If a landlord allows a rental unit to become uninhabitable—by refusing to fix a broken boiler during the winter, for instance—a tenant has a few different options to deal with the situation. The most extreme course of action is to move out and claim constructive eviction, a process that varies widely from state to state. As it turns out, California has some of the most renter-friendly laws in the country when it comes to constructive eviction.
Constructive eviction is allowed if the rental is uninhabitable
California law lays out a very detailed list of requirements for a rental unit to be considered habitable. If a rental unit is missing any of these things, then it’s considered a breach of the warranty of habitability—and a tenant has the right to constructively evict themselves if the landlord won’t make a repair.1
This applies even if it wasn’t the landlord’s negligence that caused the breach. In one case, a renter leasing a room in a shared house had his water and heat shut off because one of the other renters in the building didn't pay the bill. The court determined that the renter had good cause to break the lease and claim constructive eviction.2
California has a loosely-defined process for constructive eviction
California law doesn't spell out a specific procedure for notifying the landlord of a breach of the warranty of habitability. Generally, the best course of action for a tenant is to either send their landlord a certified letter or hand-deliver the notice to a representative of the renting agency.
Landlords get a "reasonable" amount of time to fix the issue
After informing the landlord of the problem, the renter must give the landlord a “reasonable” amount of time to fix the problem before moving out and breaking the lease. Of course, that begs the question: What's considered reasonable? California courts have ruled that each individual situation must be evaluated based on the particular facts of the case.3 Thirty days is often considered reasonable, but that may be too long for a repair that needs to be taken care of immediately. For instance, if a tenant's front door was knocked off its hinges and the lock broken, 24 hours might be considered a reasonable amount of time for the repair.
Tenants aren't required to deposit rent with the court
Many states have a strict procedure that must be followed to claim constructive eviction, which often includes depositing at least one month’s rent with the court. In California, however, it’s legal for tenants to go ahead and break their lease if the rental isn’t repaired within a reasonable period of time. If the landlord sues for lost rent, the tenant can use the defense of constructive eviction.
Constructive eviction can only be used twice in a year
Regardless of the nature of the problem, a tenant in California is only allowed to use the constructive eviction defense twice in any 12-month period.
California cities may have their own constructive eviction laws, too
Some major cities in California have their own unique laws regarding constructive eviction. Tenants should consult with an attorney before making the decision to leave a rental unit, to ensure they're on the right side of the law. Most cities offer legal aid services at free or reduced costs.
Constructive eviction isn't the only option for tenants
If a tenant doesn't want to leave—and the problem isn't life-threatening—they could consider staying and withholding rent until the issue is repaired. Alternately, they could fix the problem themselves and deduct it from the rent.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.
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