More than half of Los Angeles residents are renters (probably because of the high cost of homeownership)—at 64 percent, it’s the fourth-highest percentage of any major U.S. metro area, according to Zillow.
But how many of those renters are familiar with their basic rights as tenants?
There are online repositories of important tenant info, of course. There’s the comprehensive (sometimes overwhelmingly so) website for the city's Housing and Community Investment Department, for instance, as well as websites for fair housing and tenant advocacy groups, such as the Coalition for Economic Survival, Housing Rights Center, and the Los Angeles Tenants Union. We spoke to the experts at these groups to put together a quick primer on a few key rights all tenants should know.
All tenants have a right to clean, habitable housing, and landlords are required to maintain livable units—ones in which doors and windows are not broken; the roof and walls keep out water; plumbing works and dispenses hot and cold water; and there are no vermin running free in the building and unit. There are more legal qualifications, but this is the gist. “Basically, tenants have a right not to live in slum housing,” a rep for the Housing Rights Center says.
If a unit is not habitable, the landlord is supposed to remedy it immediately, and technically the landlord is not supposed to collect rent for that unit until it is habitable again. But a lingering problem doesn’t mean that tenants should decide to stop paying rent.
“People are hearing about rent strikes, and we’ve had an increase in tenants who think, ‘Well, there’s a problem in my unit, so I can stop paying rent,’” says Susan Hunter, a caseworker in the Hollywood chapter of the Los Angeles Tenants Union. That’s definitely not the case.
Hunter says it’s important to know that even in a rent strike, participating tenants are still paying their rent—their money just goes into an escrow account instead of to their landlord.
“You’re helping the landlord in the long run if you don’t go through the [correct] process,” because by not paying rent, tenants put themselves at risk of eviction for non-payment.
Continuing to pay rent allows the tenant to have the upper hand in the situation: They can always point to the fact that in the landlord-tenant compact, they’re holding up their end of the bargain.
Got a problem with your apartment, and your landlord is not doing anything about it? Experts recommend that you first tell your landlord verbally. If the problem persists, graduate to a dated letter detailing the issue, taking timestamped pictures of the problem and other documentation that could later be used, if needed, to show that your landlord was aware of the issue. If that doesn’t work, the Housing and Community Investment Department (HCID) has some information here about how to initiate the city inspection process. It’ll issue the landlord a letter telling them to fix the issues fast.
“People sit on complaints, because they think if they make a complaint, they’ll get evicted,” says Hunter. But there are state laws and provisions of the city’s rent-stabilization ordinance that protect tenants who file complaints from retaliation. “Let [the landlord] know that there’s a problem. If they don’t fix it in two weeks, call the housing department or the health department,” Hunter says.
But let’s say the problem doesn’t get fixed, even after a 60-day notice is issued to your landlord by the city. Unfortunately, both HCID and the Housing Rights Center seem to agree that the best thing you can probably do is sue your landlord for the rent you paid while you were living in a gross place.
In Los Angeles, there are lot of places that have been converted into living spaces without the proper residential permits—a garage that’s been turned into a one-bedroom, for instance.
If you are living in one of those illegal apartments, you have the same protections that a tenant in a permitted apartment would have. If the unit is in a rent-controlled building, you have additional rights and protections. (Don’t know if your building is under rent control? Here’s a guide to finding that information.)
The Housing Rights Center advises that renters always write checks for their rent, put a note in the memo along the lines of “rent for (address),” and get a receipt every time. That way, there’s a paper trail that can establish tenancy down the line, if needed.
When can your landlord come into your unit? Unless it’s an emergency—in which case, the landlord can enter without any notice at all—your landlord has to give you 24 hours notice, whether it’s to give potential new tenants a tour, to come in to make repairs or improvements, or to let in the workers who are making those improvements. And even with proper notice, they’re only supposed to enter during normal business hours.
How often can a landlord raise your rent, legally?
