The Quad: Know your rights – A student guide to tenant laws in Westwood
Los Angeles property database ZIMAS helps tenants figure out if a property is rent-controlled. In Westwood, 543 Landfair Avenue is an example of housing that is covered by the Rent Stabilization Ordinance. (Niveda Tennety/Assistant Photo editor)
Sept. 18, 2019 2:22 a.m.
Around my 21st birthday, I woke up one morning to a not-so-pleasant surprise: My bathroom sink was backed up and water was overflowing, seeping underneath the doorway and soaking into the carpet of my bedroom floor.
My roommates and I reached out to our on-site property manager, who couldn’t get a plumber to come out to fix it until around five days later.
The flooding continued to worsen throughout the week, and eventually the carpet in my walk-in closet was also drenched – the smell of mildew, cat pee and God-knows-what-else from underneath our carpets was so overwhelming that I went through a whole bottle of Febreze in just that week. Although the sink was fixed by the end of the week, management didn’t offer to do anything to clean the flooring.
The scent of our closet reeked to such an extent that I had to move everything out and wash it; I imagined that whatever fungi and bacteria were growing had infiltrated my clothing, and so I did a deep clean. I left everything out on my desk because I didn’t want my clothes to absorb the odors. Soon the carpet dried, but it still smelled.
Then, one morning I woke up to find a mushroom growing in the back of my closet. How’s that for a nice birthday present?
Finally, our property manager offered to have our carpets steam-cleaned, but enough damage had been done. I resigned myself to searching for another apartment, and this time around, I wanted to find one where my roommates and I wouldn’t be so neglected.
It’s no secret that Westwood is absurdly expensive, but during my apartment-life crisis, I learned that it’s also the perfect breeding ground for exploitative or just plain negligent landlords. An area with a bunch of teenagers and early 20-somethings who’ve mostly never rented property in their lives? It’s blindingly obvious.
Although moving off the Hill and into an apartment can be a huge upgrade, students do have to be wary of this cruel reality. Landlords in Westwood can be shady and difficult to deal with, and students often aren’t aware of their legal rights in a sticky living situation.
The good news? Student-tenants generally have the law on their side – here, we’ll explore different resources for new and prospective apartment-dwellers to keep in mind as they head out of the dorms.
While looking at apartments, a lot of students think it’s good enough to just do a quick tour of the apartment before signing onto a lease. And while that’s certainly a great way to get a feel for the aesthetic of an apartment, it’s extremely important to do some online research into the apartment itself first.
If you’re going to be looking for apartments anytime soon, Bruinwalk can be a good place to start – although the site is mostly known for its collection of anonymous, student-written reviews of classes and professors, it also has a pretty strong collection of apartment reviews.
Another resource that can give you a better overview of more of the legal nitty-gritty details is ZIMAS, which provides information about whether units within an apartment are under rent control and other useful details about seismic hazards. The most important aspect for prospective tenants to check for on ZIMAS is whether or not their potential future apartment is under the Rent Stabilization Ordinance – more colloquially known as rent control.
The RSO covers a lot of different things, but most notable are its allowances for rent increases: Currently, if your apartment is under rent control, your landlord is only allowed to increase rent by 4% once every 12 months.
Not only can non-RSO landlords raise the rent as they choose, but the RSO also gives tenants a bit more protection during the eviction process, so if you’re planning on living in your apartment for more than one year, you’ll want to be living in an apartment covered by the RSO.
On ZIMAS, you can check this by searching your prospective apartment and scrolling down to the “Housing” tab, which will show whether or not units in the complex are protected by the RSO.
First and foremost, all tenants have the right to live in a unit that is suitable for residential use.
According to U.S. News & World Report, this means that tenants must have access to barebones amenities like running water, electricity and, in the case of places with extreme weather conditions, heating and air conditioning. Some Westwood apartments are lacking in that last utility – lucky for us, Los Angeles has a relatively mild and agreeable climate, which few would consider “extreme.”
Additionally, the presence of things like mold or asbestos that have been disturbed due to reconstruction are examples of complications that could lead to an apartment or apartment unit being deemed uninhabitable. If you find yourself in a situation in which you’re unsure whether or not your apartment would legally be considered uninhabitable, you can take a look at Civil Code section 1941.1 and 1941.3 to get a better idea of where things stand and what makes an apartment “untenantable.”
If your apartment is uninhabitable, it is your property manager’s legal responsibility to right that wrong.
In some cases, that could mean simply calling a professional out to fix a water heater, while in other, more extreme cases, it might require a landlord to find a new living arrangement for the tenants by relocating them to a new unit or complex altogether. Tenants have the right to withhold rent if their unit is not habitable and their landlord refuses to make the necessary repairs – however, there are a number of unfortunate complications that could arise from this.
While it may be your prerogative to do so in certain situations, withholding rent can be a dangerous game to play. Luckily, it’s legal in California, but it’s not without potential consequences.
Before doing so, it’s important to get legal advice from a seasoned professional in order to ensure that you’re within your legal right to do so, lest you have to pay more serious consequences – i.e. eviction.
Luckily, UCLA offers students easily accessible legal counseling through Student Legal Services. Through SLS, students can schedule free appointments to meet with an attorney and outline the details of their case in order to get a better idea of what the legal options are in their situation. Additionally, always be sure to review your lease to make sure your landlord is actually breaking the terms laid out in the lease.
California state law gives landlords 30 days to make the repairs necessary to make the unit habitable again. If the repairs aren’t made by that deadline, tenants have the ability to withhold rent or do what’s called “repair and deduct.” Repair and deduct is a pretty self-explanatory concept: Essentially, tenants can pay out of pocket to have the repairs made, and then withdraw that money from their next rent payment.
Withholding rent, however, should generally be a last resort. Tenants should only do so after consulting a legal professional and considering all other possible legal options, and should also attempt to be in constant written communication with their landlord about the repairs that need to be made.
At the end of the day, the last thing most of us want is to find a mushroom sprouting up from a damp carpet floor – so be sure to know your legal rights to prevent yourself from falling into a situation like mine.