Will you get evicted if you complain about your gross or unsafe rental? Here’s what to do

Are you having rental housing issues in San Luis Obispo County? Let us know here.

Dealing with landlord problems can be tough, especially if you live in a gross apartment and are worried about getting into trouble or being evicted from your home.

About 40% of San Luis Obispo County residents rent their housing, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The rental vacancy rate is close to 3%, so it’s difficult to find a decent place to live, even under ideal circumstances.

That also means it may be easier for property owners and managers to potentially ignore issues at their properties, as they’re still likely to attract tenants — even if their rentals aren’t in great shape.

This is especially the case in San Luis Obispo, which is home to a large population of Cal Poly and Cuesta College students who move frequently and are always in need of cheap places to live.

“I think that adds to the power imbalance,” said Frank Kopcinski, directing attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), a nonprofit serving low-income clients with an office in San Luis Obispo.

CRLA represents low-income clients who need legal help with housing, education and employment issues. Most of the clients who contact the organization need help with housing-related problems, Kopcinski said.

“The housing is so competitive and so sparse, I see people in these uninhabitable conditions,” he said.

Tenants in Paso Robles recently sued their landlords, claiming they’ve neglected to fix numerous problems, including vermin infestations, broken windows, leaks and sewage backups.

The California Tenants guide, Kopcinski and San Luis Obispo city code enforcement officials helped us develop a guide to help renters negotiate issues with their landlords.

There are problems at my apartment that need to be fixed. What should I do?

Landlords are responsible for repairing issues that would make rental units unfit for habitation, as long as they weren’t caused by tenants, their pets or their guests, according to the tenants guide, compiled by the California Department of Consumer Affairs.

A habitable unit should include a waterproofed exterior with unbroken doors and windows, hot and cold running water, a working toilet and shower, heat, a working electric system, natural lighting and ventilation, and clean buildings free from vermin.

Tenants should report needed repairs to their landlords and give them a reasonable amount of time to get them fixed.

The time allowed for fixes can vary depending on the nature of the problem, according to the tenants guide. For example, a broken toilet or blocked drains would likely require more immediate attention than other issues.

A large hole caused by a leak in a Grand View Apartments resident’s bedroom ceiling. The resident claims she and her husband alerted property management, but they have yet to fix it. Lindsey Holden lholden@thetribunenews.com

My landlord won’t fix the problem. What should I do now?

If landlords won’t make the repairs in a reasonable amount of time, tenants have a few options. They have the right to withhold rent until repairs are made or deduct the cost of repairs from their rent, according to the tenants guide.

However, the situation must be serious enough to justify not paying rent, because landlords could evict tenants for withholding money.

Examples of such problems include a collapsed bathroom ceiling, a rat, mouse or cockroach infestation, a lack of heat, plumbing blockages, and exposed and faulty wiring.

Another option is to request an inspection from city or county code enforcement, which is responsible for upholding health and safety regulations.

If an inspection reveals problems that represent serious code violations, officials can send letters to landlords asking them to fix the issues, said Cessia Cocina, San Luis Obispo code enforcement supervisor.

Refusing to make repairs could result in fines that vary by area — in San Luis Obispo, landlords could wind up paying $1,000 per day.

“Normally, they’re pretty responsive,” Cocina said of such landlords.

If the problem is bad enough, the city can declare a unit uninhabitable or “red tag” it, which would force the tenant to move.

Landlords overseeing red-tagged buildings must compensate tenants who have to relocate, according to California law.

A broken bedroom window in a Grand View Apartments resident’s unit. Lindsey Holden lholden@thetribunenews.com

Can I take my landlord to court for refusing to maintain my apartment?

The short answer? Yes, but it will likely cost a decent chunk of money and take longer than you’d like.

Kopcinski, the CRLA attorney, said many tenants may opt to move out rather than take legal action against their landlords.

“Litigation is such a long, drawn-out process,” he said.

Tenants will frequently wait until they’re in the process of leaving their rentals before they report problems to code enforcement, as they don’t want to start conflicts with their landlords, Cocina said.

Renters who have trouble negotiating repairs or other issues with their landlords in San Luis Obispo can access free mediation services provided by the city through a program called SLO Solutions.

For more information about mediation services, call 805-549-0442 or visit creativemediation.org/slo-solutions

Can my landlord kick me out of my apartment for complaining about problems?

No, landlords cannot evict tenants for complaining about issues at their rentals.

If a renter is evicted within six months of raising concerns about their units, contacting a public agency for an inspection or filing a lawsuit against landlords, that action could be considered retaliatory, according to the tenants guide.

Tenants who have been served with eviction notices are entitled to court hearings through a process known as an unlawful detainer lawsuit, something many renters don’t know about, Kopcinski said.

“People feel like their landlords can just kick them out,” he said.

However, eviction proceedings happen very quickly — a lot faster than most lawsuits tenants may file against landlords.

Judges typically hear and decide eviction cases within 20 days, according to the tenants guide.

Resources for renters

Tenants seeking legal advice can contact the CRLA’s San Luis Obispo office at 805-544-7997 or the San Luis Obispo Legal Assistance Foundation at 805-543-5140. Both nonprofits provide legal services to low-income residents.

To read the California Tenants Guide visit hcd.ca.gov/manufactured-mobile-home/mobile-home-ombudsman/docs/Tenant-Landlord.pdf.

The tenants guide is also available in Spanish at hcd.ca.gov/manufactured-mobile-home/mobile-home-ombudsman/docs/Tenant-Landlord-Sp.pdf.

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Lindsey Holden writes about housing, North County communities and everything in between for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. She became a staff writer in 2016 after working for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. Lindsey is a native Californian raised in the Midwest and earned degrees from DePaul and Northwestern universities.