By Molly Kirkland
Generally speaking, your lease with a landlord is a binding agreement that cannot be easily modified, but California has recently adopted laws that provide special protection and rights to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking or elder abuse.
The laws recognize that everyone should be able to feel safe and secure in their home. If a tenant becomes the target of a predator, both the tenant and the landlord should be able to make reasonable changes to keep the tenant safe and comfortable.
The law now allows a domestic violence victim to break their lease early without any penalty or fee, as long as they provide the landlord with at least 14 days’ written notice to vacate along with a copy of a temporary restraining order, an emergency protective order or a police report issued within the last 60 days. In lieu of a police report or restraining order, the tenant may also provide a report written by a qualified third party, such as a domestic violence counselor, or a report written by a health practitioner such as a doctor, psychiatrist or a licensed marriage counselor.
In some situations, a domestic violence victim may not want to move or may not have the resources to move. Another option is to ask the landlord to change the exterior locks on the unit. If the tenant provides the landlord with a copy of a police report or court order, the landlord must change the locks within 24 hours. Most landlords will have no problem changing the locks, but if it takes longer than 24 hours for the landlord to respond, the tenant themselves may change the locks. If the tenant takes this route, the tenant must use locks of similar or better quality than those provided by the landlord, and the locks must be changed in a “workmanlike,” or professionally acceptable, manner. The tenant must also notify the landlord within 24 hours that the locks have been changed, and provide the landlord with a copy of the new key.
The fact that you are a victim of domestic violence or a similar crime should not be a reason for a landlord to end your lease or refuse to renew it. However, there are three circumstances in which the landlord may end a lease: first, if the perpetrator of the crime is a tenant of the unit along with the victim; second, if the victim allows the perpetrator to visit the property after an act of abuse has been reported; or third, if the landlord has reason to believe that the perpetrator’s presence on the property is a threat to other people on the property.
Everyone deserves to have safe, stable housing. If you’ve suffered domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking or elder abuse, discuss these options with your landlord to find a solution that works for both of you.
—Molly Kirkland is director of public affairs for the San Diego County Apartment Association.