what will leave an aftertaste if the tenancy goes awry.

The lesson to be taken from our analogy is that the higher the layer the more relevant (not to mention understandable) it is to the tenant. While it is good to be conversant with the general principles of tenancy law, in practice what matters most to tenant is the lease that she signed and the local ordinance in effect.