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Renters' Repair Dilemma

December 29, 1991|TODD STEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Stein is a Sacramento free-lance writer.

When you're a renter, there is perhaps nothing worse than a landlord who refuses to fix problems that need fixing. Noisy neighbors are one thing, but when the living room roof begins to leak, priorities come clear quickly.

More than an irritant, repair neglect is an issue that affects the lifestyles and health of thousands of Southland residents. According to the state Department of Housing and Community Development, the Los Angeles-Long Beach area holds 30% of California's substandard houses, condos and apartments--a sorry total of 407,000 units in need of rehabilitation or replacement.

Ten years ago, the number stood at 166,521, less than half the current figure.

"Substandard housing is a huge, huge problem and it's getting worse every year," said Paul Lee, director of litigation for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which mediates 12,000 tenant-landlord disputes each year.

As the share of those who rent in California fast approaches 50% of the adult population, complaints about rental repair neglect are on the rise. The state Department of Consumer Affairs annually receives more telephone complaints about rental repair issues than about new appliances or just about anything else.

Building inspectors in cities across the state report they are overwhelmed with increasing numbers of repair complaints. Crippled by budget cuts, most have neither the time nor the staff to meet the growing demand.

"In the best of all possible worlds, tenants would be able to complain to the local building department and they'd come out and take action against the landlord," said Dara Schur, a tenants' rights attorney for the Western Center on Law and Poverty in Los Angeles.

"The problem is the agencies are busy just trying to stay afloat."

Most landlords do a good job of maintaining their property, if only because it represents a significant investment. And landlords complain, with some justification, that many problems arise from tenant neglect, not their own.

"We're very concerned that the few bad apples who make the front pages leave the majority of good owners wearing black hats," said Debra Carlton, director of research for the California Apartment Assn., which represents more than 25,000 property owners statewide.

Still, there are few means to force landlords to maintain their properties to state health and safety standards. Thousands of property owners will make needed repairs only after tenants complain to the authorities. Thousands more ignore the repairs entirely, or respond with an eviction notice, say tenant advocates.

Evicting a tenant in retaliation for a complaint is illegal under state law, but landlords have one clear advantage over most tenants who complain--they know the law.

"I think most tenants are unaware of their rights, or only find out about them when things get out of control," said Rod Field, directing attorney for Legal Aid's Eviction Defense Center, whose four lawyers counsel about 7,000 tenants each year.

Ignorance is especially rampant among the Southland's growing ethnic populations, Field said. Unaware of their rights and badgered by hostile managers, many tenants would rather keep quiet about repairs than face eviction.

Moreover, the strategies most often employed by tenants to get repairs made have generally proved ineffective.

In the 1970s, attorneys advocated rent-withholding for dealing with negligent landlords. The non-payment strategy was bolstered by a 1974 California Supreme Court decision, Green vs. Superior Court, giving tenants the right to withhold rent from a landlord who repeatedly ignores requests to repair conditions that threaten a tenant's health and safety.

But rent-withholding as a strategy to get repairs made has some serious drawbacks.

First, the condition of the rental unit must be serious enough to warrant non-payment. The plaintiff in the Green case, for instance, rented a rat-infested apartment with bad plumbing, no heat, a collapsed bathroom ceiling, faulty wiring and a dangerous stove. The court found that the landlord in that case had violated the "implied warranty of habitability," which holds the landlord responsible for repairing conditions that seriously affect the rental unit's habitability--now the standard for all California rental property.

Today, judges are increasingly liberal in their readings of the Green case, so tenants can win an eviction case without living in dire poverty. A leaky roof or smashed window will do, as long as there is proof that the tenant did not cause the defect, that complaints to the landlord went unanswered for a reasonable period of time, and that the defect made the rental uninhabitable.

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