How To Stand Up For Yourself As An LA Renter: A Roadmap
Reporting by David Wagner and Caroline Champlin | Editing by Jill Replogle and Lisa Brenner
There are millions of people living in the city of Los Angeles, and the majority of them rent their homes. You might be one of them. Hello, neighbor.
The most important thing to know as a tenant is that YOU HAVE RIGHTS. A lot of them. And there are very specific actions you can take if your landlord doesn't play by the rules. But first you have to know the rules. And there are a lot of those, too.
Whether you're about to sign a lease, about to be evicted, or somewhere in between with a racoon in your wall and a looming three-digit rent increase, we are here to help with answers and resources.
Here's what's in the guide:
PAYMENTS, LEASES, FIXES
RAISING THE RENT/RENT CONTROL
HOUSING VOUCHERS & OTHER HELP
SHORT TERM RENTALS
Now that you know what's coming up, let's dive in...
FINDING A PLACE
But when apps and internets fail to provide, L.A. wisdom suggests an analog approach: visit neighborhoods you like and look for "For Rent" signs.
If you strike out, there are hundreds of other neighborhoods to try. Curbed LA has a colorful, patchwork map if you're not sure where you are, or where you're going.
Most landlords will ask you to fill out a rental application, which typically includes details about your rental history and employment status.
Landlords also often ask you for proof of your income and a credit report (or they'll ask you to pay a fee so they can do their own credit check).
Note: Landlords are not allowed to discriminate based on the source of your income. They're also not allowed to discriminate based on:
- Sexual Orientation
- Sexual Identity
- National Origin
- Marital Status
- Immigration Status
If you think a landlord is refusing to rent to you because of something on this list, get in touch with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, (800) 233-3212.
Some landlords run a criminal background check on potential tenants (Oakland just banned the practice and some other cities are also considering bans).
Common reasons why you might be rejected as a potential tenant include:
- You don't make three times the rent on a monthly basis
- You have a bad credit score
- You've been evicted in the past
KNOW WHO OWNS YOUR WOULD-BE HOME
It's important to know who owns the building, ideally before you hand over a security deposit or sign the lease. You might need the information in the future if an issue arises, or you might find they have a dangerous history and change your mind.
In L.A. County, you can search a property with the Office of the Assessor. Get the parcel number, then call or email them at email@example.com to find out who owns the property.
Also, meet the property manager or landlord.
IT HAS TO BE OFFICIALLY 'HABITABLE'
The place doesn't have to be perfect, but it does have to be livable. A legally liveable, or "habitable," property must have:
- Protection from the weather
- No leaking roofs
- No broken windows
- Working carbon monoxide detectors
- Working smoke detectors
- Working plumbing
- Working heat
- Working electricity (you likely have to pay for it, but the infrastructure has to work)
- No rodents, vermin, debris
Here's the full list of must haves.
WHAT THE LANDLORD HAS TO TELL YOU
These are called disclosures. Under California law, landlords are legally required to tell you — in writing and before you sign a lease — about whether any of the following is present in your future unit:
- Toxic mold
- Lead contamination
- Methamphetamine contamination
The landlord also has to tell you:
- If anyone has died in the apartment in the last three years
- If the building is in a flood zone
- If utility fees will be shared with other tenants
- If the building is being treated for pests
- If the landlord has applied for a permit to demolish the unit
- If the building is within a mile of a military property that may have explosives
And the landlord is required to tell you about the government website www.meganslaw.ca.gov, where you can look up whether any sex offenders live in the neighborhood.
DOING A WALKTHROUGH
This is similar to what you do when renting a car.
A walkthrough is an opportunity to look through the unit with the landlord or owner, and jointly document any problems (think: scratched kitchen cabinet, dented refrigerator door, etc).
You'll want to do this to make sure you don't get charged for that same, scratched kitchen cabinet when you decide to move out.
You're not legally entitled to see a property in person, but it is encouraged. Taking pictures and recording the condition of the property can help protect your security deposit.
THE DREADED SECURITY DEPOSIT
Your landlord will most likely require one.
This is money you pay up front that the landlord can use when you leave to cover the cost of damages you caused to the property, cleaning fees, lost keys and unpaid rent.
