Habitability Lawsuits In California and Los Angeles (Rent Control)
By Attorney Cynthia Velasco, Esq.
Owners of real estate, as well as renters and managers of real estate, should be well aware of the requirements Civil Code Section 1941.1 lists as required characteristics in a dwelling. Similarly, owners and tenants should be well-informed of what types of construction are and are not adequate dwellings suited for human habitability.
Among the requirements outlined in Civil Code Section 1941.1 are waterproofing and weather protection; plumbing or gas; hot and cold water; heat, electric lights; clean property and free from rodents/vermin; trash receptacles; stairs, railings, and floors in repair; and lockable mail receptacles. Breach of any of the above entitles each tenant to no less than $100.00 and not more than $5,000.00 per violation, costs, and attorney’s fees.
Unpermitted dwellings are not suited for human habitability and as such are not supposed to be rented out. This includes unpermitted additions to a single family home or, most common, unpermitted converted garages. If no permit exists for that particular unit, the unit should not be occupied. Unfortunately, many of the outlined requirements tend not to exist in the unpermitted unit, which exposes the landlord to even more liability.
What this means for a tenant
As a tenant you have a legal right to a safe and habitable dwelling. If a landlord is failing to adhere to the requirements outlined in Civil Code Section 1941.1 and any of the subsequent consequences that come along with the violations, such as abating mold and lead, a tenant is entitled to compensation. One important thing to note is that the tenants must provide landlord with notice and a reasonable amount of time to cure. As a tenant you want to provide these notices in WRITING to your landlord or property manager. These tenant notices are usually followed by inspections and notices from the appropriate city departments (each city deals with landlord habitability inspections differently so you might have to call around).
If a landlord fails to repair the property even after receiving the appropriate notices, the tenants next logical step is to file a habitability lawsuit whereby the tenant(s) would be seeking to recover the statutory fees, rent paid while living in an unhabitable dwelling, moving expenses, damages, and attorney’s fees. Tenants should be aware that they are entitled to all rent paid if the unit they are renting is an unpermitted dwelling, particularly, an unpermitted converted garage. In some cases, tenants could file suit for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What this means for a landlord
As a landlord you must be very careful about the conditions of the property you are willing to rent to your tenants. Not only must a landlord assure the property has the appropriate permits, but a landlord must also assure the property is equipped with the proper accommodations as not to violate any statute. Landlords should be very careful and make it a habit to inspect the property to note any issues tenants have not made them aware of.
Of particular importance is the renting of any unpermitted unit. In short, do not under any circumstances rent out an unpermitted unit. It does not matter if the, for example, garage was converted into a dwelling when you purchased the property or whether “it is obvious” that the unit is a garage. No permit means you cannot rent the unit. Renting out an unpermitted unit leaves you liable for all rent tenant has paid since the tenancy began as well relocation fees and attorney’s fees. Not to mention the great time, effort, and difficulty you will face in attempting to evict the tenant. Also, all repairs must be done adequately and timely.
California courts greatly disfavor habitability cases and almost unanimously favor the tenants in their judgments. Recent jury awards range from $71,060.00 to $780,000.00 not including attorney’s fees. Also, cities like Los Angeles provide for triple damages and attorney’s fees for any and all violations of their Rent Control Ordinances which are much more broader than other cities. If you are a landlord you need to speak to a Real Estate Landlord Attorney to discuss any issues you might have and how to respond to a tenant’s complaints. Therefore, think before you rent and know your rights as a tenant.
If you need an experienced Real Estate Habitability Attorney, give us a call to meet with a Licensed Attorney at any of our locations including, Los Angeles, Orange County and the San Fernando Valley.