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 or she is violating your “Warranty of Habitability” and you have the right to have repairs made.
California codes especially Civil Code Sections 1941-1942, 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 cannot retaliate against you; any eviction or rent increase attempt within six months of such a complaint will be examined by the judge for retaliation.
In addition, landlords cannot demand rent, evict for nonpayment, or increase rents if there are serious housing code violations AND the landlord has been ordered to correct the violations by the city or state AND the violations have not been corrected for at least 35 days after the order to correct the violations. California Civil Code Section 1942.4 also has statutory damages of up to $5,000 which can be given to the tenant in a habitability lawsuit.
Requirements for the Landlord
Some of the requirements are:
•Adequate and safe heat.
•Effective weatherproofing, including doors, windows, and roofs.
•Housing, in areas under control of the landlord, free of garbage, cockroaches, rats, and vermin.
•Plumbing and gas facilities in good order.
•Hot and cold running water.
•Electrical equipment in good order.
•Stairs and common areas maintained in good order.
Document That the Landlord Knows About the Problem
Tenants have various ways to force landlords to make repairs. Many of these rights are dependent on proving the landlord knew of the problem and had ample time to fix it. You should begin by writing your landlord a letter telling him or her what your complaints are and asking that he or she fix it promptly. Send the letter with proof of mailing. Keep a copy of the letter; you may need it later if your letter does nothing or the problem is not fixed for a significant period of time. If the problem is urgent, also call or email your landlord and state that you have called or emailed as well in the letter.
Call the Department of Building Inspection (DBI)
Call or write DBI, to request they send an inspector out to your home. It usually works better if you contact them in person and submit a written complaint. Be persistent and try to talk to the actual inspector. When the inspector comes, you should point out 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). Click here to track the status of complaints.
If the landlord ignores the DBI order, he or she 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 to 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 the problems are. You should have a copy of this report before you attempt to “repair and deduct” or withhold your rent. You will need the report to be certified by DBI before using it in court.
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 cannot ask for or collect rent.
WARNING: Do not call DBI if you live in an illegal unit. Rather than cite the landlord for repairs needed, DBI may issue an order to legalize the unit or shut it down and you may be evicted. If you believe your unit may be illegal, look for a ”Street File” at DBI’s Office before requesting a visit.
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, exchange email addresses, and once you have a few interested people, call a meeting. Send your landlord a list of demands, call the Building Inspector and file Rent Board petitions together (see below). If you take any of the actions, you are much stronger when you act collectively.
Petition the Rent Board
You can file a petition with the San Francisco Rent Board, if you are rent-controlled under the San Francisco Rent Ordinance, claiming a “Decrease in Housing Services” and ask that your rent be reduced to compensate you for your reduced habitability. This is the safest option to use to get repairs as it does not entail the risks of rent withholding, but it can take months to get a hearing and your rent may be reduced less than you think it should be.
You will need to file a petition separately for each rental unit, but you can request that the petitions for you and your neighbors to be heard together (ask the Rent Board how to do this).
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.
Sue Your Landlord
You can sue in Small Claims or if you have many serious violations, talk to a tenant attorney. 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 part of the rent you have paid while living in substandard conditions.
Repair and Deduct
If you use this option, you must be aware that the landlord can attempt to evict you for “nonpayment” of rent; if he or she 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. You should not withhold your rent until you have talked with a Tenants Union counselor and learned exactly what steps you must take.
You can make repairs yourself and deduct up to 1 month’s rent to pay for them. You can do this twice in a 12 month period and you could do it 2 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 or herself and the problem must be serious. 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 reasonable time (which could be 30 days or more) to fix it.
If you use this option, the landlord may fix the problem or 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, although the Eviction Defense Collaborative will give guidance and prepare the papers for you if you do not have an attorney.
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 until your case is settled!
The SF Tenants Union is supported 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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