For an unfurnished unit: the landlord can legally ask for a security deposit equal to twice the monthly rent.
For a furnished unit: the landlord can legally ask for a deposit up to three times the monthly rent.
SIGNING THE LEASE
CONGRATULATIONS. The figurative distance between locating a place and moving in is not insignificant (ie: applications, credit checks, competition, waiting, deposits, self doubt, second guessing, existential crisis, etc.). But assuming you're victorious in your efforts, you will likely be asked to sign a lease.
The lease is a written or verbal agreement between a landlord and tenant to rent a unit for a certain amount of time. Rules, costs and disclosures will be detailed in the lease. You'll probably want to have a written one to make sure all those details are documented.
The lease should include details about how to pay rent, who will pay utilities (like: water, sewer, electricity, gas and trash service), and what amenities (like laundry facilities and parking spaces) are included with the unit.
CAN MY LANDLORD ENTER MY UNIT?
Yes, but there are rules.
They need to give you 24-hours written notice if:
- They want to show the property to prospective tenants
- They need to make agreed-upon repairs
- They have a court order to enter
They can enter without notice if:
- It's an emergency
- You've moved out or abandoned the apartment
WHO FIXES THINGS?
Let's say the toilet is leaking and a window broke (hopefully in separate incidents). If the basic expectations of habitability are broken — like heating, water, locks or windows — the landlord is required to have it fixed.
As a tenant, you're also responsible for keeping the unit in clean, livable condition.
If something outside of the lease agreement breaks (like, say, your TV), the landlord is not responsible for fixing it.
I'M SCARED MY LANDLORD WILL EVICT ME IF I COMPLAIN
Legally, they can't.
Under California law, your landlord cannot evict you in retaliation for complaining about problems with your unit. If your landlord tries to evict you within 180 days of your complaint, your landlord has to prove that their decision wasn't retaliation.
BUT, you must keep paying the rent after you make a complaint, otherwise your landlord might have cause to kick you out.
WHAT IF THE LANDLORD ISN'T ACTUALLY FIXING THINGS. WHAT NOW?
Make sure you've sent your complaint to your landlord in writing, and keep documentation.
If the issue is impacting your ability to live in a safe and healthy environment, you can report the problem to the L.A. County Department of Public Health.
If you live in the city of L.A. and your housing is substandard, you might be eligible for rent reduction. You can get more information about that here.
If you've asked the landlord to repair something promised in the lease and they don't fix it within 30 days, state law says you can fix the problem yourself and deduct the cost out of your rent (with some limitations).
If the problems are serious enough to threaten your health and safety, you may be entitled to withhold your rent payment and vacate the property without penalty.
It's a good idea to consult with a tenant's rights group, lawyer or legal aid group before choosing either of these options.
RENEWING YOUR LEASE
Your lease automatically expires at the end of the lease term unless you and the landlord have agreed to renew it.
If you keep living in, and paying rent for, the unit after the lease term is over, your lease will convert into a month-to-month lease (assuming your lease requires you to pay on a monthly basis). The details of the lease agreement will stay the same except for the length of the original agreement.
HOW MUCH CAN MY LANDLORD RAISE MY RENT?
It depends on where you live and what kind of building you're in.
If you live in an apartment built more than 15 years ago, landlords can raise the rent each year no more than 5% plus inflation (currently, that adds up to about 8% in L.A.) or 10%, whichever is lower.
This is state law, as of Jan. 1, 2020.
There are a lot of exceptions. All of the following are exempt from the above rent caps:
- Units built within the last 15 years
- College and university dorms
- A duplex where the owner lives in one of the units
- Subsidized units and designated affordable housing units (these have their own rent rules)
- Single-family homes and condos NOT owned by a corporation, real estate investment trust or limited liability company that has at least one corporate member. (Note: tenants in these circumstances must be given written notice that the property is not subject to the rent cap law. Starting July 1, 2020, this must be included in the rental agreement/ lease.)
Tip: Check out this helpful guide from the Los Angeles Public Library to find out who owns your property.
Some cities and counties have even lower rent caps.
