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.

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. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors did however enact such protection from non-emergency unit access at the county level as part of a raft of emergency tenant protections in January.

Pandemic-Era Precautions

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in January enacted an extension (through June) of the county moratorium on eviction for nonpayment of rent. Motion #105060 adopted on January 5th not only extended that protection but it also placed a moratorium on eviction for several other reasons too:

  • No-fault reasons including but not limited to substantial remodels or demolition of property;
  • COVID-19 related violations due to unauthorized occupants or pets;
  • Nuisance, or;
  • Denying entry to a landlord.

It is that last provision that is the focus. Under the county’s moratorium extension there are now only two reasons for lawful entry without the permission of the tenant:

  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.

(‘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.” Read the relevant provision on unit entry as excerpted from the county moratorium extension ordinance.)

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.”

If an occupant is infected or at higher risk, then the tenant may decline to consent for the landlord to enter. 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. Instead the landlord is obligated to show the unit by other means (like a video tour).

Read more about the Los Angeles County moratorium extension order at the Department of Consumer and Business Affairs temporary eviction moratorium website.

Does the Provision Apply to Tenants in Beverly Hills?

Whether the county protection against eviction for denial of entry applies to a tenant living in Beverly Hills is an open question. In the absence of a statement on the matter from our rent stabilization division, or an opinion from the city attorney, we can only speculate. But we think an argument can be made, and should be made, that non-emergency entry by the landlord should be regulated differently during the time of COVID-19. (This is not legal advice!)

Why wouldn’t such protection from eviction for denying the landlord entry during COVID be available to Beverly Hills tenants? There are a few aspects to the question we should highlight.

State and local moratoriums don’t offer that protection. The Beverly Hills local moratorium (ordinance 20-O-2818 updated in September) includes no such provision and there was no discussion about it because city council clearly didn’t envision it to be an issue. None of our councilmembers rent and, evidently, our rent stabilization division hasn’t been particularly active in advancing tenant protections over several iterations of the local moratorium. Likewise the state moratorium is silent on protection against eviction for denial of entry due to COVID-19.

Los Angeles County moratorium protections may be superseded by a local moratorium. The county moratorium was intended by supervisor to provide a “baseline” set of protections for residential tenants throughout Los Angeles County albeit “with certain exceptions.” One of those exceptions is local moratoriums. As the county’s Temporary Eviction Moratorium for Residential Tenants guidance says, “If your city has its own moratorium, the County’s rules may not apply.” However that conditional application leaves open some room to argue that the county protection against eviction for denial of entry could apply here precisely because our local moratorium is silent on unit entry.

It may come down to how the court understands the interaction of the county and local moratoriums. This is the real unknown but it is not unique to this issue; in fact since the state enacted a moratorium last fall (AB 1482) there has been much confusion about how state and local moratoriums interact.

We are in a state of emergency and the overriding concern after health is to keep people housed. This is the argument we would make if a landlord attempts to evict a tenant for invoking the county protection against eviction due to denial of unit entry. In fact the COVID-19 emergency has tipped the landlord-tenant balance of power toward tenant interests for the moment. A tenant who asserts an affirmative defense against eviction when the landlord wants to show the premises to a prospective buyer or tenant has a reasonable chance of success.

Gaining Entry Through Threat or Intimidation Constitutes Harassment

The prospect of landlord intimidation inspired the Board of Supervisors to include in the resolution enacting the January moratorium extension a section (VIII) related to harassment and retaliation. Subsection D:

his 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 include “abusing a tenant with words” (intended to incite a violent response) and “threatening a tenant by word, gesture, or with physical harm.” And the clause “collect evidence against the occupant” may be relevant too. We heard recently of an instance where the landlord entered surreptitiously and only informed the tenant after-the-fact after claiming an emergency. That is a no-no and not only because of COVID. When a landlord enters on the QT it could be for evidence-gathering purposes. However the county moratorium protects the tenant by allowing the tenant to claim, as an affirmative defense, that any evidence gathered by the landlord in furtherance of the eviction should not be allowed.

Safety Tips from the State

The state has also issued COVID guidance to the real estate industry which recommends ‘virtual tours’ instead of in-person showings. Where visits may be allowed, the guidance suggests precautions like “avoiding touching knobs, faucets, toilets and toilet handles, and light switches.” The guidance also urges:

  • 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.

Keep those tips in mind when you negotiate access with your landlord!

Has your landlord pressured you to allow prospective tenants, buyers and their agents to view the premises in a way that makes you uncomfortable? Give the rent stabilization division a call at (310) 285-1031 and then please get in touch with Renters Alliance to let us know what the city says.

You can point your landlord toward the Los Angeles County moratorium extension motion 151680 if the landlord is insisting on entry. We suggest politely but firmly reminding the landlord about the safety implications of having people visit from outside the household.