Rent-controlled housing can only have rent increases once a year, and the rent can only go up by a certain percentage, as decided by the city. That rate is 4 percent in Los Angeles until June 2020, but the rates vary for other cities. (There are also certain fees a landlord can pass on to their rent-controlled tenants, outlined on the housing department’s website.)
If you live in a non-rent-controlled unit that is 15 years old or older, a new state law comes into play. The law, which went into effect on January 1 says that landlords can’t raise the rent more than twice in a year, and they can’t raise the rent by more than a total of 5 percent, plus the Consumer Price Index rate for your metro area (it’s 3.3 percent for LA and Long Beach). There are several exceptions, listed on this helpful one-sheet from the Legal Aid Foundation of LA, but in a nutshell, the law provides more protections than were previously in place for tenants whose units are not rent-stabilized.
That said, it’s unclear how robust enforcement will be, since there isn’t an institution at the state level to crack down. Experts and lawmakers say that if a landlord is violating these rules, the renter’s best and only recourse at the moment is taking that landlord to court.
Another big advantage of living in an apartment that is rent-controlled is your protection against no-fault evictions—situations in which you, the tenant, didn't do anything wrong.
If you live in a rent-controlled apartment, there are a limited number of reasons, found here, for which you may be evicted. Rent-controlled tenants are also entitled to mandated relocation time and compensation if they are evicted via the Ellis Act, and the amount increases according to how long a tenant has lived in the building. Head’s up: some landlords try to get tenants out quicker by offering them cash to leave voluntarily, without going through the Ellis Act process. (More about that below.)
If you do not live in a rent-controlled apartment, there are fewer restrictions on evictions than there are on rent-controlled units, however the state’s new rent-cap law says that a landlord must now show just cause to evict you. Again, though, if your landlord is violating this rule, your only recourse right now is taking that landlord to court.
If you live in a rent-stabilized building and get a notice that says you’re being evicted through the Ellis Act, call the housing department and verify that your landlord has actually filed the correct paperwork for evictions through the Ellis Act.
If they have not, Hunter says, it is possible that what is happening to your unit and likely your whole building is a practice called “cash for keys.” That’s when building owners pay rent-stabilized tenants money to leave the apartment voluntarily as a way to avoid going through the expensive and long Ellis Act process.
If the eviction notice is not actually an Ellis Act eviction, “All you have to do is say ‘no,’” Hunter says. In this case, tenants are not obligated to sign anything or do anything or take money just because it’s offered. In fact, if your landlord gives you a phony Ellis Act eviction notice, you can report him to HCID, says Hunter.
In many cases, the money offered with “cash for keys” might seem like a lot, but it’s actually usually less than what tenants are entitled to under the Ellis Act. The calculation for relocation assistance under the Ellis Act takes into account the time tenants have lived on the property, their age, their income, and whether they have a disability.
Starting this year, it’s illegal for LA landlords to discriminate against tenants who use Section 8 vouchers.
That means rental ads that say “No Section 8” are no longer allowed, and a landlord can’t refuse to rent to tenants just because they pay their rent with the help of the federal program for low-income renters.
The law doesn’t mean that a landlord must rent to a Section 8 tenant. There are plenty of legal reasons they can deny someone an apartment, including a low credit score or a history of evictions. But housing advocates have said that the law goes a long way toward ensuring that the vouchers get used to help low-income people find housing, and helping keep people out of homelessness.
Prior to passing the law, Los Angeles had programs to entice landlords to accept the vouchers, but landlords have said that the rental rates that the vouchers cover haven’t kept up with the rising rents in the city and have cited loads of red tape that comes with the voucher program.
Bottom line: If something seems off about your rented living situation, don’t ignore it. If you’ve gotten weird notices telling you you need to move out, or the rules of your building have suddenly become strict under new ownership, seek input from a tenants’ rights organization or the housing department.
“We constantly see that tenants are confronted with situations, not knowing their rights, and end up losing their homes,” says Larry Gross of the Coalition for Economic Survival. “In many situations, if tenants knew their rights, they’d still have a roof over their heads.”