If you live in a city or county with rent control, these local rules trump the state law.
For example, if you live in a rent-controlled building in the city of L.A., your landlord can typically raise your rent 3% per year, or up to 5% if they also pay for your utilities. (This, however, is subject to change each year, depending on inflation. This year, landlords are allowed to raise rents by 4%.)
West Hollywood, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills have their own rent control rules (also known as rent stabilization), as does L.A. County for unincorporated areas. You can find out if you live in an unincorporated part of the county here (select "District Map Look Up By Address" from the drop down menu).
When you move out, your landlord can increase the rent on your unit as much as they want for the next tenant.
HOW DO I FIND OUT IF MY BUILDING IS RENT CONTROLLED?
If you live within the city of Los Angeles and your building is older than 1979, it probably falls under the city's Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO) — in other words, it's rent-controlled.
Follow these steps to find out if L.A. rent control applies to your building:
- Go to the city's online property mapping tool ZIMAS.
- Plug in your address.
- A map with a blue outline of your building should appear. On the left-hand side, look for a header that says "Housing." Click on that.
- You should see a line that says "Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO)." If there's a "Yes" next to that, your building is rent-controlled.
Rent-controlled doesn't necessarily mean affordable.
Even with rent control, L.A. rents can still rise sharply.
UCLA's Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies noted in a recent study that allowable increases in L.A. are high compared to other cities like San Francisco and Santa Monica, where allowable rent hikes are more closely linked with inflation.
L.A.'s allowable annual increase of 3% may not sound like much. But year after year, it can compound to raise rents faster than the overall cost of living.
For instance, a tenant with rent control protections who paid $1,200 per month back in 2009 could be paying as much as $1,628 per month now. If L.A. had tied allowable increases to inflation, they would be paying $1,411 — or $217 less per month.
I'M MOVING OUT
Before your lease ends, your landlord is supposed to offer you a chance to clean and fix any potential damage you caused to your unit so you can avoid deductions to your security deposit.
Your landlord will likely inspect your unit before you move out and you have the right to be present during the inspection. You can request an inspection in the two weeks before you move out.
If you want to leave your unit before your lease expires, you will be breaking the lease. If you do this, you will most likely have to pay the penalty outlined in your lease.
However, if you are a victim of domestic violence, and you inform your landlord, you are legally allowed to break your lease. The National Housing Law Center has a toolkit that can help you through the process, including a sample letter that you can fill out and give to your landlord.
GETTING YOUR SECURITY DEPOSIT BACK (AND MAYBE MORE $)
Your landlord must return your security deposit in full within three weeks of your move-out date OR provide an itemized list of the deductions to your security deposit along with the remaining deposit balance.
If your landlord doesn't return your security deposit or list itemized deductions within three weeks, you can sue them in small claims court.
CAN MY LANDLORD EVICT ME FOR ANY REASON?
Maybe. It depends on what kind of building you live in and how long you've lived there.
The same state law that establishes rent caps for most older apartment buildings prohibits eviction of long-term tenants (at least 1 year) in those buildings unless a landlord has what's known as "just cause."
"Just cause" simply means there's a good reason to evict someone.
These "just cause" reasons are divided into two categories: ones considered your fault ("at-fault") and ones considered not your fault ("no-fault").
At-Fault Reasons For Eviction
- You didn't pay rent
- You commited a crime on the property
- You sublet a room or your whole unit in violation of your lease
- You have illegal drugs or weapons on the premises
- You violated the terms of your lease
- You refused to let the owner into the unit when he/she was entitled to enter
No-Fault Reasons For Eviction
- The owner or a family member wants to move into your unit
- The owner plans to massively remodel the building
- The owner plans to demolish the building or take it off the rental market (for example, converting the units to condos for sale) (See Ellis Act section)
- A court or government agency has ordered that the unit be vacated (for example, because it's unsafe)
If your landlord wants to evict you for one of the above "no-fault" reasons, he/she must either waive your last month's rent or pay you the equivalent of a month's rent as "relocation assistance."
The city of Los Angeles has much more generous relocation assistance requirements, especially if you are low-income, elderly, disabled or have young children.
