Question 1:     Are there any new laws taking effect in 2015 affecting landlord-tenant issues?

Answer 1:  There was surprisingly little activity in 2014 by the California legislature in passing new landlord-tenant laws. While there were numerous proposed laws, most of them failed to make it past the committee they were introduced in, or failed to win passage by the complete legislature, or be signed by the Governor.

The few laws that did pass were relatively insignificant in terms of impact on landlords, and include a law (AB 2561) that allows tenants (and HOA/condo owners) to grow fruits and vegetables in their back yard, subject to various restrictions discussed below.

There was also a change in the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act to allow landlords and tenants to agree to complete the accounting and return of the security deposit electronically if both parties agree. While the statute that governs accounting and return of security deposits (Civil Code Section 1950.5) already permitted the parties to agree to an electronic funds transfer as well as an email delivery of the accounting, there was some question whether that statute conflicted with the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act. AB 2747 makes clear that any possible conflict has been eliminated.

A statute (SB 1167) was also passed that added somewhat to existing landlord duties to respond to rodent infestation, but the new law does not seem to materially change the landlord’s existing obligation to provide rodent-free housing. It is discussed in more detail below.    

AB 2561, the ‘personal agriculture’ bill, specifically provides that a tenant in a building with one or two units may participate in ‘personal agriculture’ in ‘portable containers’ in the tenant’s backyard. The tenant may be required to sign a written contract agreeing to pay for any excess water and garbage collection bills that are generated by the tenants farming activity. The statute also gives the landlord the right to occasionally inspect any area, with proper notice, in which the tenant is growing fruits or vegetables. The law specifically omits marijuana or any other unlawful crop or substance from the list of permitted items that may be grown.  It also requires the tenant to maintain the area, by regularly removing any dead plant material or weeds etc. The details of the new law are set forth below.

Section 1940.10 is added to the Civil Code, to read:    1940.10.  (a) For the purposes of this section, the following definitions shall apply: (1) “Private area” means an outdoor backyard area that is on the ground level of the rental unit. (2) “Personal agriculture” means a use of land where an individual cultivates edible plant crops for personal use or donation.  (3) “Plant crop” means any crop in its raw or natural state, which comes from a plant that will bear edible fruits or vegetables. It shall not include marijuana or any unlawful crops or substances. (b) A landlord shall permit a tenant to participate in personal agriculture in portable containers approved by the landlord in the tenant’s private area if the following conditions are met: (1) The tenant regularly removes any dead plant material and weeds, with the exception of straw, mulch, compost, and any other organic materials intended to encourage vegetation and retention of moisture in soil, unless the landlord and tenant have a preexisting or separate agreement regarding garden maintenance where the tenant is not responsible for removing or maintaining plant crop and weeds. (2) The plant crop will not interfere with the maintenance of the rental property. (3) The placement of the portable containers does not interfere with any tenant’s parking spot. (4) The placement and location of the portable containers may be determined by the landlord. The portable containers may not create a health and safety hazard, block doorways, or interfere with walkways or utility services or equipment. (c) The cultivation of plant crops on the rental property other than that which is contained in portable containers shall be subject to approval from the landlord. (d) A landlord may prohibit the use of synthetic chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, rodenticides, insecticides, or any other synthetic chemical product commonly used in the growing of plant crops. (e) A landlord may require the tenant to enter into a written agreement regarding the payment of any excess water and waste collection bills arising from the tenant’s personal agriculture activities. (f) Subject to the notice required by Section 1954, a landlord has a right to periodically inspect any area where the tenant is engaging in personal agriculture to ensure compliance with this section. (g) This section shall only apply to residential real property that is improved with, or consisting of, a building containing not more than two units that are intended for human habitation.

the ‘Rodent Bill’ – SB 1167 requires that pests such as rodents be eliminated from rental property and that certain measures to be taken to eliminate the conditions that allow the pest/rodents to enter the property. It includes a provision requiring an enforcement agency, which determines the building is in violation of building standards due to the pest infestation, to order the owner of the building to correct the conditions that contributed to the problem. This does not seem to really add much to the general state of the law, but does specifically address the issue of a rodent infestation in rental properties.

SB 1167 amends Sections 17980, 116125, 116130, 116135, 116140, and 116145 of the Health and Safety Code, relating to vector control.        According to the Legislative summary:

1) Existing law requires a person who possesses a place that is infested with rodents to immediately proceed and continue in good faith to exterminate and destroy the rodents. Existing law authorizes the State Department of Public Health, a county board of supervisors, or a governing board of a city to take specified actions, including purchasing poison, traps, and other materials, for the purpose of exterminating and destroying rodents.  This bill would additionally require that person to abate specified conditions that are causing the infestation. The bill would also authorize the department, the county board of supervisors, and the governing body of a city to abate specified conditions that are causing the infestation.    (2) Existing law requires the building department of every city or county to enforce within its jurisdiction all the provisions published in the State Building Standards Code and other housing standards. Existing law provides various methods of remediating building code and safety violations, including repair, rehabilitation, vacation, or demolition of the building.    This bill would require, whenever the enforcement agency determines that there is an infestation, as specified, that the enforcement agency’s abatement order include abatement of any other specified conditions that the agency determines to have caused the infestation. 

