Need home repairs in your rental unit? What to know

Jene J. Long

Good morning. I’m Rachel Schnalzer, the L.A. Times Business section’s audience engagement editor. With the COVID-19 pandemic pushing people away from shared spaces for the last year, a minor home repair can feel urgent and an urgent home repair can feel like a catastrophe.

Repair requests are common as many tenants spend the majority of their leisure time and, often, their workdays at home. “Everybody’s using the facilities at the same time, and things are going to pop up,” explains Fred Sutton, a senior vice president of public affairs with the California Apartment Assn., which represents the rental housing industry.

What are the best ways for tenants to arrange repairs with landlords? I spoke with three experts to break down California tenants’ rights, as well as best practices.

What are a tenant’s rights?

Under federal and California law, tenants have the right to live in a safe, habitable rental unit. “Whether it’s a heating issue, plumbing issue, a water intrusion, these are all fundamental rights,” says Jason M. Stone, a partner at Stone & Sallus, a law firm that represents both tenants and housing providers.

Landlords are responsible for fixing problems that substantially affect the unit’s habitability. For example, every unit must have heating facilities and a working toilet and bathtub or shower, among other requirements. The California Department of Real Estate compiled a breakdown of what tenants can expect from their landlord.

By the same token, the tenant is responsible for taking good care of the unit. “Both parties have the obligation to maintain reasonable and good condition of the premises. They have to work together to do that,” Stone says.

How should a tenant approach the landlord about getting a repair?

Don’t hesitate to let your housing provider know about an issue that needs repair in your home. “Your landlord wants to know if there’s a problem,” Sutton says.

Check your lease to determine whom you should contact for repairs — this can end up saving you time in the long run. “If you send a notice for repair to the landlord, but [your lease] says to direct all of that to the management company, that can cause a delay,” Stone explains.

It’s best to communicate in writing, making sure to keep a copy of your maintenance requests for your own records. You should also gather evidence that proves the severity of the issue, says Chancela Al-Mansour, executive director of the Housing Rights Center, which serves Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Stone advises tenants to include three main points in their report of a maintenance issue. First, state the date and time of the issue as well as a description, along with photos if you have them. Second, propose a solution (for example, if you’ve had flooding, you could propose going to a hotel for a few days while it’s being fixed). Third, set a reasonable expectation of when you’d like to hear back.

Once you send in a request for repairs, don’t be afraid to follow up. “If it’s bothering them, they need to inform the landlord every day in writing about the problem,” Al-Mansour says. “Oftentimes, management does need to be reminded a couple of times of problems.”

If it’s a severe problem, you should also immediately contact the appropriate government agency, Al-Mansour says. This could be the local health department, housing department or fire department. “Don’t wait, especially if it could really affect the health and safety of other residents,” Al-Mansour says.

Stone advises tenants to be professional and courteous when contacting their housing provider about a repair. Starting with an angry letter “doesn’t always work and that just causes more problems,” he says.

How soon should the landlord respond?

Landlords must be quick to deal with emergencies, Sutton says. “If you have a pipe and it can’t get unclogged, a plumber needs to fix it as soon as possible.”

For non-emergencies, “it depends on contracting ability, but generally housing providers want to take care of [repairs] as quickly as possible,” Sutton says. “They don’t want that sitting on their plate.”

That said, if the problem is just a small inconvenience, the tenant should give the housing provider more time to respond, Sutton adds.

Pay close attention to the provisions of your lease, Stone says. If it specifies constant access to an amenity, the landlord might have incentive to restore that amenity more quickly.

Stone had a client who put in a lease addendum that they needed full internet connection and assurances that there would be no disputes or disturbances with their neighbors. When an issue arose, the landlord responded immediately, giving the tenant a rent abatement until the problem could be resolved. “We were able to specifically point to the provision and the addendum in the lease that we negotiated for,” Stone explains.

What if your landlord never gets back to you or refuses to help?