L.A. County also requires relocation assistance for no-fault evictions in unincorporated areas.
There are a lot of exceptions.
All of the following are exempt from the statewide eviction rules:
- Units built within the last 15 years
- Nonprofit hospitals
- Religious, extended care or residential care facilities
- School dorms
- Homes or apartments where you share the kitchen or bathroom with the owner
- Single-family homes where the owner lives and rents out one or two rooms (granny flats included)
- A duplex where the owner lives in one of the units
- Single-family homes and condos NOT owned by a corporation, real estate investment trust or limited liability company that has at least one corporate member.
- Subsidized units and designated affordable housing units (these have their own eviction rules)
Here, too, local eviction protections generally trump state law.
Even if you messed up and your landlord has a legal reason to evict you, you still have rights:
The landlord must give you written notice and three days — not including weekends and holidays — to correct the problem before proceeding with eviction.
GOING TO EVICTION COURT
Here's what you can expect in an eviction proceeding:
- If you're late on rent or otherwise violating the terms of your lease, your landlord can give you a three-day notice to either fix the problem or leave. If you pay your outstanding rent within three days (not counting Saturdays, Sundays or holidays), you should be safe from eviction.
- If you don't pay up by the deadline, your landlord can file what's known as an unlawful detainer against you in eviction court. If you don't respond within five days, your landlord can win the case by default and begin the eviction process.
- If you do respond within five days, you will be given a trial date. If you win your case, the eviction process will end and you'll be able to stay.
- If your landlord wins the case, the Sheriff's Department will post a five-day notice on your door. If you don't move out within five days, the Sheriff's Department will forcibly remove you.
- If you leave your personal belongings in the unit during an eviction, you'll have to pay your landlord's storage costs to get them back. Your landlord may even be able to sell your belongings at auction.
Right To A Lawyer
You have the right to an attorney during an eviction, but one will not automatically be provided to you. If you can't afford a lawyer, check with legal aid organizations in Los Angeles that offer free representation.
The city and county of L.A. are working on a pilot program that would help fund attorneys and other fees for tenants facing eviction. These efforts would be modeled after a New York City program that has reduced evictions.
Even If You Lose Your Case, You Still Have Rights.
Your landlord cannot evict you themselves. Only the Sheriff's Department can remove you from the unit.
Your landlord cannot change your locks, remove your doors or windows, disconnect your utilities or otherwise harass you into leaving before you are legally required to do so.
I'M BEING EVICTED UNDER THE ELLIS ACT. WHAT IS THAT?
It's a legal way your landlord can evict you if they plan to stop renting the building.
You can be evicted under the Ellis Act if your landlord plans to demolish your building or permanently remove your unit from the rental market.
Landlords cannot use Ellis Act evictions to simply kick out long-term renters and bring in new ones.
In the city of L.A., if your landlord tries to re-rent your unit, you may have the right to re-occupy it at the rent you were paying before your eviction.
In order to return to your unit under these circumstances, make sure you tell your landlord — in writing and within 30 days of your eviction — that you would be interested in coming back to the unit if it becomes available.
If it does become available (for example, if the owner's plans to convert the building to condos falls through), your landlord is required to tell you and give you 30 days to decide whether you would like to re-rent it. You can find out more about the process here.
You Should Get At Least 120 Days Notice...
If your landlord tapes Ellis Act papers to your door in the city of L.A., know that you don't have to leave right away. You can stay in your unit for at least 120 days before you're kicked out.
You may be able to stay up to a year if you're disabled or at least 62 years old.
...And Relocation $$
In rent-controlled L.A. apartments, your landlord also has to pay relocation assistance during an Ellis Act eviction. How much depends on factors like how long you've lived in the unit and whether or not you qualify as low-income.
Under the city's current relocation payment guidelines, you should never be offered less than $8,200.
WHAT DO I DO IF MY LANDLORD WANTS TO PAY ME TO LEAVE?
That's called a voluntary buyout, or a "cash for keys" agreement. It's a way for you and your landlord to reach a mutual agreement for you to move out in exchange for payment.
