Tenant Toolkit

With Pettibone’s Tenant Toolkit, tenants can either avoid a lawsuit, or proceed toward one with confidence.

 

Now more than ever, tenants must be empowered to protect and assert their rights as California renters. My Tenant Toolkit might help you avoid legal problems, inspire your landlord to make repairs, or help you support a legal claim if you are forced to bring one. However, please note that nothing on this site constitutes legal advice or an offer of representation.

 

Section 1 – Common Problems

1) Water Intrusion: Floods, Leaks, Bad Roofing, and Bad Weatherproofing

Floods, leaks, bad roofing, bad siding… All cause excessive moisture.

Generally, “water intrusion” refers to an unusually large amount of moisture entering your home. If your landlord fails to timely repair the damage or get rid of the moisture, excess moisture may cause significant damage to your property and health.

Damage can result from direct exposure to water or from contaminants, including but not limited to mold or dust mite, that flourish in damp indoor space. Water intrusion and the damage caused by water intrusion are almost always covered by your landlord’s insurance. Thus, there is really no excuse for any failure to make repairs.

How Does Water Intrusion Happen?

Water intrusion is frequently caused by some problem in your home that your landlord failed to fix. Water intrusion can be long and drawn out, like the slow drip of a leaky pipe. It can also arrive suddenly and accidentally out of the blue, like a big flood caused by a broken sprinkler system. Water intrusion may also occur where cracks in windows allow outdoor air to enter the home over time.

Common sources of water intrusion include:

  • Leaky pipes inside the walls
  • Broken washing machine, dishwasher, freezer, etc.
  • Sewage backups
  • Bad caulking around plumbing or showers
  • Broken windows
  • Leaky roofing

Is Water Intrusion Bad?

Generally, yes. When your landlord delays repairs and allows moisture to hang around, water intrusion can result in high humidity that leads to serious health problems.

While the jury is out on connecting moisture to all health problems in typically healthy people, high indoor humidity is known to cause illnesses like allergic rhinitis or major rash outbreaks.

Indoor humidity causes toxic contaminants to flourish and can exacerbate health conditions in vulnerable individuals, such as seniors, young children, persons afflicted with certain allergies, and those suffering from asthma or other respiratory problems. Consult a physician as soon as you feel your health worsen.

Excess moisture can also damage property by causing harmful organisms to grow all over your belongings. Such harmful organisms may include, for example, airborne mold and allergens, volatile organic compounds, and even dust mites.

For this reason, it is very important that you notify your landlord about any water intrusion as soon as possible. You should notify your landlord in writing the moment you confirm or even suspect that moisture in your home is harming your health. Doing so will give good landlords a chance to make repairs and protect your health. Providing notice in writing will also protect you if your landlord fails to honor their duty to provide a habitable dwelling.

What Can I Do About Water Intrusion?

You must report any type of water intrusion to your landlord as soon as you possibly can. Do not hesitate to email, call, text, or write a letter to your landlord letting them know what has happened.

Always, always, always… politely but firmly request complete repairs. Do not let your landlord or their contractors cut corners! Do not let property management get away with just calling in the handyman, tearing out the carpet, or simply repainting the walls.

Failure to remove all wet material — including all affected wood, drywall, and subflooring — may harm you!

If your landlord’s failure to repair something was an obvious cause of the flood or leak, mention that in writing. In fairness, your landlord should make proper repairs to the water damage and the cause of the water intrusion in order to set things right.

Depending on your jurisdiction, you may be entitled to relocation costs during repairs.

2) What Causes Bad Mold And Other Airborne Irritants?

The evil offspring of water intrusion and damp indoor conditions

Mold is an eyesore that often arises alongside offensive odors and may even harm your health. Landlords will point out that mold grows everywhere… and they’re right!

But not all indoor irritants are created equal. According to the Healthy Homes division of the California Department of Public Health, bad mold colonies can cause serious health problems. The same is true for other airborne contaminants, such as dust mites or volatile organic compounds.

If you find mold growing all over a certain area, all over the entire home, or, if mold repeatedly ruins your personal belongings, one of two things has probably happened:

  1. Your landlord failed to repair an ongoing source of water intrusion, such as leaky pipes inside the walls or holes in the roof.
  2. Your landlord cut corners on repairing past water intrusion and failed to properly replace all water damaged materials.

