The Berkeley Rent Board Mailbag
Codes & Habitability
Q: The roof of my apartment building leaks. During the last rainstorm, water leaked through the bedroom ceiling, which is now sagging. I notified the landlord, but nothing has been fixed. What are my rights?
You have a right to a weatherproof apartment under Civil Code 1941.1 and under the local housing code, and the right to a habitable dwelling is implied in every lease. If your apartment fails to meet these requirements, you may be entitled to some compensation for the impairment the leaky ceiling has caused. Here are steps we recommend tenants take to get problems in their units fixed and to get compensation:
Notify the Landlord: Make a written request to your landlord for repairs. Telephoning is fine, and essential in an emergency, but written proof of making the request is important, especially if your landlord is not responsive. So, if you telephone your landlord about a problem, follow up with a letter. Keep copies of all your correspondence. If you don't notify the landlord of a serious problem that results in damage that was preventable with earlier notification, you risk being held responsible for some of the damage done to the apartment.
Document the Problem: If possible, take photos of or videotape the problem, or call the Rent Stabilization Board for someone to videotape it. If you file a petition with our office, you'll need to demonstrate that there was (or still is) actually a problem.
Request a Housing Inspection: For structural or weatherproofing problems that you suspect violate housing or building codes, call the City's Housing Enforcement Division for a housing inspection at 981-5444. If the inspector cites the landlord for a code violation, the City can charge the landlord for inspection fees if the problem does not get fixed. Also, the inspector will issue a report about all cited violations, which will serve as additional evidence of the problem.
Petition the Rent Board: File a petition at the Rent Stabilization Board seeking a rent reduction if the landlord still refuses to make repairs, or if you and the landlord can't agree on some compensation for the inconvenience you suffered. If, at a hearing, you prove the existence of the leak and can show how it affected your use of the bedroom (say, you had to move furniture and couldn't use part of the room), you're probably entitled to a rent reduction. This reduction will apply from the time the landlord had notice of the problem until it was fixed; if the repair isn't made by the time of the hearing, the rent reduction will stay in effect until the landlord proves that it has been fixed.
The Rent Board cannot, however, compensate you for any costs you might have incurred to replace personal belongings damaged by the leak. If your landlord does not agree to reimburse you for your losses, see if he or she will agree to mediate the matter. Our office offers free mediation services, and sliding-scale mediation services can also be obtained through SEEDS Community Resolution Center. Otherwise, you will have to file a suit in small claims court to recoup your costs.
Q: Because landlords are required to install working smoke detectors, shouldn't they be responsible for maintaining them as well? I am a tenant, and I think I should be able to deduct the cost of replacing the batteries every year.
Since 1987, state law has required landlords to provide operable smoke detectors at the beginning of all tenancies in multiple-unit buildings. Replacing batteries of smoke detectors in your unit is not the landlord's obligation, unless that's written into your rental agreement. You, as a tenant, must assume some responsibility for basic maintenance of your rental unit, which means keeping it clean and replacing, at your own expense, minor items with a naturally short life that wear out during your tenancy, such as light bulbs and batteries. On the other hand, if your smoke detector doesn't work even with a new battery, then notify your landlord, who must then repair or replace the smoke detector. Also, property owners are responsible for replacing the batteries of smoke detectors located in common stairwells.
Q: Our landlord is slow to make repairs. Many of the things we can fix ourselves, like patching a hole in the screen door, replacing a kitchen faucet held in place with duct tape, and even rebuilding the rotting back steps. Can we go ahead and do these repairs ourselves and deduct our expenses from the rent?
If you think your landlord would rather have you make repairs so he doesn't have to bother with them, write a letter asking if he will allow you to do these repairs and deduct the costs from rent.
If he does not approve, consider whether you can proceed with the "repair and deduct" remedy provided in California Civil Code section 1942.
Use of this remedy is limited:
- You must first give the landlord written or oral notice of the problem, and allow him or her reasonable time to make the repairs;
- The problem must substantially violate the habitability standards defined in Civil Code sections 1941.1 (see below);
- You must not have interfered with the landlord's attempt to fix the problem and the problem must not have been caused by tenants or their guests;
- You may deduct no more than one month's rent at a time, and you may not use this remedy more than twice in twelve months.
We strongly advise that you give notice to your landlord in writing of the repairs needed, and keep a copy for your records. Provide a reasonable date by which he should make the repairs, and advise that you will make the repairs (or hire someone to do them) and deduct the cost from rent if he doesn't meet the deadline. The law presumes that 30 days is reasonable. If the problem is an emergency, such as flooding or a backed-up toilet, you will want to call the landlord immediately, but follow up that oral notice with a letter confirming your conversation. Also, it is reasonable to request that emergency repairs be fixed in less than 30 days.
If you or someone you hire does the work, we recommend that you photograph or videotape the problem before and after it is repaired. Once the work is completed, you may deduct the costs from the next month's rent. Be sure to send the landlord copies of all receipts.