Some might see this as a win-win. You get cold, hard cash, and your landlord gets the chance to bring in someone new and charge them a lot more. Or they might be trying to buy out all of their tenants so they can sell the building to a new owner (emptying out a building is one way to increase its value).
But there are some things you should know before signing a buyout deal. From your landlord's point of view, offering a buyout may actually be very profitable in the long-run. But you can reject any buyout offer if the terms aren't good for you.
Here's what you need to know to negotiate a better buyout in the city of L.A.:
- If your landlord offers to buy you out of a rent-controlled unit, make sure they give you this required disclosure form. It outlines your rights during a cash-for-keys negotiation, including your right to reject any offer without facing retaliation.
- Don't accept less than $8,500. That's the minimum landlords are required to pay under city rules for no-fault evictions. In these kinds of evictions, you may be entitled to higher minimum payments of up to $21,200 if you're low-income, older than 62, disabled, have kids or if you've lived in your unit for more than three years.
- Consider the above payments a floor for negotiation, not a ceiling. A lump sum of thousands — even tens of thousands — of dollars may sound like a lot of money. But keep in mind that it's taxable, so you won't end up with the full amount.
Other Questions To Ask Yourself During A Buyout:
- How much would it cost me to pay movers?
- How much would it cost me to rent a similar apartment in the same neighborhood?
- Would moving make my commute worse?
- Am I willing to change my kids' school?
If going rents in your neighborhood are now $1,000 more than what you're currently paying, that buyout money can vanish quickly. You may end up struggling to afford a new apartment when you could've stayed in your cheaper, previous unit.
Putting A Price On Home
The L.A. Tenants Union has an online buyout calculator that might help you think about the long-term cost of leaving your apartment.
For perspective, some renters in L.A. have secured buyouts of more than $50,000, though this may not be common.
If you feel like you're being intimidated or you just want another opinion, you have the right to consult with an attorney or the city's housing department before signing an agreement.
I Decided To Take A Buyout. Now What?
After you sign a buyout agreement, your landlord must file the paperwork with the city. At this point, you still have the right to cancel the agreement within 30 days, without penalty.
WHAT IS SECTION 8, EXACTLY?
Section 8, also known as the Housing Choice Voucher Program, is the federal government's main rental assistance program. It is administered by local housing authorities.
If you qualify for and get a Section 8 voucher, you must find your own home on the private market and use the voucher to help pay your rent.
To qualify, you must be considered low-income in the area where you live. For a family of four in the city of L.A., that currently means an annual household income of $83,500 or less.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has a website where you can check the income limits in your area. Local housing authorities set their own preferences for who gets priority on the waitlist.
HOW DO I GET A SECTION 8 VOUCHER?
If you live in L.A., the short answer is you can't — at least not right now. There aren't even close to enough vouchers for all the people already waiting for them.
The city's housing authority last opened its Section 8 waitlist in October 2017. It was the first time they took new applications in 13 years. Here's what happened:
- 187,804 households applied.
- Only 20,000 of them got a spot on the waitlist through a random lottery.
L.A. County's Section 8 waitlist is also currently closed.
Very few vouchers become available every year, typically after a current voucher holder dies or increases their income enough to no longer qualify for rental assistance.
With such low turnover, even those lucky enough to land on the waitlist sometimes spend a decade or more waiting to actually get a voucher. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Gov. Gavin Newsom have asked the feds repeatedly to make more vouchers available.
But waitlists in other areas might be open. You can find a full list of housing authorities in California that administer Section 8 here.
LANDLORDS SAY THEY WON'T TAKE MY HOUSING VOUCHER. IS THAT LEGAL?
No. A new state law bans landlords from rejecting tenants simply because they would pay rent through a housing voucher.
Under the law, landlords cannot use phrases like "No Section 8" in their apartment listings. And they cannot offer discounts or more favorable terms to applicants who can pay without a housing voucher.
Prior to the new law, researchers from the Urban Institute found that 76% of L.A. landlords wouldn't take vouchers.
Some property owners are still explicitly rejecting vouchers, though L.A. landlord groups say they're working on getting their members to comply with the new law.
If you encounter discrimination based on your "source of income" (in this case, your housing voucher) in L.A. County, you can file a complaint with the Housing Rights Center.