Because mold thrives on moisture, extreme temperatures, and poor ventilation, mold will often grow back over and over again until your landlord fully and properly repairs every major source of moisture. They may also need to provide proper heating and restores mechanical ventilation, wherever that has been lacking.

3) When mold, dust mites, and airborne irritants take over…

Your health and living environment may slowly deteriorate.

If your home suffers from a persistent mold problem, or if you have ever endured dust mites that exacerbated your asthma, your landlord will need to hire professionals to inspect the walls, subfloors, and air. You will also want to call your physician, and especially if you suffer breathing problems, odd bouts of nausea, unusual fatigue, or unusual rashes or hives.

If you have a specific allergy to molds or pollens, or other illnesses that make you especially sensitive to your living environment, your physician may be able to identify mold as a source of:

  • Breathing Problems and Congestion
  • Rhinitis
  • Itchiness
  • Eye Irritation
  • Rashes and Hives
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea

If you feel a combination of these symptoms at odd times in your home, or more frequently than usual when at home as opposed to in other places, consult your doctor about potential mold allergies or mycotoxin exposure.

4) Locked Out, Threatened, or Forcibly Evicted?

Get the police or sheriff to document it.

If the landlord changes the locks, turns of utilities, or makes threats, DO NOT retaliate. You will only hurt yourself in the long run.

Rather, if you are locked out or reasonably fear physical harm, the local police or sheriff may be able to help. Call them to stop any immediate threats and to document the situation.

Give dispatch a good description of yourself so the officers will not confuse you with your landlord, or with a potential threat.

When an officer arrives, remember to kindly introduce yourself, quickly describe the problem, and ask about getting a report.

Note that law enforcement officers are never a true solution for the underlying issue. They cannot arrest people for being bad property managers, bad landlords, or bad neighbors. Simply ask that police document any nuisances or abusive behavior.

And be sure to thank them for the help… You may need to call them again someday soon.

5) Security Deposits

Deposits must show properly itemized deductions, or be paid in full in 21 days.

Your landlord must return your security deposit, minus any lawful deductions itemized in writing, within twenty-one (21) days of the date you vacate. Civil Code § 1950.5.

If a landlord withholds any part of the security deposit, the landlord must provide an itemized accounting of how the withheld funds were spent, and on what.

Unless your landlord can show they spent any portion of your deposit repairing some damage you caused beyond normal wear and tear, you are owed the full security deposit.

If your landlord fails to follow these requirements, you may be entitled to the statutory penalty of twice (2x) the improperly withheld amount. Civil Code §1950.5(l).

Section 2 – Addressing Common Problems

1) Put it in writing... Or it didn’t happen.

Clearly describe the problem. Politely request a solution.

Verbal communication is natural. Most of us feel more comfortable talking over the phone or in person. The problem is that landlords will sometimes make false promises, forget what they promised to do, or say revealing or hateful things.

But what happens when you need to actually prove what was said?

To protect yourself, you should always communicate in writing. If you prefer to speak in-person, go ahead, but always follow up with a written summary of what was said. Try to send the landlord a summary that same day.

Email is best. Texting works well too, but emails record more information, appear more professional, and more clearly record dates.

Moreover, with email, you can easily include everybody – owners, property managers, inspectors, or other tenants – in one message about multiple issues.

When emailing a maintenance or management person about a new or ongoing problem, be sure to send the email to everyone involved up the chain:

  • All owners and property managers you know about.
  • All general contractors or sub-contractors involved.
  • All City or County inspectors overseeing the issue.
  • Any neighbors who are closely involved.

2) Make it Official: Call enforcement. Get citations.

Have local agencies document serious safety, habitability, or health problems.

If your landlord fails to fix a serious problem, or fails to cease harassing behavior, you will need a trusted official to record the problem. Health inspectors, building inspectors, firefighters, or police officers can document problems under their purview and citations against landlords.

Obtain a copy of any citations issued. Citations for floods, leaks, contamination, excess moisture, or pest problems put the landlord on notice. Citations also make great evidence that gets other people on your side.

Most cities and counties have code inspectors. Here is a list of agencies in our area:

Alameda County:

Health Code Violations
Rodent and Pest Control
Building Code Violations

Contra Costa:
Health and Building Code By City
Building Code Violations

Napa:

City of Napa Code Enforcement
County Building Code / Permitting

San Francisco:

Department of Public Health
Department of Building Inspection

Solano County:

Health Inspections
Building and Housing Code

Yolo County:

Health and Housing / City and County
Building Code / City and County

Sacramento County:

Rental Housing Inspection Program
Substandard Housing Enforcement

3) A picture is worth a thousand words.

