Landlord Obligations for Habitable Premises - The Basic California Law

Introduction:

In California a landlord is required to provide a safe living environment for the tenants and the law has been established under the California Civil Code. The failure of a landlord to provide such conditions can lead to violation of the law and impose civil and, at times, even criminal liability upon the landlord. This article shall outline the requirements imposed.

 

The Basic Law:

Under the California Civil Code, landlords of a property must ensure that certain conditions are met which make the living space habitable and safe for potential lessees. These conditions include ensuring proper electric, gas, and plumbing utilities, as well as installing proper locks and security systems. If a landlord fails to meet these requirements, the lessee has the option of deducting the costs of repair from his rent or vacating the premises with no constraints. A landlord can also be held liable for certain breaches of security that occur on his property, if the unsafe condition or act could have been foreseen or prevented.

A relatively famous series of cases held the landlord liable for the results of criminal acts suffered by tenants that were in part alleged to have been caused by failure to provide appropriate lighting and lock systems. The decisions of the courts advanced the theory that the landlord offers premises for rent for a profit and in providing that service, the landlord must assume the responsibility that the space provided for profit must be capable of providing basic safety and necessities of life. Put even more simply, if you want to earn money from providing living space, you have to provide living space that is livable and safe. The tenant, on the other hand, also assumes some responsibility for the condition of the premises, as described below.

Especially in commercial leases, many of the remedies available for the tenant are restricted or eliminated. The laws protecting residential tenants are usually harder to waive even in a lease. Review of the actual lease by competent legal counsel is recommended before relying on the remedies described below.

 

The Statute:

In terms of residential leases, in order for a landlord to be allowed to place rental units on the market, the landlord must first ensure that all of the following conditions which make the building ‘fit for human occupancy’ are met: [Civil Code Secs. 1929, 1941]

  1. Effective waterproofing and weather protection of roof and exterior walls
  2. Well-maintained plumbing and gas facilities compliant with law in effect at the time of installation
  3. Water supply compliant with applicable law that is capable of producing hot and cold running water
  4. Well-maintained heating facilities compliant with applicable law at the time of installation
  5. Well-maintained electrical lighting compliant with applicable law at the time of installation
  6. Building, grounds, and appurtenances kept sanitary and free from debris and vermin at the time of rent or lease
  7. Sufficient number of receptacles for garbage
  8. Well-maintained floors, stairways, and railings
  9. Locks conforming to code [CA Civil Code Sec. 1941.3]
    1. Dead bolt lock on each main swinging entry door
    2. Window security or locking devices for windows capable of being opened

The landlord is not only responsible for seeing to it that the aforementioned conditions are met at the time of lease, but he is also obligated to oversee all necessary repairs, except for in the event that the tenant violates any of the following obligations:

[CA Civil Code Sec. 1941.2]

  1. To keep the area of the property which he or she occupies clean and sanitary
  2. To dispose of all garbage from his or her unit in a clean manner
  3. To properly use all electrical, gas, and plumbing fixtures
  4. To ensure that no one who enters the premise with his or her permission causes damage to any part of the unit or its facilities
  5. To occupy the premise as it was designed to be used, with separate portions for living, sleeping, cooking, etc.

Because the landlord has a duty to maintain the premise and carry out any and all necessary repairs, the landlord has the reasonable right to enter the premise to do so [CA Civil Code Sec. 1954].

 

Legal Remedies Available for Tenant:

If the landlord fails to maintain the property and conduct repairs upon the request of the tenant (generally the landlord is given a 30 day grace period), the tenant may perform the repair him or herself and subtract the cost from the rent owed, or he or she may vacate the premises and be freed from any outstanding obligations under his lease [CA Civil Code Sec. 1942].

Further, landlords are not permitted to collect rent for a property which they have failed to maintain on a substantial level [CA Civil Code Sec. 1942.4].

Note that the tenant has to be reasonable in the tenant’s costs and efforts to make the repair. One cannot put in a three hundred dollar faucet to replace a one hundred dollar faucet without good cause. Note further that leases often restrict the tenant’s rights in this area though the law normally voids those lease provisions for habitability repair.

