This is the second article in our series offering advice to tenants dealing with shady landlords. Find the full series here.
It’s often way tougher than it should be to get your landlord to fix the things that need fixing. If providing safe and livable housing is a landlord’s job, many of them just aren’t very good at it.
But no matter how much they protest (or ignore you), there are lots of things landlords are actually legally obligated to repair under both Los Angeles, and California law. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they’ll actually do it — but it does mean you have tools at your disposal to pressure them into doing their job. We’ve compiled this guide to walk you through how to use those tools and hopefully get the repairs that you need. *
SAFE AND LIVABLE
If you’re having trouble getting your landlord to maintain or repair things like your plumbing, or your roof — or getting them to call an exterminator — the law you’ll want to cite at them is California Civil Code 1941–1942.
It lays out what a landlord has to do for a property to be considered “tenantable” (suitable for renting out to tenants), as well as certain exceptions to those obligations, including cases where a landlord can argue that tenants are responsible for damage to the unit.
For anything that threatens your health and safety — including things like bad electrical wiring and a broken toilet — your landlord is supposed to make immediate repairs. (Los Angeles County’s Department of Consumer and Business Affairs (DCBA) has a page with some examples of what constitutes a threat to your health and safety.)
Of course, these examples aren’t exhaustive. There may be other laws and regulations that get more specific about a landlord’s obligation to maintain and repair something — for example, this section of the California Code of Regulations about heating rental properties, or SEC. 91.811 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code.
If you’re not sure whether the specific issue you have is covered by law, you can also word search state or local municipal codes to see whether it’s mentioned.
Whatever the issue, sometimes it’s enough to just cite the law at your landlord to spur them into action.
If that worked, congratulations! Here’s hoping they send a repair person quickly, and not six months from now.
When it comes time to make the repairs, your landlord may also have to arrange and pay for alternative accommodations if your unit is protected by a local rent control law and the repairs require you to temporarily vacate the unit (for the city of Los Angeles’s rent control law, see LAMC 152.06).
FILING A COMPLAINT
Now, if you’ve tried citing the law at your landlord and it hasn’t motivated them into doing their job, you may have to get a little more aggressive.
For building code violations (for example, electrical wiring that’s not up to code) or unsafe living conditions, you can try submitting a complaint to your local housing department. For Los Angeles city, that’s the Housing Department for multifamily buildings and the Department of Building and Safety for single family homes. For anywhere in Los Angeles County, you can submit complaints about issues that affect tenant health and safety (like vermin infestation or mold) through the Department of Public Health. Residents of unincorporated Los Angeles County can submit building code complaints to the Department of Public Works. **
You may have to follow up to make sure the complaint got to the right person. Depending on the severity of the issue, it can be a lengthy process, and will likely start with an inspector coming out to see the problem for themselves.
REPAIR AND DEDUCT
If nothing else has worked, you might want to take matters into your own hands. California also provides tenants the right to repair and deduct — that is, pay for urgent and necessary repairs themselves, and deduct the amount from their rent. But repair and deduct is tricky. You have to do things according to the letter of the law, or landlords can use it as a pretext to evict you for non-payment. Also, not all repairs are eligible for repair and deduct. So before you try repair-and-deducting, consider contacting your local housing department, the LA County DCBA, or a tenant legal clinic for advice.
TALK TO YOUR LANDLORD’S OTHER TENANTS
You might also want to try talking to your neighbors or your landlord’s tenants in other buildings. They could be facing some of the same issues and may be interested in negotiating with your landlord collectively.
You can find some tips to locate your landlord’s other properties and tenants in this guide. Your local tenant’s union might also be able to help you organize and bargain collectively for necessary repairs.
HOW TO SUE YOUR LANDLORD
When all else fails, it might be time to sue your landlord in small claims court. You don’t need a lawyer for small claims court, and you can file a small claims suit as long as the amount you’re suing for is less than $10,000. This can be a way of getting your expenses reimbursed if you ultimately had to pay for repairs — or extermination — yourself.
