Question: When I moved into my apartment, there was a window air-conditioning unit there. Three months later, the unit broke and has remained broken including during the last month when we had some hot spells. I have asked my landlord to have the unit fixed on several occasions, but he hasn't responded. Do I have any remedy here? For example, can I stop paying rent or ask the city staff to cite him?
Answer: California law requires a landlord to provide "habitable" premises and establishes the elements that must be provided in a rental unit to meet that requirement. The elements of habitability are basic, such as functioning plumbing and electrical systems, adequate water and heating supplies, and effective weather protection.
Other elements in a rental unit that most of us would expect to be required, such as appliances, are not included on the list of habitability requirements; they are characterized as amenities. The distinction is important, because certain tenant remedies such as "repair and deduct" or "rent withholding" require proof of a serious habitability violation.
Most local code enforcement departments will limit their inspections to habitability issues. They are unlikely to inspect for lack of air conditioning, unless the unit's malfunctioning is because of a more basic issue such as faulty wiring.
Whether you have any remedy for failure to provide an amenity may depend on your rental agreement. If the air conditioner was listed as being in the apartment in either your rental agreement or a related document, such as a move-in checklist, you have the argument that failure to maintain the unit violates the rental agreement. Even if the unit was not mentioned in any of the written rental agreements, you may have the argument that it was an implied condition if, for example, the landlord showed you the air conditioner during your pre-rental tour to persuade you to rent the unit.
We strongly recommend against trying any remedy reserved for habitability. You could find yourself losing an eviction case. Instead, you should look at a contract violation remedy such as a Small Claims Court action. You could seek monetary damages for a rental rebate based on your loss of ability to enjoy the unit in hot weather. You could also pay for the repair and include the cost in your court case.
Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based mediation service. To submit a question, go to http://www.housing.org.