Property Maintenance in the Era of COVID: Cleanliness Matters!

Residential rental dwellings must be fit for human habitation and free from ‘dilapidations,’ says California Civil Code section 1941. In part that means “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.” Not a high bar! But not all landlords live up to that standard and during the COVID–19 pandemic we may see some landlords shirk their responsibility.

Maintenance is a basic contractual obligation. The tenant who rents housing is obligated to pay the rent and the landlord is obligated to maintain the premises. However beyond the state’s ‘clean and sanitary’ standard and certain ‘tenantable’ obligations (Civil Code §1941.1) things get fuzzy. The landlord’s maintenance obligation is less clear as we explain in Clean & Sanitary: The Most Basic Multifamily Maintenance Standard.

Under the COVID-19 state of emergency things get even fuzzier! “Necessary repairs” seems like a reasonable threshold for landlord action on a tenant complaint during this emergency, but practically speaking the landlord will decide what that means. (The Beverly Hills rent stabilization office will not get involved in a dispute about habitability unless conditions clearly violate the law. Read the Tenant Together Habitability Factsheet for more information.)

However maintenance like cleaning the building is not something the landlord should skip. At least that’s the guidance that landlords get from their industry associations. Who are we to disagree?

Landlord Industry Associations Say ‘Keep it Clean!’

The Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles tells its members to “keep the property in habitable conditions and perform necessary repairs” even if it means taking care to work differently during the pandemic, according to a COVID-19 FAQ provided to members. “You should maintain all laundry facilities and, at your option and if possible, you may consider implementing a more frequent cleaning schedule.”

The National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) in COVID-19 guidance recommends “increasing the frequency and thoroughness of cleaning in common areas and of frequently touched items like elevator buttons, door handles, and intercom panels.” That sensible advice is communicated in a special guidance publication titled, ‘COVID–19 Preparedness for Apartment Firms.’

The National Association of Residential Property Managers also recommends Increased cleaning of common areas and, for good measure, suggests abiding by the coronavirus “disinfecting protocols” provided by CDC. However not all managers walk that talk!

Talking the Talk But Not Walking the Walk

Now, landlords know they must maintain clean and sanitary premises. And that’s the impression they want to send to policymakers and regulators. Behold this excerpt from a letter to City of San Buenaventura from the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles touting its members’ commitment to cleanliness:

During these extremely difficult times, rental housing providers are instituting more frequent and stringent building cleaning protocols in promotion of the health and safety of both residents and others entering their building.”

Are landlords stepping-up the cleaning schedule? Are they adopting “stringent building protocols”? The Association was talking the talk because it was angling to relax that city’s eviction moratorium. But it is walking the walk that matters to tenants who pay to live in a clean building.

So why even bother talking the talk when nothing really holds a landlord accountable anyway? Consider this rent payment form provided to landlords by the California Apartment Association for tenants who delay the rent payment due to COVID–19. The form asks for the expected information (name, past due, payment amount) but then includes this bit of business too:

By entering into this agreement, Resident represents that the premises are in clean, safe and habitable condition.

That representation from the tenant really has no place on a repayment form. It is the form’s instructions that explain the importance of that clause to the landlord:

The form is an agreement between the Landlord and Resident that the Resident will not be evicted for nonpayment…In addition, the form requires the Resident to represent that the condition of the premises is good, which will likely decrease delays due to habitability claims should an unlawful detainer action become necessary.

What matters to the Association is the talk: the tenant will attest to the “good condition” of the property. That’s what matters in court.

Local Case: Essential Management, Inc

Essential Management, Inc. is a Los Angeles-based company that manages 212 South Reeves for longtime property owner Carole Hoffman. A few years ago Hoffman switched managers and immediately tenants noticed that an inexperienced, rotating staff were responding to tenant complaints in ways both disingenuous and with language that made little sense.

There was a falloff in maintenance at 212 Reeves: cleanings were fewer and father between. Fast forward to the fall of 2019 and management simply stopped cleaning the building altogether. Carpets became filthy, soot accumulated on sills and dirt caked on the hallway windows. After COVID–19 arrived there was nobody to wipe anything down.

Since the fall, building tenants have stepped in to clean; they vacuum regularly and wipe-down the handrails with sanitizer. That is clearly not the tenants’ job as landlord association guidance makes clear. But who will hold Essential Management to account? That should be the landlord, says Nolo’s California Landlords Law Book Rights and Responsibilities handbook. “Keep an eye on your manager and listen to your tenants’ concerns and complaints. If you suspect problems — for example, poor maintenance of the building — try to resolve problems and get rid of a bad manager before problems accelerate…”

That would be walking the walk! But we don’t expect Hoffman on the scene anytime soon. Instead these Reeves tenants only get talk.

The moratorium on eviction for non-payment of rent was enacted in March. Inevitably tenants approached Essential Management about delaying the rent. But those tenants were asked to sign a form. It begins, “In order for management (landlord) to maintain your clean, safe, and comfortable home, we rely on your timely payment of rent.” The form then concludes with this reassurance: “You can rely on us to maintain all essential aspects and maintenance of the property through this crisis.”

But that’s all talk. The building is not cleaned yet tenants are asked to attest to some state of cleanliness (just like the California Apartment Association recommended to members). This form suggests two problems: 1) it covers the ass of management when the landlord comes after a tenant for unpaid rent; and 2) the representation as to “clean, safe, and comfortable” premises appears to be an implied condition for rent forbearance. “Please sign and return the form,” Essential tells tenants.

But we would not advise a tenant to sign the form. For one thing, there is no reason to do so; the form merely restates the requirements of the moratorium. Nor is it a repayment agreement (which we don’t recommend a tenant sign anyway). And for another thing this form’s representations as to ‘clean’ premises is disingenuous because Essential Management has not cleaned the property. Signing a form that indicates otherwise is to support Essential’s talk without the walk.

Besides, tenants at 212 South Reeves are too busy keeping the place clean in a time of pandemic to fiddle with bullshit forms. While Essential Management collects its percentage, tenants vacuum and sanitize the handrails and knobs. One thing, though: these tenants don’t do windows!

212 Reeves DIY maintenance
Residents have taken it upon themselves to clean 212 South Reeves because Essential Management effectively walked off the job in fall of 2019.

Has your landlord has abandoned the ship when it comes to maintenance? Does Essential Management, Inc. mismanage your building? Get in touch!