Gata Salvaje, a self-described angry queer feminist, is a tenant who has successfully sued her former landlord. She now runs regular online workshops teaching other tenants how to sue their landlords. The process that can seem overwhelming if you’ve never gone through it, but Gata lays it out step by step.
The first step is filling out the SC-100 form, which basically asks you to lay out the reasons why you want to sue someone in small claims court.
“It’s 11 questions, which sounds more intimidating than it actually is,” Gata said. “Essentially, the form is just saying who are you? Who are you suing? How much? Why? Did you already tell them?”
The person named on the form should be your actual landlord. If you aren’t sure who owns the property, or their full name (the person you communicate with regularly might be a property manager and not the person who owns the property), try some of the tips suggested in this guide.
Once you finish filling out the form, you submit it to the appropriate courthouse, which you can look up on the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s website. If you receive certain kinds of federal aid, like SNAP benefits — or if your income is under the amount listed on the fee waiver form — you can get the filing fee waived.
After all the forms are submitted correctly, you’ll receive your court date. Then you progress to the next step: serving.
There are three options for serving papers to the defendant in your lawsuit: the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD), a process server, or a friend.
The sheriff costs $40, a fee that can be waived if you’re eligible to get the filing fee waived. Of course, if you’re like Gata, you may not trust the LASD to actually serve the papers. “I’m like, this landlord — the apartment manager has been pretty shady. So he’s probably going to try to dodge this,” Gata said. “I don’t trust the sheriff to really do their due diligence.”
If you don’t trust the sheriffs to get the job done, you may want to try one of the two other options. The first is a process server, who is essentially a freelance contractor, and their fees vary. You can find a process server to hire on the National Association of Professional Process Servers’ website (Gata recommends searching the servers on Yelp before you choose one, like you probably would with any other kind of contractor).
The last option — asking a friend or family member to do it for you — is, of course, the cheapest. It’s also not as complicated as you might think, Gata says.
When she was suing her landlord, Gata used a process server because “I was like, I’m already confused of how to fucking do this. I don’t want to put this on a friend and be like friend, you fucked up”. But now that she understands how it works, “Now, I wish I would have gone through a friend or family member”.
Basically, your friend just needs to go to your landlord’s home or workplace and give them the relevant papers letting them know about your lawsuit. The papers can either be handed directly to your landlord, or given to another person who’s over 18 and who agrees to give them to your landlord (if your friend hands the papers to someone else, they also need to be sent by mail to that same address). After that, your friend needs to fill out a form saying that they served the papers, and file it with the court.
Any evidence you have that’s relevant to the case just has to be submitted to the court and your landlord 10 days before your court date, using this form. You can send the evidence by mail and receive a “certificate of mailing” from the post office, which is basically just the post office saying that you sent it.
And then, you go to court. You can appear in person or by Zoom, although Gata points out that it can be easier to resolve any administrative issues if you’re there in person. For example, when Gata sued her landlord, there was an issue with the court receiving her evidence, so she and her landlord just stepped outside the courtroom to show each other evidence, which wouldn’t have been possible if Gata had attended the hearing over Zoom.
If it’s looking like you’re going to have to sue your landlord, we highly recommend attending one of Gata’s workshops, which include all of this information and much more. She also has tips on what to do to prepare for a potential lawsuit, like documenting everything — “if you’re still verbally talking to your landlord, stop doing that, leave that shit in the past,” Gata said — and how to make sure you get your money if the judgment is in your favor.
Have tips that we didn’t include in this guide? Please send them to us and we’ll update the guide — and credit you!
* Standard disclaimer: we’re not lawyers, and none of this is a substitute for legal advice. As we all know, landlords can be petty, so you always want to make sure your ducks are in a row. We highly recommend consulting a tenant legal advice clinic before taking any action against your landlord.
** Correction: This article was updated on April 4th, 2023 to reflect the fact that any tenant in Los Angeles County can submit health and safety complaints to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.