There are five general options for the tenant, but all require giving notice of the problems to the landlord first. It is better to do this in writing.
Move Out. Wait a reasonable time after giving notice for the landlord to do the repairs and move out. 30 days is presumed to be reasonable but it is not cast in stone. Warn the landlord in your letter requesting repairs that if s/he doesn’t do the repairs that you will be moving out because of the conditions.
Help Calling Attention to the Problem. A tenant is under no duty to move out of a rental unit in order to claim it is uninhabitable. Just because a tenant remained in a rental unit does not mean that the unit was therefore habitable. Many tenants do not have the resources to move quickly, and there is a severe shortage of decent affordable housing. Other remedies can help spur the landlord to repair. The tenant may call the local city code enforcement inspectors and health department for an inspection of the rental unit. Tenants can ask their neighbors in other units if they want to be inspected at the same time.
Repair and Deduct. Wait a reasonable time after giving notice for the landlord to do the repairs and move out. 30 days is presumed to be reasonable but it is not cast in stone. Pay to have plumbers, electricians or others to make the needed repairs that are listed in Civil Code Section 1941.1. Then deduct the repair cost from the rent by submitting a copy of the bill together with the remaining rent due. The costs deducted cannot be more than one month’s rent and no more than two times per year.
Withhold Rents. A tenant’s obligation to pay rent goes hand in hand with the landlord’s duty to maintain the rental unit in a habitable condition. But it is not like a light switch; it is not all-or-nothing. If the landlord is in breach of habitability, the tenant remains obligated to pay only the amount of rent that would be reasonable taking into account the defective conditions shown in court. Fair Housing staff can assist, but do not make this decision. The tenant should save all unpaid rents so that they can pay the rent that may be found owing by the court. The tenant and landlord may also negotiate the rent due while repairs are completed. Taking this option involves a risk of a tenant being evicted if the problem isn’t seen as serious enough or was tenant caused.
Sue for Damages. Tenants can sue their landlords for damages including a retroactive reduction in rent and the annoyance and inconvenience of living in bad conditions. Each tenant can sue for up to $7500 in small claims court. All of the cases from the same building can be set for hearing at the same time.
Caution to Tenants: You should contact the Fair Housing Council or a private attorney BEFORE using any of the above methods to insure you protect yourself and your tenancy.