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It's illegal for landlord to cut off utilities in retaliation

California prohibits landlords from changing locks or cutting off utilities to evict tenants

Question: For the last three weeks, my landlord has been coming to my apartment to tell me I need to get out. When I returned home from work this past week, I was shocked to discover that my utilities had been turned off.

My rent is always current and I have never received a warning letter from my landlord of any type. I suspect that my landlord is angry because I asked him to repair a broken water heater. After I made this request, my landlord started telling me to leave if I was not happy. Then when I told him I didn't have to leave because I had a valid lease, he cut off the utilities. My food in the refrigerator is beginning to spoil. I have no lights and no hot water or stove.

When I called my local police they told me they couldn't really help because this was a civil matter rather than a criminal matter. I have already called our local code enforcement office to deal with the water heater, but I need to know if the utility cutoff is something I can address.

Answer: Landlords wishing to terminate a tenancy must follow proper procedures. Landlords are never allowed to engage in behavior that constitutes an illegal self-help eviction, which in legal terms is called a "constructive eviction."

California explicitly prohibits actions such as changing locks or the interruption or termination of utility services. Specifically, California Civil Code section 789.3 lists the interruption or termination of "water, heat, light, electricity, gas, telephone, elevator, or refrigeration" as prohibited types of service interference.

We frequently receive phone calls from tenants in these types of situations who have been referred by law enforcement officers eager to help but unable to do so because these conflicts are civil rather than criminal. The same statute provides for damages of up to $100 a day for each day the violation occurs, plus other damages that can be proved such as a loss of food or perhaps the need to find alternative lodging at a motel.

A tenant suffering from a utility service cutoff might be able to educate the landlord by showing the relevant anti-cutoff statute; sadly, however, once the cutoff stage has been reached it is less likely that negotiation will work. It might be time to begin assembling a list of your damages, with proof such as receipts, and file a court case to request the daily penalty plus specific provable damages.

For more information, contact a local fair housing or mediation program, or Project Sentinel at (888) 324-7468, or visit our website at http://www.housing.org.

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

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