Does Your Apartment Need Repairs?

Tenants have the right to safe and habitable homes in exchange for the rents we are paying. If your landlord is not making repairs, he is violating your “Warranty of Habitability” and you should force him to make the repairs.

The Law
California Civil Code Sections 1941-42, the San Francisco Housing Code, and the San Francisco Health Code define your landlord’s obligations to make and keep your home in habitable condition. Tenants have the right to report landlords to City agencies and rights to withhold rent or “repair and deduct.” And the landlord can’t retaliate against you: any eviction or rent increase attempt within 6 months of such a complaint is presumed to be “retaliatory.”

In addition, landlords can not demand rent, evict for non-payment or increase rents when serious housing codes AND the landlord has been ordered to correct the violations by the city or state AND the violations have not been corrected within 35 days of the city's order to correct the violations. See California Civil Code 1942.4 (for links to state laws go to Links + Resources). Civil Code 1942.4 was also amended to increase the statutory damages (to $5,000 from $1,000 which can be given a tenant in habitability lawsuit.

Your Landlord Must Provide:
Some of the requirements landlords must meet are:
•Adequate and safe heat.
•Effective weatherproofing, including doors, windows and roofs.
•Housing free of garbage, cockroaches, rats and vermin.
•Plumbing and gas facilities in good order.
•Reasonable amounts of hot and cold running water.
•Adequate electric plugs and phone jacks.
•Stairs and common areas maintained in good order.

What You Can Do
Tenants have various ways to force landlords to make repairs. Many of these rights are dependent on whether or not you can prove the landlord knew of the problem and had ample time to fix it. You should begin by writing your landlord a letter telling him what your complaints are and asking that he fix it promptly. Keep a copy of the letter -- you may need it later. If your letter does nothing:

Call The Department of Building Inspection
If you call—or write—DBI, they will send an inspector out to your home. (Complaint Tracking-Click Here to see status of complaints) When the inspector comes, you should point out to her exactly what is wrong. If there are other things in your home you’re not sure about, ask the inspector to look at it. After the inspection, the landlord will be given an order to correct the problems (usually 30 days).

If the landlord ignores the DBI order, he can be take to court by the City and fined, or even jailed for some serious offenses. But, DBI is usually not so aggressive so don’t just wait for them to take action.

After the inspection, you should call, write or visit DBI get a copy of their report. This report is valuable for you to have as it documents what the problems are, when the landlord was officially notified and how serious they are. You should have a copy of this report before you attempt to “repair and deduct” or withhold your rent.

Once DBI has cited the landlord for serious violations (such as those listed above), the landlord must correct the violations. Under state law, if the landlord has nor corrected the violations in 35 days, the landlord can not ask for rent, collect rent, give you a rent increase or evict for non-payment.

WARNING: Do not call DBI if you live in an illegal unit. Rather than cite the landlord for repairs needed, DBI will simply issue an order to legalize the unit or shut it down and you may be evicted. If you believe your unit may be illegal, check with DBI's Central Permit Office (at 1660 Mission Street) before requesting that an inspector visit.

Petition The Rent Board
You can file a petition with the San Francisco rent Board claiming a “Decrease In Services” and ask that your rent be reduced to compensate you for your reduced habitability. This is the safest option to use as it does not entail the risks of “repair and deduct” or rent withholding, but, it can take awhile and your rent may be reduced less than you think it should be. Rent Board web site for more information and forms for Decrease in Services.

If you live in an illegal unit, the Rent Board does not care and won't report it to to DBI, so for tenants in illegal units, petitioning the Rent Board is a safe option. This is the best option you have for “cosmetic” or minor problems and it can also be used for “housing services” such as laundry facilities, parking and elevators.

Repair And Deduct
You can make repairs yourself and deduct up to one month’s rent to pay for them. You can do this twice in a 12 month period and you could do it two months in a row. If the problem affects multiple tenants, the tenants can combine this right. To do this, you must have given the landlord adequate time to make the repairs himself and the problem must be serious.

If you use this option, you must beware that the landlord can attempt to evict you for “nonpayment;” if he does, your defense is your legal right to repair and deduct. But you must be able to show that the landlord knew of the problem, had time to fix it, and did not.
When you make the repairs, keep all the receipt and submit copies of them to the landlord along with your reduced rent.

Rent Withholding/Rent Strike
This can be the most powerful tool you have but it’s also the riskiest. You should not withhold your rent until you have talked with a tenants Union counselor and learned exactly what steps you must take. Landlord judges are all too happy to believe that all tenants are deadbeats trying to get out of paying the rent.
If you withhold your rent, you must have:
•A DBI inspection report showing that the violations are serious.
•The full rent on hand.
•Proof that the landlord knew of the problem and had 60 days or more to fix it.
If you use this option, the landlord may fix the problem or will eventually attempt to evict you for nonpayment of rent and you will have to go to court and adequately prove the seriousness of the problem and the landlord’s failure to do anything about it. Legal services have been slashed and you will probably have to go to court alone.
Once you start a rent strike, open a separate bank account for your rent. Write your landlord a letter and explain what you are doing and then each month deposit your rent money in the separate account. Do not spend this money or you will be evicted!

Organize Tenants In Your Building
Usually, when one tenant has repair problems, all the tenants do. You stand a much better chance of getting repairs made if you all act together. Talk to other tenants and once you have a few interested people, call a meeting. Send your landlord a list of demands. Call the Building Inspector. File Rent Board petitions together. If you go on rent strike, or take any of these other actions, you are much stronger when you act collectively.

Sue Your Landlord
If you have many serious violations, talk to a tenant attorney about suing your landlord. It is illegal for a landlord to demand or collect rent for an apartment which has serious habitability problems and you may be able to sue for all or part of the rent you have paid while living in substandard conditions.


The SF Tenants Union is supported only by your memberships and donations. If you find information on this web site useful, or if you want to support our work, please join or donate. Members get even more information via our Tenants Rights Handbook plus access to phone counseling
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