 

Landlord Liability for Unsafe Conditions:

California landlords are legally obligated to take the necessary measures to secure the premises in order to prevent foreseeable criminal acts in the area. Failure to do so may result in liability of significant proportions and the fact that a third party, such as a criminal, actually perpetrated the act does not necessarily eliminate the landlord’s underlying liability for failure to protect the tenants reasonably. At the same time, landlords are not guarantors of the safety of their tenants or employees and if the landlord takes reasonable steps to provide a safe locale, liability will not be imposed for harm to tenants caused by third parties or unforeseen circumstances.

Some case law illustrates the law.

In Ann M. v. Pacific Plaza Shopping Center (1993), an employee sued a shopping center landlord after she was raped inside a tenant’s store. The Supreme Court ruled that the landlord was not liable for negligence, and thereby established the importance of the landlord’s ability to foresee that a criminal act may occur in the premises. The Court ruled that the landlord is only obligated to hire security guards for a shopping center if he has reasonable foresight that a crime may occur, based on the knowledge of prior similar acts of crime in the premises. Given that the landlord had recorded all prior criminal events and noticed no indication of similar events having taken place in the past, the Court ruled that the landlord could not foresee a ‘violent criminal assault’, and therefore, was not obligated to hire security guards.

IIn Medina v. Hillshore Partners (1995), the mother of a man who was killed by a gang near an apartment complex sued the landlord for negligence. The Court ruled that the landlord had no duty to the victim because the act occurred off the premises. Even though the plaintiff argued that the landlord’s complex served as headquarters for the gang members and the landlord had already received complaints about the gang, the Court held that premises liability can be imposed on a landlord only when an act of crime occurs on the premises itself and not on an adjacent area.

In Debra S. Rosenbaum v. Security Bank Corporation (1996), a tenant was mugged on the street in front of her apartment and suffered several injuries. She sued the landlord claiming that he had failed to install sufficient lightingfixtures throughout the complex and the parking garage, leaving her with no choice but to park her car on the street, where she was mugged. The Court ruled that the landlord was not liable because the mugging occurred on a public street, and so, he was not responsible for the mugging occurring.

In Alcaraz v. Vece (1997), the plaintiff stepped on a water meter box with a broken or missing top located on the lawn in front of a rental property. The trial court initially ruled that the landlord was free from liability because the water meter box wasn’t located on his property but on “an adjacent strip of land owned by the city”. The Supreme Court then reversed the ruling saying that it must be taken into consideration whether or not the landlord had exercised control over the meter box, regardless of whether or not he owned the land. If in fact the landlord had some control in that adjacent piece of land and gained economic benefit from that property, he could be held potentially liable for failing to notify the plaintiff of the hazard.

A landlord can also be held liable when a tenant’s dog bites a person if the landlord had prior knowledge to theviciousness of the dog and could have taken steps to remove the dog to avoid injury. If the landlord owns commercialproperty, he has a duty to inspect the property and remove the dangerous factor. If the landlord owns residential property, he does not need to inspect the property to discover any dangerous factor, but once he has knowledge of a threat, he has the duty to take the necessary steps [Uccello v. Laudenslayer (1975)].

Note that a landlord can even be held liable if the event takes place away from the landlord’s property, as in Donchin v. Guerrero (1995), where the court held that the landlord could be held liable for a tenant’s dog attacking a person four blocks away from the property. The court recognized that the landlord may not have been able to prevent the tenant from taking the dog off the property, but if the dog escaped on its own due to defects in the property, the landlord could be held liable.

 

Conclusion:

The theme of the law is not complex. If you intend to make a profit from renting living space, you will have to provide living accommodations that meet certain habitability conditions and if you do not, the tenant may make those repairs or terminate the leasehold. If you have allowed unsafe conditions to exist on premises within your control and foreseeable harm results, you may be liable. If the tenant is responsible for the condition in specified ways, the tenant is responsible.

In reality, most landlords want safe premises in good condition and most tenants do take care of their homes. Nevertheless, being a landlord is an active type of business that requires reasonable upgrades, repairs and inspections. As one client put it, “If I want to sit at home and count my returns, I need to invest in stocks. If I own a building, I have to keep it up.” Yes.

Commercial leases are subject to different criteria since the courts are not as inclined to prohibit limitations on the right to repair that most leases provide and the employer is as likely to be liable as the landlord for unsafe work conditions. Note, however, that home offices are normally treated as residential leases. In all instances, the key for the landlord is to know what is happening with his or her property and to take appropriate steps to repair and maintain. Further, the wise landlord seeks to limit personal liability by appropriate insurance and limited liability entities owning the building.