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Should tenant stop paying rent to protest apartment's shabby carpets?

Question: When I moved my family into our apartment five years ago, the carpets were in very poor shape. They had obviously been installed there several years earlier. During the time we have lived there, the carpets have begun to show signs of wear in every room. In some spots, there is almost no carpet left.

I have written to my property manager several times to ask that the carpets be repaired or replaced, but all I get in response are vague promises to "get to it" at some time in the future. My sister, who used to work as a resident manager, has suggested that I stop paying rent as a protest over this condition, but I thought I should get a second opinion first. What is your advice?

Answer: Landlords are legally required to promptly repair defects in a rental property that violate their duty to provide habitable premises. These habitability requirements apply to the basic components of livability in a property such as adequate plumbing, safe electrical service, sufficient heat and hot water and prevention of vermin.

Other aspects of a rental unit, such as parking, are considered amenities and are not required unless specified in an individual rental agreement.

Generally, carpeting is considered an amenity, not a required element of habitability. However, if the damage to the carpet is sufficient to raise safety concerns, for example because someone might trip or fall, the landlord would be obligated to take action based on the duty to avoid negligence.

If your rental agreement does refer to the presence of carpeting, you have an argument that the adequate carpeting is contractually required under your rental agreement.

We do not recommend withholding rent or deducting the cost of repairing the carpet from your rent. You would be in danger of receiving a three-day notice to pay rent or quit, and then be subject to defending an unlawful detainer eviction case if you did not bring the rent current during the three-day notice period. Rent withholding or deduction for repairs that do not violate the habitability requirements almost always results in a judgment against the tenant who engaged in the withholding.

These tactics should be reserved for the most serious habitability violations, which constitute a serious health and safety threat, and where a government agency such as code enforcement has issued a citation for the violation.

Van Deursen is director of Dispute Resolution Programs for Project Sentinel, a Bay Area nonprofit. Send questions to info@housing.org.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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