Part 1 of a series about students and their rights.
It started with some wet socks
I stepped over to the corner of my room to grab something off my nightstand when my socks became instantly wet.
Upon further investigation, I discovered a large wet spot growing underneath my nightstand. The tenant before me had mentioned the leak and I thought peeling back the carpet and running a fan would do the trick. Besides, I figured having wet socks is a small price to pay for the heavy rains that were slowly bringing California out of its drought.
Two days later, as I was wrestling a bed sheet onto my mattress, my socks got wet again when they touched the edge of the wall.
I wedged myself between the box spring and the wall, revealing that the leak had spread to the entire perimeter of my room. My face fell.
I live in an older house and there are plenty of things that haven’t been replaced in years. There’s a missing drawer in my kitchen that leaves a gaping hole in the counter. The once dark green porch paint is chipped and faded, with a couple missing spindles. There are even random belongings from past tenants still lurking in the closets downstairs.
Though situations like this are unpleasant to deal with, it’s a reality that many students in San Luis Obispo face.
As someone who has experienced her own set of housing issues, I’ve learned that every student deals with this kind of situation in a different way, shape or form. But every student also has rights, as I learned after a waterlogged research project about my own situation.
Know your rights
Patrick Saldana, the directing attorney at the California Rural Legal Assistance office in San Luis Obispo, noticed habitability issues throughout the county, particularly affecting students. He chalks it up to students just not knowing their housing rights.
According to Saldana and The California Tenant’s Guide, the Landlord-Tenant relationship is built on a complex web of rights and responsibilities.
Under California Law, the implied warranty of habitability guarantees rental properties are fit for human habitation. This means that by law, tenants have the right to live in a habitable space provided by their landlords.
However, tenants are experiencing a more difficult time finding suitable housing, due to the large number of students seeking off-campus housing. According to Saldana, he estimates a two percent vacancy rate in San Luis Obispo, which leads to a high demand for available properties.
“There might be individuals who use students as essentially a temporary sort of tenant … they don’t necessarily make those repairs because they just assume the student is going to be gone at the end of the year anyways,” he said.
Saldana walked through a few steps that all tenants should do to get repairs done:
- Determine who’s at fault: Is the tenant or the landlord responsible for the repair? Document everything in writing and make sure to sign and date it, ensuring there is written proof of the conversations.
- Give the landlord a reasonable amount of time to fix the issue, depending on the severity of it.
- Call the code enforcement hotline to request an inspection and to write a citation or a letter to the landlord requesting certain substandard conditions be repaired.
According to Saldana, tenants should get a proactive start by being upfront about their concerns.
“Even if you’re a little uncomfortable with starting off on what you think might be the wrong foot, that move-in inspection, that checklist that every landlord gives you when you go into a new apartment is very important,” Saldana said.
Otherwise, tenants risk being blamed for issues they didn’t cause. If tenants have allowed a reasonable amount of time to pass, they can start considering other remedies.
Repair and deduct, rent withholding
According to the California Tenant’s Guide, the repair and deduct method is defined as deducting the amount necessary from future rent to repair the defects.
In addition, a tenant is allowed by law to “withhold some or all of the rent if the landlord does not fix serious defects that violate the implied warranty of habitability.” However, the issue in question needs to threaten the tenant’s health or safety and cost more than one month’s rent.
Tenants are also recommended to speak with attorneys before moving onto remedies such as rent withholding or repair and deducting, or else tenants may be served with a three-day notice to pay or an
unlawful detainer trial.
Small claims court is also a viable choice if there are no other options and the landlord fails to provide habitable premises. Tenants should vacate the premises before pursuing this option.
According to Saldana, tenants should at the very least review the California Tenant’s Guide, which can be downloaded from the Department of Consumer Affairs website. The guide details tenant rights that prevent landlords from overstepping their boundaries.
Between a rock and a hard place
General engineering senior Anna Laird is just one of the numerous students currently experiencing housing rights violations.
Laird moved into a house that wasn’t cleaned before she moved in, but another tenant living on the residence had a much worse experience since.
At Laird’s residence, there are five tenants on the main floor and a single tenant living in an apartment below who have dealt with sewage problems for months.
“Her bathroom has been flooded multiple times. Every time she has to use her towels to clean it up and buy new towels to replace them,” Laird said. “Her doormats and the bathmats get messed up and she’s worried she’s going to get charged for water damage.”
The pipes in her bathroom need to be replaced, since they frequently get blocked because of residual buildup over the years. For months, she’s dealt with flooding in her bathroom and it wasn’t until the tenant had no access to her bathroom for days that the landlord decided to replace the pipes entirely. However, once the heavy rains hit, there were two leaks found in her house.
“Not only was her bathroom flooded, her kitchen and her living room were flooded as well,” Laird said. “It’s been smelling so bad that she’s only been in her apartment to sleep because it smells mildew-y,” Laird said.
The landlord suggested to air the smell out by running a fan.
Laird advised students to read through their lease carefully before signing and to discuss any concerns with their landlords.
“Don’t be afraid to talk about it before you sign it,” she said. “Don’t think that just because [the landlord has] the place that you want to live, they won’t give and take a little bit. There’s always room for discussion.”
Lesser of two evils
Music senior Jack Henry Oberto is another student experiencing housing issues as a result of flooding. There was a serious case of black mold at his house near Laguna Lake.
Though his landlord called repairmen to take care of the mold, it hasn’t been much of a solution.
“They still haven’t replaced my wall. They took out a piece of the drywall in the closet, and they haven’t gone back yet to replace it,” Oberto said.
Due to poor ventilation, a significant amount of moisture accumulated in the house, causing mold to spread and dripping condensation to form on the inside of windows.
“Multiple times I’ve gone into the bathroom and I’ve found slugs. We’ve found frogs three times and I can hear frogs at night,” Oberto said. “I think they’re probably living somewhere. We’ve also found a dead rat right inside the door that crawled out from the wall.”
Despite the frogs and slugs, Oberto actually prefers his house to the other rental properties his landlord manages.
“In another one of [my landlord’s] houses, they get snakes … I’d rather have those [frogs] than have snakes,” he said.
Oberto’s advice to students signing next year’s lease is to take a proper look around before making any definite decisions.
“Make sure you go with someone [who knows] what they’re looking for; a parent or someone that understands property, and have them look at the house with you,” Oberto said.
Students can make the best of their housing situations next year by understanding their rights as a tenant and speaking up if they have questions or concerns with their landlord.
Laird and Oberto are both still dealing with their housing issues. However, my own housing issues are fixed for now — weather permitting.
After contacting my landlord, I spent a couple days camped out in the living room before carpet installers could finally take out the balled up carpet in the middle of my mildew-smelling room.
We discovered the source of the leak at the doorway of my closet, and construction workers are scheduled to come patch up the leak on the outside of the house. Being forced out of my room for that week made me realize just how little I knew about housing rights and landlord-tenant relationships.
California Rural Legal Assistance offers free civil legal services and fair-housing services to low-income individuals throughout San Luis Obispo County. Contact their office at (805) 544-7997 or call the code enforcement hotline at (805) 594-8188.