If you’ve given your landlord plenty of notice and time to fix the issue and the problem hasn’t been resolved, you have the option to arrange the repair yourself, Al-Mansour says.

For example, if a tenant needs a lock changed and the landlord isn’t responsive, “the tenant does have the right to hire a locksmith themselves or change the locks themselves,” as long as the tenant provides management with the new key, Al-Mansour says.

If tenants must make a repair themselves, they should keep copies of their maintenance requests as proof, and before spending money, they should comparison shop: get a few estimates of the cost of the repair so they can show that the expense was reasonable, Al-Mansour advises. She says tenants should keep all of their receipts and send a bill to the landlord. If the landlord refuses to reimburse them, going to small claims court could be a final resort.

Though tenants can withhold some or all of their rent if the landlord does not fix serious defects that affect their unit’s habitability, it’s a risky course of action. “The Housing Rights Center doesn’t usually recommend that tenants use the more last resort of withholding rent to get the repairs because it does put the tenant at risk of eviction,” Al-Mansour says.

Instead, Al-Mansour advises tenants to turn to government agencies to file complaints.

What about repairs for amenities?

Keep an eye on the terms of your lease agreement when less serious problems arise — for example, fixing the unit’s refrigerator may be the tenant’s responsibility.

However, if a landlord does not repair a broken amenity that is part of the lease, the tenant may be able to file a petition for a reduced rent if there is a rent control ordinance covering the area. “L.A. City and L.A. County unincorporated have rent stabilization departments where tenants can file petitions for a reduction in rent, but only if their units are covered by the local rent control laws,” Al-Mansour explained over email.

If you have a disability and your landlord removes an amenity you rely on, you have the right to request reasonable accommodation, though there’s not an absolute guarantee of accommodation, Al-Mansour says.

Prospective tenants should bring up any features or amenities they need in the unit or building when negotiating the lease, Stone advises. If the need for the amenities arises afterward, then the tenant should try to work with the landlord to get those amenities added to the provisions of your lease.

Should tenants worry about retaliation?

Although many housing providers operate in good faith, “there are a few managers and landlords who will illegally retaliate against a tenant for reporting a problem or a situation in their unit,” Al-Mansour says.

The law is on the tenants’ side. “There are federal, state and local laws that prohibit a landlord from retaliating against the tenant for filing a complaint,” Al-Mansour says. “Report harassment and retaliation to the Housing Rights Center or another legal aid agency.”

Where can tenants go for support?

If you have questions about your rights as a tenant, you should consult with an attorney or legal aid agency, Al-Mansour says. “Sometimes tenants have to take their landlords to court in order to enforce their legal right to safe and decent housing.”

It may also be helpful to speak with neighboring tenants and write a joint letter to your landlord, Al-Mansour suggests, especially if you’re worried about retaliation. Tenants should keep a copy of the joint letter to prove they reached out. “Oftentimes there is strength in numbers,” she says.

A local tenants union may also be able to provide some guidance on collective action among renters.

Where can small landlords go for support?

If landlords need tenant relations support, Stone suggests they seek out resources provided by local and regional landlord groups.

The California Apartment Assn. regularly holds classes and offers information on operational best practices, updated laws, compliance help, industry referrals and other resources for housing providers, Sutton says.

A note on COVID-19 safety

Many tenants may need repairs but feel worried about having other people in their space during the COVID-19 pandemic, Al-Mansour says.

“We ask the managers and housing providers to be mindful of the COVID-19 transmission guidelines and provide their maintenance staff with full [personal protective equipment] and require that they inform the tenant before they enter the unit,” she says.

For more information about arranging repairs during the pandemic, read this story by my colleague Lila Seidman.

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One more thing

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Have a question about work, business or finances during the COVID-19 pandemic, or tips for coping that you’d like to share? Send us an email at californiai[email protected], and we may include it in a future newsletter.

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