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.
When is Access Normally Allowed?
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 required notice is 24 hours and entry is generally limited to business hours. The handy California Tenants Guide 2012 (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!
However allowing people outside of the household to enter during a pandemic can lead to transmission (or at least add to the anxiety felt by tenants). That is a particular concern for those with a compromised immune system or who are generally more vulnerable to COVID-19 complications.
Some localities have restricted access during the pandemic but Beverly Hills is not among them.
However the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in January 2021 added to the county moratorium specific tenant protections concerning unit entry and harassment for the purpose of entry. Most recently the protection was restated in resolution 16560 (on January 25, 2022) however the protection is scheduled phase-out on May 31, 2022. Until that date tenants in the county are protected against eviction for:
- Housing an unauthorized occupant(s) or keeping pets when necessary for COVID-19;
- Denying entry to a landlord for a reason other than for an emergency or health and safety.
It is that last provision that is our focus. Under the county’s moratorium extension there are now only two reasons for entry unless the tenant volunteers to permit entry (for a repair for example):
- 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,
- Residential Tenant is causing or threatening to cause substantial damage to the premises.
Read the relevant provision on unit entry as excerpted from the county moratorium extension ordinance. “Landlord” means not only the owner and manager but an agent for the landlord, like a broker or contractor, as well as a “prospective buyer or prospective tenant.”)
Precautions: in order to enter the premises, the landlord must ensure that no visitor shows signs of infection and that “appropriate” social distancing and sanitation measures are taken. Moreover, the landlord must take into account a tenant’s assertion that she is “at a higher risk for more serious complications from the COVID-19 virus.” And if an occupant is infected, or at higher risk, then the tenant may decline to consent for the landlord to enter. Instead the landlord is obligated to show the unit by other means (like a video tour).
The county’s moratorium protects tenants from eviction if the tenant refuses entry based on any of those grounds and also protects the tenant from harassment. In fact, under the county moratorium it constitutes harassment if the landlord tries to gain entry through threat or intimidation. This is subsection VIII(d) which relates to harassment and retaliation:
[Harassment] 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.”
The clause, “collect evidence against the occupant,” is important. We heard recently from a tenant that her landlord entered surreptitiously and informed the tenant only after-the-fact that there was an emergency. Especially in light of these county moratorium protections that assertion should be called out.
The concern is that any landlord entering without a valid emergency or health purpose, and on the down low, could be attempting to gather evidence for a future for-cause eviction.
What the county moratorium does is allow a tenant to claim as an affirmative defense against eviction that there was not a valid purpose for entering; and that evidence gathered by the landlord in furtherance of the eviction should not be admitted into evidence to support a for-cause eviction.
Read more about the Los Angeles County moratorium extension order at the Department of Consumer and Business Affairs temporary eviction moratorium website.
The Provision Applies to Tenants in Beverly Hills
The Beverly Hills rent stabilization division never acknowledged to tenants that the county had enacted protections related to entry and harassment. However staff did summarize those protections to City Council. Why not bring it to the attention of tenants? That’s an excellent question that we asked staff several times over the months…and never received an answer.
The county moratorium protections (which again will be phased-out at the end of May 2022) are important precisely because the state and local moratoriums didn’t offer that protection.
The Beverly Hills local moratorium (enacted pursuant to urgency ordinance 20-O-2818 and also scheduled to sunset on May 31, 2022) was silent on unit entry. We can only speculate why, but it is worth noting that no councilmember is a tenant and it has been quite a long time since they have rented. They may not recall that unit entry is abused by landlords.
In conclusion, the COVID-19 emergency has temporarily tipped the balance of power in favor of tenants when compared to the everyday favor it shows property owners. We should be thankful that the county has thought to protect tenants with an affirmative defense against eviction when the landlord exhibits malfeasance.
Any tenant that wants to be cautious about allowing the landlord or his representative in the unit should point to County resolution 16560 to extend and phase out temporary protections January 25, 2022 and politely, but firmly, remind the landlord about the safety implications of having visitors when that visit is not necessary.
[This post was updated April 10, 2022 to reflect the latest county resolution.]