Using Section 8 Can Still Be Tough
There's no law saying a landlord has to accept you as a tenant. In a tight rental market, landlords are likely to get applications from many tenants not using vouchers. They can still choose those tenants over voucher-holders for a variety of perfectly legal reasons.
Some tenant advocates worry discrimination will continue in more subtle forms. But evidence from cities with similar laws, like Washington, D.C., shows that voucher-holders may have an easier time finding an apartment when discrimination is banned.
Running Out Of Time
The city's housing authority has said that nearly half of people getting Section 8 in L.A. these days end up losing their vouchers because they can't find a unit. Section 8 participants have six months to find a place or else they forfeit their voucher.
ARE THERE OTHER HOUSING VOUCHERS BESIDES SECTION 8?
Yes. Military veterans may also qualify for housing vouchers under a different federal program, HUD-VASH.
Veterans can apply for the program through their local VA, get a referral from a case manager through another social services program or call the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 877-424-3838.
L.A. County also has a web page with resources for homeless vets.
If you are recently homeless, various social services organizations in L.A. offer what's called "rapid re-housing." These are short-term vouchers that help people pay their rent or a hotel room while they work to get back on their feet.
To get rapid re-housing, you will first have to connect with a local service provider. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has a directory here.
Note: Some have questioned how useful rapid-re-housing is for combatting homelessness if people are unable to eventually pay their own housing costs.
IS PUBLIC HOUSING STILL A THING?
Yes. There are 14 public housing sites in the city of Los Angeles, with more than 6,500 units in total.
But here, too, wait lists to get a unit are long. According to the city's housing authority:
- More than 50,000 families are currently on the waitlist for public housing units
- About 350 units become available each year
You can find more information about the city's public housing program here.
Los Angeles County also administers public housing. The waitlist for families is closed.
BUT the waitlist for seniors-only sites is open as of Feb. 10. 2020. You can find more information about how to apply here.
WHAT ABOUT AFFORDABLE HOUSING?
You can also try to find an apartment in a building that offers subsidized or low rents to tenants who qualify based on income levels, age or other factors.
Though scarce, affordable housing does exist in L.A. and more is under construction.
Requirements for applying vary from building to building. You'll likely need to apply at each of the buildings you're interested in.
Many are already full, meaning the best you can hope for is getting on the waitlist.
So, while we wish we could give you a simple answer about how to find and apply for this kind of housing, you'll have to put a lot of effort into your search.
The city and county of Los Angeles have put together a website where you can search affordable housing listings throughout L.A.
CAN I AIRBNB MY APARTMENT?
If you live in a rent-controlled unit in the city of Los Angeles, no — you cannot.
Even if your apartment is not rent-controlled, you still may not be able to Airbnb it.
Under L.A.'s Home Sharing Ordinance, the apartment must be your primary residence (meaning you live there at least six months out of the year).
You also must get authorization from your landlord to list your apartment on Airbnb or other short-term rental sites, and you'll have to get a Home-Sharing Permit from the city's Planning Department (annual fee: $89).
You'll be limited to 120 days a year for accepting Airbnb guests, unless you successfully apply for an "extended" home-sharing permit (annual fee: $850).
EDITOR'S NOTE: This guide is part of our new, ongoing series, STUCK: Inside California's Housing Crisis.
LAist is committed to bringing you the information you need to navigate the state's housing crisis. As affordable options shrink, more and more people have found themselves on the brink of homelessness, or in the streets. Last year, more than 151,000 people in California were counted as homeless, a 17% increase since 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
We're exploring the many corners of this crisis, from the rise of corporate landlords to renters enduring dangerous and illegal conditions to newly arrived immigrants trying to keep a roof over their heads. We'll also explore ways city and state officials have failed to protect vulnerable populations from exploitation and the way many homeless people are relegated to premature death on the streets.
More from the series:
- Deceit, Disrepair and Death Inside a Southern California Rental Empire
- 'Decades of Neglect' 6 Key Takeaways About PAMA Management & Mike Nijjar's Real Estate Empire
Have more questions? Let us know.