LA County Protects Tenants from Non-Emergency Landlord Access

It may come as a surprise to tenants that the landlord can show their occupied unit to prospective tenants, according to state law. It can also be shown to potential buyers and the buyer’s agents. Indeed the law places no practical limitation on that kind of activity in normal times. During a pandemic, however, there is greater concern that visitors can spread the virus. So it should come as some relief to tenants that Los Angeles County has restricted landlord access to occupied units only in cases of emergency for the duration of the pandemic.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously enacted a raft of emergency tenant protections when it recently extended the county’s tenant rent relief program through December. Read more on the county’s Department of Consumer and Business Affairs temporary eviction moratorium website.

When is Access Normally Allowed?

One of the key protections was a strict limit on the right of the landlord to enter the premises. Recall that Civil Code §1954(a)(4) grants the landlord access to make necessary or agreed-upon repairs and to undertake other improvements with the permission of the tenants. Customary notice is 24 hours and entry is generally limited to business hours. The handy California Tenants Guide (published by the Department of Consumer Affairs) describes the lawful reasons for entry and the notice required.

The law also allows the landlord to show the unit to prospective tenants, buyers and their agents. Indeed the landlord can show the premises even without the tenant’s permission and refusing entry is cause for termination. So it’s important to understand what the law says about unit access! (Read this excerpt from the Tenant’s Guide.)

Pandemic-Era Precautions

Providing access to people outside the household during a pandemic can lead to transmission or at least cause anxiety for tenants — and especially those with a compromised immune system or those generally more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Some localities have restricted access during the pandemic. Beverly Hills, though, has not mandated any such restriction. Our city has not amended the residential eviction moratorium since the spring; there have been no additional tenant protections added even as other cities have done so.

Thankfully the county has come to the rescue. On January 5th the Board of Supervisors adopted Resolution Further Amending and Restating the Executive Order for an Eviction Moratorium which tightly restricts landlord access to occupied units. Under the new restriction there are now only two reasons for lawful access when the tenant does not otherwise consent:

1) Remedying a condition that substantially endangers or impairs the health or safety of a Residential Tenant or other persons in the vicinity of the premises, or 2) Residential Tenant is causing or threatening to cause substantial damage to the premises.

A tenant need not consent to landlord access for any other purpose. Landlords who wish to show a unit, for example, would be obligated to choose another means of showing (like a video tour). A tenant is free to consent to landlord entry for this or any purpose, of course; she is simply not obligated under the Board of Supervisor’s recent amendment to the county’s COVID order.

Gaining Access by Threat or Intimidation is Harassment

The county’s protection against retaliation or harassment for denying non-emergency access is crucial for tenants who would want to push back on a landlord request. We suggest politely but firmly reminding the landlord about the county’s resolution. enacting the unit-access protection. Download it here and provide it to the landlord.

Some landlords may still pressure tenants into granting access. Indeed we recently reviewed a landlord letter to a tenant that threatened legal action — and financial damages — for not allowing the landlord to show the dwelling to a prospective purchaser. The prospect of landlord intimidation is what inspired the Board of Supervisors to include in Resolution section VIII (Harassment and Retaliation Protections) a specific provision to define harassment as “abusing the landlord’s right of access into a rental unit.”

Subsection D explains:

This includes entries for inspections that are not related to necessary repairs or services; entries excessive in number; entries that improperly target certain Residential Tenants or are used to collect evidence against the occupant or otherwise beyond the scope of a lawful entry.

Harassment can also include “abusing a tenant with words” intended to incite a violent response and “threatening a tenant by word, gesture, or with physical harm,” according to the Board of Supervisor’s amendment. No tenant should stand for that conduct and the amendment to the county order gives the tenant grounds for an affirmative defense against eviction (and civil action to halt that conduct).

Also, the clause “collect evidence against the occupant” is important: evidence-gathering can’t be ruled out when a landlord surreptitiously enters or lets the absent tenant know only after-the-fact. For example, maintenance of unsanitary conditions is a violation. The landlord should not enter a unit in order to collect evidence. The clause provides the tenant with an affirmative defense against eviction due to such an allegation for the duration of the COVID emergency.

County Steps Up Where Our City Has Not

Thankfully the county came to the rescue of tenants and it will come as a relief to tenants who worry their landlord may press them for unit entry during the pandemic. However City of Beverly Hills will not necessarily step up to defend that tenant against conduct proscribed by the county order. Too often the rent stabilization division demurs when certain landlord conduct is not expressly prohibited by the ordinance.

A tenant who experiences harassment as defined in subsection VIII(D) should contact legal services provider Bet Tzedek at (323) 939–0506 extension 499 if the landlord does not back off with a warning. Any tenant faced with such landlord conduct and who is rebuffed by the rent stabilization division should get in touch with Renters Alliance to let us know that the city is not standing up for tenants.

Industry Guidance Falls Short

Before the Board of Supervisors amended the county COVID order to bar non-emergency entry, the federal and state guidance fell far short of truly safeguarding tenants. The Centers for Disease Control acknowledged as much in its own guidance. “Multifamily housing (e.g., apartments, condominiums, townhouses, duplexes, and quadruplexes) pose a challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic due to potential for increased risk of exposure for residents and staff,” it says. “These considerations are especially important for multifamily housing for older adults.”

Thus the CDC offered some recommendations for those who operate such property:

  • Post signs in highly visible locations (e.g., building entrances, stairways, elevators) that promote everyday protective measures;
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces (e.g., door handles, handicap door access switches, sink handles, grab bars, hand railings); and,
  • Defer maintenance inside units for non-critical or non-life-threatening problems.

“Limit the presence of non-essential volunteers and visitors in shared areas when possible,” concludes the CDC.

Well how does that comport with a state law that expressly allows visitors when the landlord wants to show the property?

The state has also issued COVID guidance to the real estate industry which recommends ‘virtual tours’ instead of in-person showings. For in-person visits real estate professionals should take precautions like “avoiding touching knobs, faucets, toilets and toilet handles, and light switches.” The guidance also urged:

  • Perform thorough cleaning and disinfect commonly used surfaces before and after each showing;
  • Clean floors using a vacuum with HEPA filter;
  • Make people entering a property wash hands with soap and water immediately upon entry and before touring or inspecting the property; and,
  • Provide regular deep cleaning and disinfecting.

How many real estate agents or landlords will follow that protocol? None, probably. So it’s good the Board of Supervisors put an end to in-person showings for the duration of the pandemic emergency.