As U.S. Home Rentals Reach Record Levels, Landlord-Tenant Law Impacts an Increasing Number of Households

For residential renters, California generally and many Bay Area jurisdictions, in particular, boast some of the most robust tenant protections in the country. But what good are these protections if tenants do not even know they exist, let alone how to use them?

A diligent tenant will have reviewed closely the terms of his or her lease agreement prior to signing, but most aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship are governed by statutes, regulations, and legal precedent not explicitly stated in the lease agreement itself. From rent control to eviction protection, the onus is placed on the tenant to gain an understanding of his or her specific rights and obligations under the law and to make sure they are properly enforced.

The Lease Agreement

The landlord-tenant relationship begins and ends literally with the lease agreement. Lease agreements are typically multiple pages in length, containing a great deal of legalese and standard boilerplate language, much of which can seem meaningless and superfluous to the non-lawyer (or sometimes even a lawyer!). In the residential context, the lease agreement usually is supplied by the landlord to the tenant in a more or less “take-it-or-leave-it” manner. Even so, here are some things that all prospective tenants should keep in mind about lease agreements in general:

  • Consider the source. Almost all residential lease agreements are standardized forms not written by the landlords themselves. Oftentimes, the leases are drafted by attorneys who specifically represent landlords or landlord organizations. That means that these lease agreements are written to comply with the law, yes, but they also have been crafted with an eye toward providing maximum protection for the clients of these attorneys, i.e. the landlords. While prospective tenants typically have little leverage in negotiating the individual terms of the lease, they should nonetheless be mindful that in the vast majority of cases, lease agreements are drafted with the landlord’s and not the tenant’s interests in mind.
  • Illegal terms are not enforceable. Whatever a lease agreement might say on its face, terms that conflict with standing law or legal precedent are not enforceable in court. Therefore, a tenant that unwittingly signed a document that contained terms that are in conflict with local, state, or federal law cannot be held to those terms.

Implied Warranty of Habitability

In the context of residential lease agreements, the implied warranty of habitability requires that a landlord uphold certain minimum standards that make a property suitable in which to be lived. The specific elements vary by jurisdiction, but, generally, courts have held the implied warranty of habitability to cover essential services like running water and safety hazards such as fire-code violations.

In particularly egregious cases, a landlord’s violating the implied warranty of habitability can be grounds for the tenant’s breaking the lease agreement. If the factors creating the uninhabitable situation are within the landlord’s control, the landlord has been informed of the situation in writing, and the landlord has been provided ample time to remedy the issue(s) but has not, a tenant may bring against his or her landlord a claim of “constructive eviction.” This allows the tenant to break the lease without penalty and, in some instances, to claim additional damages against the landlord.

While cases of constructive eviction tend to be rare, it is important for tenants to keep in mind that under the law landlords are required to maintain a minimum standard of habitability at residential properties. If you have questions about whether or not a condition in your home might violate the implied warranty of habitability, contact the JFK University Housing Advocacy Clinic or another local non-profit tenant-advocacy organization.

Security Deposits

One of the most frequently contested aspects of residential tenancies is the security deposit, specifically, the return thereof. Under California law, landlords must abide by a strict timeline in returning a tenant’s security deposit, and, should they desire to deduct money from the deposit, they must abide by strict notice requirements.

Under California Civil Code Section 1950.5, landlords:

  • May NOT demand a security deposit of more than two months rent for unfurnished properties or three months rent for furnished properties
  • MUST, at the request of the tenant, perform an inspection of the property prior to move out in order to identify deficiencies and provide the tenant an opportunity to fix them
  • MUST refund a former tenant’s security deposit within 21 days of the tenant’s vacating the premises
  • MUST provide a tenant / former tenant within a written itemization of any funds deducted from the security deposit

Where Do I Go For Help?

While the Bay Area is home to one of the most competitive and expensive housing markets in the world, there thankfully are also a great many nonprofit organizations dedicated to providing legal assistance to residential tenants in need. Many of these organizations provide their services on a sliding-scale fee system or free of charge. For years, JFK University has been a leader on this front with its Housing Advocacy Clinic partnership with Bay Area Legal Aid.

This Thursday professor of property law at John F. Kennedy University Collge of Law, Ora Prochovnick is discussing the issue in our free lecture series. To attend, register here: