For something so many people do—namely, rent a home—not many people know what to do when the situation goes bad. In fact, in some ways, the tenuous tenant-landlord relationship is barely held together by a patchwork of enforcement agencies, connected mainly through the fact that they can refer a displaced tenant to another organization.
“In the past, we just referred people to the state,” said Charles Dickey, an Atascadero code enforcement official. “The new information sheet came up because someone pointed out the obligations of landlords in that circumstance … and what she found out is that many attorneys are not even aware of the obligations of the landlord.”
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
The information he’s talking about was recently released by the city to inform displaced tenants of their rights and, perhaps most importantly, what the responsibilities of a landlord are when a tenant is living in or forced out of an uninhabitable space. It’s become more of an issue recently because, following the record-setting December storms, more renters in SLO County are finding themselves with leaky roofs, mold, and other problems that put them at the mercy of their landlords. According to 2009 census data, the county has a 61.5 percent home-ownership rate, which leaves a whole lot of renters.
Though there aren’t any hard statistics documenting how many people are suffering storm-related damage, people like Michael Blank of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) are receiving increasing contact from renters in need of help.
“We’re seeing a lot more of what we call ‘habitability issues,’” said Blank, who handles cases out of CRLA’s SLO office. And that’s on top of a steady wave of renters who have been displaced because the home they were living in was placed in foreclosure without their knowledge.
Here’s a typical situation for a habitability issue that lands in Blank’s lap: A big storm causes a leaky roof. The landlord either ignores the problem, provides a quick but shoddy fix, or simply gives the tenant 30 days to skedaddle.
“They get fed up is what happens—the landlord blows them off,” he said. “A good landlord immediately responds to complaints.”
The problem is that someone stuck with a jerk landlord doesn’t really have hope for an immediate solution. Code-enforcement agencies can step in when there’s a building code violation—an improperly built roof, for example—but in some cases that can lead to a home being red-tagged. For a tenant, red-tagging is just another word for eviction.
That’s what happened to Mary.
Mary, who asked to have her name changed for this story, came home one day to find that code enforcement had deemed her rental uninhabitable. There were two units in the Atascadero building where she was living, and it was the other tenants who first complained to the landlord that the roof was leaking and the septic tank was overflowing after the December storms. After complaining, they were given a 30-day notice to get out, but in the meantime Mary’s neighbors went to Atascadero city officials to report the issues. Unfortunately for her, the city red-tagged her building.
Mary’s from out of town and doesn’t know many people here, so she was sent scrambling to find a place to live and a way to pay for it while the landlord addressed the code violations. But by the time she was able to move back in, there were still problems—she had no running water, for example. Ultimately, Mary had to pack up her things and move out of the area, and is now staying with family.
But there’s a catch, one few renters seem to know of.
According to California’s Health and Safety Code, a landlord must provide displaced tenants with two months’ worth of fair-market rent. That’s supposed to be up-front, go-find-a-new-place-to-live money. It’s just that there’s often no one to pop in and tell a landlord to pay up or tell tenants they’re entitled to remediation. The most common solution, it seems, is to sue after the fact.
“The trouble for tenants is that’s not immediate,” Blank said. “You’re in court for two months, and then all you win is a piece of paper that says, ‘You owe me money.’”
There are other state codes that allow local municipalities to set up public relocation funds that can go to renters, which are then repaid by placing a lien on the landlord’s property. However, no local cities have such a fund, Blank said.
“When it comes down to it … either the tenant has to have either an exorbitant amount of cash on hand to fight this stuff, or they’re just out—that’s it,” said Daniel, a renter who isn’t facing eviction, but is in a dispute with his landlord over mold in his house.
Mold poses even more complications. Code enforcement officers don’t deal with mold at all. Any complaints of mold have to go through a specialized inspector and typically fall out of the jurisdiction of local government.
“They keep bouncing me back and forth and saying, ‘Well, we don’t really deal with that,’” Daniel said of his experience asking county officials for help with his problem.
Overall, landlord-tenant disputes fall into gray areas that are typically left to courts to sort out. It’s not that local officials are cold-hearted or lazy. Actually, a code-enforcement officer is technically not supposed to give legal advice. The best they can do, maybe, is to mention there is help available as outlined in state codes. Atascadero is trying to do a little more by providing a list of those resources for tenants.
“Our obligation is to notify these people of this reimbursement compensation, or this displacement compensation, that tenants are entitled to,” said Atascadero Chief Building Official Ken Forman. “Once we make that declaration, then we’re done, and they need to fight it out civilly.”
According to Greg Camack, a county code enforcement officer for the South County, the best thing to do is, first, attempt to solve disputes privately. If that fails, he said, it might be best to lawyer up before going to code enforcement for help.
“Everybody knows you’re not allowed to go out and commit armed robbery,” Camack said. “But not everyone knows what the rules are about your responsibilities as a tenant or a landlord. I wouldn’t be a landlord for all the tea in China.”
News Editor Colin Rigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.