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Actions Can Thwart a Sinister Landlord

January 02, 1986|JEFFREY S. KLEIN

It's relatively well known what you do when your landlord commences legal proceedings to evict you from your home: You hire a lawyer and go to court. Or if you can't afford a lawyer, you wind up in court defending yourself.

But what about the more subtle forms of landlord pressure? As one Marina del Rey reader asks: What can you do when landlords "reduce the quantity and or quality of the services originally contracted for"--the subtler cheating?

The reader notes that landlords have been known to fill in a swimming pool and turn it into a planted area.

Creating Problems

"The landlord saves on the extra insurance costs associated with pools and the installation or maintenance of fencing." He notes other "more sinister" problems, especially for the elderly: reducing lighting in the hall areas (such as going from incandescent to much-lower-powered flourescent); not cleaning or replacing carpeting; not fixing broken elevators on Saturday or Sunday.

Under a 1974 California Supreme Court decision, landlords do have a duty to keep the premises in a "habitable" state during the lease. If they do not comply with this duty, they have breached the warranty of habitability implied by law in the lease. But a breach of this warranty usually only involves severe problems, such as violations of building- and housing-code standards.

Not keeping the swimming pool at 80 degrees or letting the carpets get filthy will probably not amount to a breach of the warranty of habitability.

However, it may be possible for these less drastic, but still inconvenient, problems to be addressed in a court of law, just like an eviction notice.

Terry B. Friedman, the executive director of Bet Zadek Legal Services--which provides landlord-tenant legal advice to the poor--sees two possible legal theories to use in response to landlords who cut back on services. One involves rent control ordinances. It's possible, he says, that if you live in an area that is subject to a rent-control law, a rent-control board may consider a decrease in housing services without a contemporary decrease in rents as an "illegal rent increase."

You should contact the local rent-control board in your town to find out.

Friedman also suggests that the tenant may be able to sue under a breach-of-contract theory--that is, a breach of the lease. If you rented the apartment for $400 a month knowing that it had a heated swimming pool, you may argue that the heated swimming pool was part of the deal. This is especially true if you asked the landlord about the pool when you moved in, and he led you to believe the heated pool would be available for your use during your stay.

When the landlord turns off the heat or turns the pool into a flower planter, he may have breached one of the implied conditions of the lease. You are now paying for less than you bargained for, and under this breach-of-contract theory, you may be able to collect damages, in the amount of the value of the reduced services.

Value of Services

The value of those reduced services may not be much, and therefore it may not be worth your while to hire a lawyer or even take the case to small-claims court. After all, how much of your $400 a month rent was allocated to pay for the heating of the pool?

On the other hand, if you live in a large apartment complex, the total value of the reduced services to all of the tenants adds up quickly. Perhaps it's worthwhile to join forces and hire a lawyer to represent all of you together. Even before you hire a lawyer, you may want to circulate a petition asking the landlord to bring the place back up to par.

The landlord may not be willing to listen to you when you are acting on your own, but your voice grows much louder when you are speaking on behalf of other tenants. The "California Tenants Handbook," published by Nolo Press, has an excellent chapter on this subject entitled "Tenants Acting Together."

Friedman adds that you should inform the landlord in writing of any decrease in services, such as the broken elevators, that may affect your health or physical condition. This will set up the basis for later claiming damages that may arise if your health deteriorates or you are injured as a result of the landlord's negligent failure to fix.

Although it is not yet the law, Friedman suggested that in the next few years, a court may conclude that part of the "warranty of habitability" contained in every lease is a requirement that the landlord take "reasonable precautions" to prevent crime against the tenants.

Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, The Times' senior staff counsel, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal View, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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