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HOW TO HANDLE LANDLORD DISPUTES

More than one-third of county residents are renting their living space, according to the 1990 Orange County Survey. The equation of so many tenants entering into rental agreements with so many landlords equals a very large potential for conflict.

Nearly 18,000 people contacted the Fair Housing Council of Orange County during fiscal year 1989-90 with questions regarding tenant/landlord disputes.

“We have a 93.9% resolution rate,” in such disputes, said executive director David T. Quezada. The council offers help through brochures, referrals to county agencies, sample letters citing the law that pertains to specific problems, and other information that is helpful in learning tenant rights.

The following are three of the most common areas from which conflicts arise, what the law is on the subject and ways for you to resolve the problem.

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SUBSTANDARD CONDITIONS

PROBLEM: You tell your landlord about repairs that need to be done but the request is ignored or put off for a lengthy period of time.

THE LAW: California Civil Code section 1941.1 states that landlords are legally obligated to maintain the rental property “in a condition fit for human occupancy.” Their minimum obligations to the rental property are to make sure:

There are no broken doors, entrance locks or windows and no leaks when it rains;

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All plumbing, including hot and cold running water and sewer systems, must work properly;

The heater, lights and wiring are safe and working;

Floors, stairs and railways are in good repair;

At the time it is rented, the unit is clean, free of rodents, roaches and other pests; and

An adequate number of garbage bins with covers have been provided.

HOW TO RESOLVE THE PROBLEM: Give your landlord written notice of the repairs needed. The landlord has a “reasonable amount of time” to make repairs, which can mean anywhere from three days for something urgent (such as a broken water heater or toilet) to 30 days for something that is not urgent.

If the repairs are not made, you have three options: Have the repairs made and deduct the cost from your monthly rent (the amount deducted cannot be more than one month’s rent and this option cannot be used more than twice in any 12-month period); move out and not pay any more rent; or withhold rent until the repairs are made.

However, the Fair Housing Council urges you to first contact a lawyer or tenant counselor before doing any of the above, because if the landlord takes you to court for withholding rent, it is up to the judge to decide if the actions were reasonable.

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PRIVACY, ILLEGAL ENTRY, AND HARASSMENT

PROBLEM: Your landlord goes into your apartment or house without permission or calls and visits you at odd hours.

THE LAW: You have the basic right to privacy under California Civil Code section 1954, which states that a landlord cannot enter rental property except under the following conditions:

After giving 24 hours prior notice and during normal business hours (generally considered to be between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.) to make necessary or agreed-upon repairs;

In an emergency such as fire or flooding;

When the unit has been abandoned; or

As a result of a court order.

HOW TO RESOLVE THE PROBLEM: Document each incident of harassment and illegal entry. If there are any witnesses, get their written account of the incident if possible.

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Write a letter to the landlord detailing the incidents, citing the state civil code, and demanding the harassment stop immediately.

As a last resort, you can sue your landlord for actual and punitive damages and seek a restraining order in Orange County Superior Court. Seek the advice of a lawyer before pursuing this option.

SECURITY DEPOSIT REFUNDS

COMMON PROBLEM: Your former landlord does not return your security deposit or makes large, undocumented deductions from the deposit.

THE LAW: Under California Civil Code section 1950.5, your landlord must refund your security deposit within 14 days of your vacating the property, minus any deductions.

When your landlord makes deductions from security deposits, it must be put in writing why any deductions were made. The landlord also must be able to furnish receipts for the work upon your request. Deductions from a security deposit may be made for the following reasons:

Abandonment without paying the rent that was due;

There was damage to the rental property that was beyond “normal wear and tear;" or

Reasonable cleaning was not done by you.

HOW TO RESOLVE THE PROBLEM: If you receive a partial refund on your security deposit, but believe you deserve more, cashing the check for partial payment is viewed by some courts as agreement to accept that amount only. If you plan to fight for a larger refund, either do not cash the partial payment check, or cash it only after writing on the back, above your signature, “Not to be interpreted as an accord and satisfaction. I do not waive my rights to seek additional funds owed to me.”

If the refund is unsatisfactory, you must make a written request to your former landlord for receipts and other documentation that the amount deducted was actually spent on cleaning the rental property. If there is no response in a reasonable amount of time, you can sue in Small Claims Court for actual damages and an additional $200 for punitive damages.

For more information on any tenant/landlord dispute, contact the Fair Housing Council of Orange County at 1222 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 835-8718.


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