Take photos, take videos, and clearly describe what they show.

While you cannot secretly record a person in California (it’s a misdemeanor), you should definitely take pictures, videos, or audio to prove that what you are dealing with is real.

When recording, be sure to describe what it is you are trying to show. Act as if you are talking to someone you know in a nice, formal tone. Talk about how often the problem you are recording has happened, and mention the last time you requested help from the owner or property manager.

Wherever possible, save the original files. If you eventually need to file a lawsuit, the originals will show when and how the file was made.

If you are taking a picture and the date is very important to your timeline, hold up a copy of that day’s newspaper to prove when you took it.

4) Hire professionals.

Spend a little to save your breath and prove the problem.

Landlords tend to ignore tenants, because they think all tenants complain.

Landlords have a harder time ignoring experts. So, if you’re talking until your face turns blue, and the landlord isn’t responding… save your breath. Call in the experts.

Professionals can create a detailed report showing your landlord exactly how serious the problems are and what exactly needs to be fixed. When floods, mold, pest infestations, or other problems make home a living hell, consider contacting a professional before contacting your landlord.

Landlords who allow living conditions to deteriorate to this lowly level are unlikely to respond positively to repair requests. It’s often necessary to arm yourself with the facts, backed by lab test results. Provide the landlord with your test results the first or second time you request repairs so that your landlord’s excuses fall flat from the get go. The landlord may also be forced to admit, “I don’t want to help you. It costs too much.”

If your home has suffered serious water damage or plumbing issues, call a plumber or general contractor to assess issues your landlord wants to ignore.

If your home has a moisture or mold problem, or otherwise makes you feel sick, you may need to call a contamination specialist, water removal specialist, or an industrial hygienist.

There are also many professional lead and asbestos inspectors. Whatever the problem is, consider spending a small amount on a professional.

5) The Common Connection Between Excess Moisture and Mold

If you don’t ask for moisture abatement, the mold will always return.

When telling your landlord about water and mold, mention moisture first, mold second. Why? Because if they do not understand the connection between mold and moisture, your landlord will never solve the root cause of your health problems.

Moreover, while many landlords are good people, your landlord may be hiding a known source of moisture. For example, they may know about a chronically leaky pipe or repeatedly clogged drain, but they will not bring it up if you only ask about mold. (“She never said anything about the leaks… just the mold.”)

Instead, email, mail, or text your landlord something like this:

“Dear Mr./Mrs. Landlord: I think there is a problem with water or moisture in my home. I [think / know] there was some water intrusion here.

I can see all this mold growing on the [wall / ceiling / dresser / closet / couch / etc.] in the [room]. That isn’t normal. I think it means there is a problem with the moisture in my home. Can you have a professional or city inspector look at this? It needs to be a professional, not just you or the handyman. I want to live in a clean, dry, and healthy place. Thanks.”

Lastly, never forget to take and send pictures. Landlords can’t deny what they can see… at least, not without looking foolish or deliberately cruel.

Section 3 – California Tenant Law 101

1) Bad Living Conditions Violate Tenant Rights

Moisture, mold, pests, illegal activity, and other severe hazards can ruin your home.

Let’s start with mold as one example of how bad living conditions can ruin a formerly safe and healthy home. When mold or other contamination grows on the walls, on furniture, or otherwise seriously disrupts life, it becomes what lawyers call a “nuisance.” A nuisance is anything that invades your home that is injurious to your health or offensive to your senses. California Civil Code § 3479.

Interestingly, most California case law on nuisance actually centers around rampant illegal activity. That is, your landlord’s failure to abate known, persistent illegal activity by properly and timely evicting dangerous tenants may give rise to a claim for constructive eviction if you are forced out as a result of bad actors. Note that a person’s immigration status is one potential exception to allegedly “illegal” activity nuisances, as the
immigration status of a tenant is now protected under California law.

Unlike most illegal activity, the presence of excess moisture and mold often violates California health and safety codes as well. Mold indicates damp rooms, a general failure to repair dilapidation, and constitutes a nuisance. Health & Safety Code §§ 17920.3(a)(11), (a)(14), and (c).

Health hazards, illegal activity, respiratory problems, and sleep deprivation caused by nuisances or harassment ruin your quiet enjoyment of your home. Every tenant in California is entitled to the undisturbed, unencumbered possession of their home, and landlords are liable for any serious and repeated disturbances. California Civil Code § 1927.