Question 2: Is there a law requiring landlords to install fire extinguishers in a single family residence (SFR)?
Answer 2: There is no such state law. However, though unlikely, it is possible the city where your unit is located may have such a local requirement. To be sure, you might check with the local fire department or building department.
 

Question 3: I am selling one property consisting of five single family units. Can the new owner use my existing lease agreements by adding an addendum stating that he is the new owner and the agreement is the same, and payments are to be made to him? Some of the tenants have been there from two to10 years.
Answer 3:
The new owner ‘steps into your shoes’ as regards rental agreements with existing tenants. This means the new owner is bound to the same terms of the lease as you were. The new owner does need to communicate the transfer of ownership to the tenants, to provide them notice of his or her ownership, his or her contact information and the change of the party who will collect rents going forward. While not required, it might be a nice touch if you joined the new owner in this communication, as a way to introduce the new owner and perhaps say goodbye to your tenants.

Question 4: Does the landlord have 30 days to fix any problem that is not a serious habitability issue? In this case, a washing machine is not working and the tenant is threatening to withhold rent if I don’t fix it right away (24 hours after reporting the problem, according to him).

Answer 4: A disabled washing machine is not a habitability defect. It may be a breach of the lease if the tenant’s rent includes a working washing machine, entitling the tenant to some rent discount. While you have a ‘reasonable time’ to repair the problem after notice of the problem, the tenant’s right to a deduction probably begins once the machine breaks (assuming it did not break from the tenant’s negligence). But realistically, this should be a very minor issue that you and the tenant should not be in a dispute over. An offer to credit some modest rent amount (maybe $5 a day during the period the machine doesn’t work) would likely solve the issue. But if the lease is month to month, you can always change the lease to provide that the washer is a courtesy provided to the tenant and will not be considered part of the rental, such that it is the tenant’s responsibility to maintain the appliance. 

Question 5: One of my tenants told me “I think by law a big rental building like this should have an onsite full time property manager.” Is that true? I do have an onsite resident manager who has a full time job during the day, but works in the evening to help tenants with their problems sometimes till midnight. Does an onsite resident manager need to be present at all times during the day? There are 54 units in this apartment complex and this onsite manager has managed the building since inception (July 2014) with high marks from many tenants saying he is very responsive. This is the first time a tenant complained about this manager. What does a landlord needs to do when the RM takes a two week vacation? We do have an offsite leasing office that tenants can call for problems. Is that sufficient to cover for the two weeks?

Answer 5: As for the onsite manager, the applicable regulation, 25 CCR 42, provides the following:   Caretaker – A manager, janitor, housekeeper, or other responsible person shall reside upon the premises and shall have charge of every apartment house in which there are 16 or more apartments, and of every hotel in which there are 12 or more guest rooms, in the event that the owner of an apartment house or hotel does not reside upon said premises. Only one caretaker would be required for all structures under one ownership and on one contiguous parcel of land.

There is nothing in the code section about making the onsite manager available 24/7 (even during vacation), or having additional managers for larger buildings. As to your arrangement, a manager who is not available during the day would seem to leave many opportunities for missed calls by tenants etc. For a 54 unit building, you might want to consider having someone more available, just as a matter of practical responsiveness. As to the onsite manager’s vacation time, the code section does not cover that event. I believe that if you notify the tenants that for that period they will need to contact your property management company, you will have complied with the onsite manager requirement as well as one reasonably could. Alternatively, you could negotiate with another tenant to temporarily fill that position while your regular onsite manager is away, but that opens up issues of compensation etc. However, it may be a reasonable alternative to having no one onsite during that two week period. 

Richard Beckman, of Beckman Blair, LLP has been practicing landlord-tenant law for over 19 years, primarily in rent-controlled jurisdictions such as San FranciscoOakland and Berkeley. He represents clients in a broad range of real estate-related disputes, including partition of co-ownership interests, purchase contract disputes, insurance coverage analysis and land use. Mr. Beckman also specializes in all aspects of landlord-tenant issues, representing landlords and tenants in residential and commercial matters. He can be reached at 415-871-0070; email rich@beckmanblairllp.com or by visiting the website www.beckmanblairllp.com