A majority of Fresnans are renters, but the laws that protect them and how to access help are not always clear.
When the Fresnoland Lab at The Bee spoke to dozens of renters living in substandard housing conditions, most were fearful of reporting issues or unsure of what they can do to improve the situation.
If you are a renter, here are 14 things to know about your rights and how you can take charge of your living conditions.
Your rights as a renter
1. YOUR LANDLORD MUST MAINTAIN HABITABLE LIVING CONDITIONS.
Property owners and landlords are legally required to provide safe and livable housing, including heat, hot and running water, doors and windows that lock, proper seals, electrical systems and lighting, working smoke detectors, mailboxes that lock, a unit with no mold and no pest infestations. A full list of legal requirements can be found here.
2. YOUR LANDLORD MUST GIVE YOU A 24-HOUR MAINTENANCE NOTICE.
Whenever a landlord is making a repair in your rental unit, they must provide a 24-hour notice, unless it is an emergency, according to California Civil Code 1954.
3. YOU HAVE OPTIONS IF A LANDLORD IS NOT MAKING REPAIRS IN YOUR UNIT.
If you have filed a maintenance request with your landlord and repairs are not being made, you can do the following:
- File a complaint with Code Enforcement online, by mail or phone.
- Withhold rent, or pay for the repair and deduct the cost, or break the lease according to Civil Code 1942 as long as:
- the tenant gave the landlord a written or oral maintenance request;
- the repairs were not done in a “reasonable amount of time.”
- the repair does not exceed one month’s rent, and
- the tenant has not done this more than twice in one year.
How to make a maintenance request
4. WHEN POSSIBLE, SUBMIT YOUR REQUEST IN WRITING.
Here is an example of how to write a repair request. Central California Legal Services lead housing attorney Brandi Snow said that the tenant should explain in detail how the problem is impacting them. “A sink that is not draining correctly is a problem,” she said. “But a sink that is not draining correctly and has led to an overflow and a mildew problem, is much clearer.”
5. DOCUMENT EVERYTHING.
When possible, take photos of damage and note when you took the photos.
“Since it wouldn’t be possible to take a picture of some things like the air conditioning not working, the tenant might instead photograph the temperature displayed on the thermostat,” Snow said. “If the condition continues to worsen, the tenant should take frequent photos and keep them labeled as to the date.”
Keep record of communications with your landlord, including notices, texts or emails. Be sure to keep track of when the issue began, the date you filed a complaint and the date the issues were addressed, if at all. Make a note of whether you were given a 24-hour maintenance notice.
If the damages have caused health complications to you or your family, seek a written letter from your doctor, stating the health concern and risk. Be sure to include the date on the letter.
What to know about filing a complaint with code enforcement
6. YOU CAN FILE A COMPLAINT SEVERAL WAYS.
Tenants who live within the city of Fresno can file a complaint with the City of Fresno Code Enforcement. This can be completed online; in person at 2600 Fresno St. Fresno, CA 93721, Room 3070; in writing, or by phone at (559) 621-8400.
According to the code enforcement website, to report a violation, here’s what you’ll need:
- The property address.
- A description of the potential violation.
- Your name, address, and phone number so code enforcement can contact you if needed. This information will be kept confidential.
- Information about how long the violation has been going on and the length of time you have observed the situation.
7. YOUR COMPLAINT WILL BE RESPONDED TO IN ORDER OF ‘IMPACT.’
Once you file a complaint with code enforcement, an officer will contact you and your landlord to schedule an inspection.
According to the office’s website, code enforcement officers respond to complaints based on the “impact of the violation on the community.” If there are serious health risks, the complaint will be given top priority; otherwise it will be investigated in the order that the office receives the complaint.
Code enforcement will then either confirm that the issue is in the process of being corrected — for example, the landlord has ordered a missing part for a broken water heater, or inspect the premises and issue a letter requiring that issues be resolved in 18 to 30 days. Code enforcement will follow up with a re-inspection or require photo confirmation that the issue has been fixed.
8. YOU CAN CALL CODE ENFORCEMENT WHENEVER YOU FIND A VIOLATION.
Rodney Horton, manager of Code Enforcement neighborhood and revitalization, told The Bee in March that typically, people attempt to fix issues with their landlord or property manager prior to calling code enforcement. However, code enforcement will investigate all complaints, even if that tenant is in the process of being evicted.
Horton said some people wait to contact code enforcement once they’ve been served an eviction notice or are moving from the unit, which means they lived in unsafe conditions while renting. He advised that people alert the landlord or code enforcement as soon as the issue arises.
9. YOUR LANDLORD CAN GET FINED IF THE ISSUE ISN’T RESOLVED.
If repairs aren’t made, code enforcement can take the following steps:
- Issue citations: Code enforcement can issue the landlord or property owner a citation if they do not fix or make a reasonable effort to fix an issue reported and documented by code enforcement within an 18 to 30 day window.
- Abate the property: If a property is left in disrepair, code enforcement can board up a building or eliminate any immediate hazards at the owner’s expense.
- Seek a receivership: The county could petition the court to appoint a caretaker of a property that has no one around to take ownership. Horton said this happens more commonly with single-family homes and often in cases of someone leaving the home to a next of kin.
10. CODE ENFORCEMENT PROACTIVELY INSPECTS RENTALS.
In addition to complaint-based inspections, the code enforcement division conducts inspections as part of the city’s Rental Housing Improvement Act.
Through the program, a handful of units at a property are inspected, and depending on the results, the apartment complex will be placed in one of three tiers: re-inspection every five years; every two years, or about every year.
Recent amendments to the RIHA cut the time a landlord has to resolve issues; levied fines during the baseline inspection process, and allowed code enforcement to send more resources to a property that failed baseline inspections.
What to do if issues are not resolved after calling code enforcement
11. YOU CAN CALL YOUR CITY COUNCILMEMBER.
Fresno City’s code enforcement unit is overseen by the City Attorney’s Office. If issues are going unresolved even after calling code enforcement, you can contact your city council representative at (559) 621-8000. To find what district you live in, visit the city’s Council District Locator.
12. YOU CAN CALL CENTRAL CALIFORNIA LEGAL SERVICES.
Central California Legal Services offers free legal advice to low income families in the Central San Joaquin Valley. You can call them when you’ve received an eviction notice, when you feel you’re being retaliated against or if your landlord is not fulfilling their responsibilities.
What to know about evictions
13. IT IS ILLEGAL FOR A LANDLORD TO RETALIATE AGAINST YOU FOR CALLING CODE ENFORCEMENT.
It is illegal for landlords to evict, harass, or raise the rent as retaliation for tenants asserting their rights.
If you think you’re being evicted for calling code enforcement or if you need free legal aid or advice, call Central California Legal Services at 800-675-8001.
14. THE CORONAVIRUS EVICTION MORATORIUM DOESN’T BAN ALL EVICTIONS.
The statewide coronavirus eviction moratorium was extended until Sept. 30, but it only applies to evictions involving nonpayment of rent.
Snow said many tenants call too late, not realizing that the eviction ban is very specific.
“We really just want people to understand that it’s a partial protection, not a true moratorium, so if you got a notice, please call us,” Snow said. “Sometimes people are waiting too late to call us because they say ‘Oh I don’t have to worry about this because there is a moratorium’.”
Currently, the ban only prevents landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent if they notify the landlord they have been affected financially by COVID-19 and are paying at least 25% of their rent.
The ban also prohibits evictions without just cause and extends the time given to tenants to move out.
Tenants who receive any eviction notices can call CCLS at 800-675-8001.