Question: I have rented a room in my house to a woman and her young daughter. After she moved in, she changed the lock on the door to her room without my consent and had male companions in her room who were very noisy and disruptive. If she continues to make me uncomfortable in my own home, can I just change the locks to force her to leave? If I can't get rid of her, can I at least force her to give me a key to her room?
Answer: Unilaterally locking out a tenant is never legally permissible, no matter the justification. Under California Civil Code section 789.3, a landlord who engages in a lockout is liable for damages of $100 for each day of the lockout.
Generally, the only way to legally remove a tenant is to prosecute an unlawful detainer case in the local Superior Court. There is an exception in the case of a single lodger, as defined in Civil Code section 1946.5. If the tenant qualifies as a single lodger, you can give her a 30-day written notice of termination. If she then fails to leave, she is considered a trespasser, subject to removal by the local police. However, many local police departments will not enforce this statute, preferring that a landlord use the unlawful detainer process instead.
In your case, this option is not available because you have two tenants, not a single lodger.
You do have a right to a key to the room, because you may have a lawful need to enter; for example, if there were a fire or some other emergency.
The tenant maintains her right to privacy even though you have a key: Civil Code section 1954 significantly limits your ability to enter the room. You cannot enter unless you have one of the purposes listed in this statute, such as a need to make a repair, and you must give written notice 24 hours in advance, unless there is a true emergency or you have the tenant's consent.
If the tenant continues to refuse to provide a copy of the room key, you should give her a Three-Day Notice to Perform Covenant or Quit, specifying that performance requires giving you a key. If she doesn't give you a key within the three days covered by the notice, you can then file an unlawful detainer action to evict her.
Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a nonprofit agency providing tenant-landlord and fair housing counseling in four Bay Area counties. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.