As for the items you mentioned, a small hole in the screen door doesn't seem to warrant the use of repair and deduct, but your landlord should be willing to agree to let you make the repair and reimburse you for materials. The broken kitchen faucet and rotting stairs appear to be substantial violations; however, the cost to fix the stairs could exceed more than one months' rent.
Landlord responsibilities under Civil Code section 1941.1 You may use the repair and deduct remedy if your unit or building is substantially lacking one or more of the following:
- Effective weatherproofing of roof and exterior walls, including unbroken windows and doors
- Plumbing and gas facilities in good working order
- Hot and cold running water and connection to a sewage disposal system
Heating facilities in good working order
Electrical lighting, wiring and equipment in good working order
Building and grounds free of debris, garbage, and rodents and other pests
Adequate number of garbage containers
Floors, stairways and railings maintained in good repair
Q: My apartment building is infested with ants! It is so bad in my unit that they nearly cover my floors and cabinets. I have tried just about everything I could think of to get rid of them, including constant cleaning and ant baits, with no success. The tenant in the neighboring unit also complains of ants. My landlord, who also lives in the third unit on the property, refuses to do anything about the infestation, because he says it might harm his dog. Please help. What is my landlord legally required to do?
Residential landlords are required by law to maintain their properties in habitable condition. Specifically, California Civil Code section 1941.1(f) provides that the building and grounds must be clean, sanitary, and free from all accumulations of debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents and vermin, e.g., cockroaches and ants. Landlords who fail to maintain their property in a habitable condition may be subject to citations for health and/or housing code violations, rent reductions and monetary damages.
Thus, your landlord has a duty to rid the property of a serious ant infestation, such as the type you describe. (Every ant problem, however, will not necessarily breach habitability standards, particularly where an act or omission by the tenant has caused it.) Your first step should be to contact the City of Berkeley Environmental Health Department and request an inspection of your unit. If the infestation rises to the level you describe, the Health Inspector will issue a report citing the landlord for a health code violation and order its abatement. The Environmental Health Department can also provide you with some self-help tips on combating pests.
You may also file a petition for rent adjustment with the Rent Board on the ground that your landlord has failed to comply with the implied warranty of habitability. If decided in your favor, you would be granted a retroactive rent reduction beginning from the time your landlord was first notified that your unit was infested and continuing until the ants are exterminated.
Additionally, or in the alternative, you may file a court action pursuant to Civil Code section 1942.4(a). A court may award monetary damages, including actual damages, special damages and attorney's fees, where a landlord has not corrected cited health or housing code violations, which also breach the habitability standards of Civil Code section 1941.1, e.g., a serious ant infestation. The court would also order the landlord to abate the nuisance and monitor the corrections to ensure compliance.
Q: After I moved into my apartment, I discovered that there was no telephone line installed. I asked the landlord about it, and he kept saying he'd take care of it but he never did. I finally called the phone company and had a line installed. I think the landlord should pay the $120.00 expense. Am I right?
Yes, under California Civil Code Section 1941.4, your landlord is responsible for installing "at least one suitable telephone jack" and for maintaining the wiring thereof in good working order.
Q: I have just moved to Berkeley. Upon moving into my apartment, I asked the manager to turn on the heat. He suggested I call P.G.&E. since he did not know how to start the heater. When the P.G.&E. technician inspected the heater, he declared it a hazard and disconnected it. I informed the manager of the problem immediately, and sent him a copy of the technician's report. It has now been more than two weeks and although the building has a repairman, I am still without heat in my unit. I need to get my heater fixed and I would also like to get a rent discount for the time I have not had heat. What should I do?
Under California Civil Code § 1941.1, a dwelling is considered untenantable if it does not have adequate heating facilities that are maintained in good working order. In other words, you have an absolute right to have a working heat source when you rent a unit. Since you have notified the manager of the building in writing (by forwarding the P.G.&E. report), you should next request an inspection of the unit by the City of Berkeley Housing Department and concurrently, file a petition with the Rent Board. Since the lack of heat is a breach of the warranty of habitability, under Regulation 1269(B)(3), you would be entitled to no less than a 10% rent reduction. You are entitled to a retroactive rent reduction from the time you first notified the landlord of the problem, and continuing each month until the heater is fixed.
In addition, you may be able to use the "repair and deduct" remedy (Civil Code § 1942). Where a violation of the warranty of habitability is not corrected within a "reasonable time" after proper notice is given, a tenant may arrange for the repair independently and deduct the expense from the next rent payment as long as the cost does not exceed one month's rent. Two weeks appears to be more than a reasonable time to fix a defective heater during winter. To use this remedy, you should be sure to follow the statutory requirements.
Q: I am a landlady and my question is about dead bolts on first floor doors. The back door of one of my rentals is currently locked with a padlock. Does this door require a dead bolt? The door is hung such that a dead bolt would probably have to be surface-mounted. Would that be ok? If not, am I required to replace the entire door?
California Civil Code requires a dead bolt lock on each main swinging door of a rental property. If a through-the-door lock cannot be installed, a surface mounted lock may be used. The lock, however, may not be the type that requires a key -- no padlocks. You should contact the City's Codes Department for advice on the types of dead bolt locks that satisfy current code requirements.
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