Do we even need to discuss rodents, roaches, bedbugs, or dust mites? Once a known infestation is or is likely to affect your health, your landlord’s failure to exterminate pests violates all laws discussed above. The landlord must hire professional exterminators.

In sum, the pervasive and consistent presence of mold, moisture, rats, or pests violates the implied warranty of habitability, which applies to every residential lease in California. California Civil Code § 1941.1; Green v. Superior Court (1974) 10 Cal.3d 616.

These conditions may become so bad that they force you out. In that case, and in other situations where your landlord’s abusive behavior causes you to leave, the landlord may be liable for constructive eviction. California Civil Code § 1940.2.

2) Tenant Harassment: San Francisco

San Francisco: Rent Ordinance § 37.10B. Robust tenant rights.

If your San Francisco rental was built before 1979 and has more than one unit, or if you live in an in-law unit in a single-family home, the City provides very broad tenant protections that overlap with other rights. These important rights include the right against unlawful evictions, freedom from intimidation, and the right to privacy.

The landlord has committed tenant harassment where they, or any of their staffers or
managers repeatedly or egregiously commits any of the following:

(1) Interrupt, terminate or fail to provide housing services required by law;

(2) Fail to perform repairs and maintenance required by contract or law;

(3) Fail to exercise due diligence in completing repairs and maintenance once undertaken or fail to follow appropriate industry repair, containment or remediation protocols;

(4) Abuse the landlord’s right of access into a rental housing unit;

(5) Influence or attempt to influence a tenant to vacate a rental housing unit through fraud, intimidation or coercion;

(6) Attempt to coerce the tenant to vacate with offer(s) of payments to vacate which are accompanied with threats or intimidation;

(7) [NO LONGER APPLIES];

(8) Threaten the tenant, by word or gesture, with physical harm;

(9) Violate any law which prohibits discrimination based on actual or perceived race, gender, sexual preference, sexual orientation, ethnic background, nationality, place of birth, immigration or citizenship status, religion, age, parenthood, marriage, pregnancy, disability, AIDS, or occupancy by a minor child;

(10) Interfere with a tenant’s right to quiet use and enjoyment;

(11) Refuse to accept or acknowledge receipt of a tenant’s lawful rent payment;

(12) Refuse to cash a rent check for over 30 days;

(13) Interfere with a tenant’s right to privacy;

(14) Request information that violates a tenant’s right to privacy, including but not limited to residence or citizenship status or social security number;

(15) Other repeated acts or omissions of such significance as to substantially interfere with or disturb the comfort, repose, peace or quiet of any person lawfully entitled to occupancy of such dwelling unit and that cause, are likely to cause, or are intended to cause any person lawfully entitled to occupancy of a dwelling unit to vacate such dwelling unit or to surrender or waive any rights in relation to such occupancy. Rent Ordinance § 37.10B(a).

If this harassment causes you to leave, your landlord may also be liable for constructive eviction in violation of Rent Ordinance §§ 37.9(a) & 37.9(f).

If this constructive eviction was the result of bad faith, you may be entitled to three times (3x) your actual damages, and these damages typically include the loss of your rent-controlled rental unit. (See Rent Ordinance § 37.9(f). Stoiber v. Honeychuck (1980) 101 Cal.App.3d 903; Beeman v. Burling (1990) 216 Cal.App.3d 1586.)

3) Oakland’s Tenant Protection Ordinance

§ 8.22.600 provides strong remedies against tenant harassment in Oakland.

In November 2014, Oakland passed the Tenant Protection Ordinance (“TPO”) to stem the tide of landlord retaliation and wrongful evictions. The TPO applies to most units in the City of Oakland, other than those constructed after November 2014, regardless of whether or not those same units are covered by just cause or rent controlled programs. Some buildings, such as BMR housing and hotels, are not covered by the ordinance.
TPO § 8.22.630(A).

Oakland landlords may be liable for harassment where they commit any of the following:

1. Interrupt, terminate, or fail to provide housing services required by contract or law, or threaten to do so;

2. Fail to perform repairs and maintenance required by contract or law, or threaten to do so;

3. Fail to exercise due diligence in completing repairs and maintenance once undertaken or fail to follow appropriate industry repair, containment or remediation protocols designed to minimize exposure to noise, dust, lead paint, mold, asbestos, or other building materials with potentially harmful health impacts;

4. Abuse the Owner’s right of access into a rental housing unit as that right is provided by law;

5. Remove from the Rental Unit personal property, furnishings, or any other items without the prior written consent of the Tenant, except when left behind.

6. Influence or attempt to influence a Tenant to vacate a Rental Unit through fraud, intimidation or coercion, which shall include threatening to report a Tenant to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for the purpose of evicting them;

7. Offer payments to a Tenant to vacate more than once in six (6) months, after the Tenant has notified the Owner in writing the Tenant does not desire to receive further offers of payments to vacate;

8. Attempt to coerce a Tenant to vacate with offer(s) of payments to vacate which are accompanied with threats or intimidation. This shall not include settlement offers made in good faith and not accompanied with threats or intimidation in pending eviction actions;

9. Threaten the tenant, by word or gesture, with physical harm;

10. Substantially and directly interfere with a Tenant's right to quiet use and enjoyment of a rental housing unit;

11. Refuse to accept or acknowledge receipt of a Tenant's lawful rent payment, except after a notice to quit has been served and the time period for paying rent pursuant to the notice has expired;

12. Refuse to cash a rent check for over thirty (30) days unless a written receipt for payment has been provided to the Tenant, except after a notice to quit has been served and the time period for paying rent pursuant to the notice has expired;

13. Interfere with a Tenant's right to privacy;

14. Request information that violates a Tenant's right to privacy, including but not limited to residence or citizenship status or social security number, except as required by law or, in the case of a social security number, for the purpose of obtaining information for the qualifications for a tenancy, or not release such information except as required or authorized by law;

15. Other repeated acts or omissions of such significance as to substantially interfere with or disturb the comfort, repose, peace or quiet of any person lawfully entitled to occupancy of such dwelling unit and that cause, are likely to cause, or are intended to cause any person lawfully entitled to occupancy of a dwelling unit to vacate such dwelling unit or to surrender or waive any rights in relation to such
occupancy;

16. Remove a housing service for the purpose of causing the Tenant to vacate the Rental Unit. For example, taking away a parking space knowing that a Tenant cannot find alternative parking and must move. TPO § 8.22.640(A).

If this harassment causes you to leave, your landlord may be liable for constructive eviction in violation of Oakland’s Just Cause for Eviction Ordinance (Measure EE) § 8.22.360.

Wrongfully evicted Oaklanders may obtain three times (3x) actual damages, which typically include the loss of your rent-controlled rental unit. (See Stoiber v. Honeychuck (1980) 101 Cal.App.3d 903; Beeman v. Burling (1990) 216 Cal.App.3d 1586.)

4) Anti-Harassment Protections For All Californians

Civil Code § 1942.5 protection of tenant rights.

While not as robust as the protections provided by San Francisco and Oakland, California has enacted special anti-harassment measures. California Civil Code § 1942.5. (See S.P. Growers Ass’n v. Rodriguez (1976) 17 Cal. 3d 719; Rich v. Schwab (1998) 63 Cal. App. 4th 803.)

The law protects tenants who have reported a bad living condition to local or State code enforcement departments. California Civil Code § 1942.5(a) prohibits landlords from raising your rent, bringing eviction lawsuits, or decreasing any services within 180 days
(6 months) of you calling code enforcement or otherwise asserting your right to a habitable home. Additionally, California Civil Code § 1942.5(c) protects tenants of residential or commercial properties who organize to assert their rights.

Recent laws, effective January 2018, also provide remedies against landlords who harass or threaten you based due to your “immigration status”, real or perceived.

Generic harassment may also amount to egregious or retaliatory harassment where the landlord’s dominant purpose is retaliation against a person who has opposed unlawful actions. Government Code § 12955.

5) Immigration Tenant Protection Act (AB 299)

On January 1, 2018, California tenants gained the power to fight back against landlords who accuse them of being “illegal.” Landlords who call, or threaten to call, any government official or immigration agency for the purpose of retaliation, harassment, or causing an eviction can incur severe civil penalties, including up to one (1) full year of rent.

The tenant has cause even when merely accused of being an “immigrant” or an “illegal” and actually are (…or have always been) a U.S. citizen.

AB 299 also added protection against terminating a lease if they learn that the tenant has not obtained full approval from immigration. Landlords cannot ask for additional credit checks on the basis of learning that a person lacks “documented” immigration status.