Before the Coronavirus/COVID-19 became an American pandemic, Californians operated under the assumption that 2020 would be a typical year.  In the year leading up to the March 2020 Coronavirus/COVID-19 state of emergency declaration, thousands of California tenants, often lured by voracious employment prospects, entered into residential leases containing lease terms of a year, or longer.  However, as evidenced by the record number of unemployment claims, decimated job market, and bleak economic outlook, 2020 will be typified by unprecedented uncertainty.  Even as California’s economy gradually reopens, many employees remain sidelined over fears of contracting the Coronavirus/COVID-19.   Now, California’s reeling economy has forced many California tenants to reexamine their decision to sign leases with terms.  Perhaps holding out until after the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic subsides is a viable option; however, not every tenant is in a financial position to do so. For many California tenants, their only option is to get out.  This article examines California tenant options towards breaking leases during the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.

What Are My Obligations Regarding a Lease Term?

A lease term is a commitment.  A lease term is a specified fixed duration of time designating how long the tenant must lease the rental unit.  Lease terms are non-cancelable.  For residential tenancies, one-year lease terms are common.  After the lease term expiration, the tenancy automatically converts to a month-to-month tenancy, or the landlord and tenant may opt to renew the lease term.

Upon execution of the lease agreement, the tenant becomes obligated to pay rent for the entire lease term specified in the contract.

What Happens When I Break A Lease During the Lease Term?

As stated above, the tenant becomes obligated to pay rent for the rental unit throughout the entire lease term.  Ordinarily, a landlord is entitled to recover damages resulting from the tenant’s breaking the lease.  California Civil Code § 1951.2.  Damages include the value of unpaid rent due over the remainder of the lease term. However, California law limits this measure of damage, prohibiting landlords from claiming that they are owed all of the rent due on the lease term.  Id.

Landlords have a duty to mitigate their damages.  Polster, Inc. v. Swing, 164 Cal. App. 3d 427, 433 (1985).  This essentially means that the landlord must take affirmative steps to re-rent the rental unit.  The court will not award the landlord the full amount of rent due on the lease term, where the landlord fails to mitigate damages and minimize losses.

Before the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, California’s hot rental market meant that finding a replacement tenant was not usually an issue.  Landlords typically only suffered modest lapses in occupancy.  In March 2020, everything changed.

How Can I Break My Lease During the Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic?

California tenants no longer interested in renting their rental units have several options getting out of their units during the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Find A Replacement Tenant

In a normal rental housing market, finding a replacement tenant is not too difficult.  But, the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented times.  The California rental housing market is freezing.  The seemingly constant influx of tenants eager to pre-pay entire lease terms has largely vanished.  Rental listings are also down.  Accordingly to StreetEasy economist Nancy Wu, supply and demand have both fallen.

Although more challenging, rerenting your unit to a replacement tenant remains an option.  Post listings on Craigslist and other similar websites to ascertain interest in your unit.  If interest is low, consider slightly lowering the rental price.  If you secure a replacement tenant, even one that pays only a couple hundred dollars less per month, your landlord is unlikely to attempt to recover damages from you.

2. Work Out an Exit Deal with Your Landlord

Despite being an option, landlords rarely agree to tenant-friendly deals.  As recent local reporting has shown, working out a reasonable exit deal is probably untenable.  For most tenants, this option probably should not receive much consideration.

3. Constructive Eviction Due to Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic

A constructive eviction occurs where a landlord’s actions or inactions render the rental unit unfit for residential living or deprives the tenant of the use and enjoyment of the rental unit.  Groh v. Kover’s Bull Pen, Inc., 221 Cal. App. 2d 611 (1963).  A tenant is not liable for rent for the remainder of the lease term after vacating the unit due to the constructive eviction.  Kulawitz v. Pacific etc. Paper, Co., 25 Cal. 2d 664, 670 (1944).  Before vacating, the tenant must provide notice of the problem(s) to the landlord, and the landlord must fail to cure the issue(s).  California Civil Code §§ 1942(a), (d), 1941.2.

The Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented.  Much remains unknown about the spread and contracting of the oft fatal virus.  As is well known, millions of Californians are vulnerable, with an elevated risk of contracting Coronavirus/COVID-19.  As part of their obligations as a landlord, California landlords must protect their tenants from the Coronavirus/COVID-19. This includes limiting private property access to trespassers, preventing non-residents from entering the property, and ensuring that government shelter-in-place orders are followed.  Where a landlord fails to meet these obligations and ignores tenant complaints, the tenant may be justified in vacating due to constructive eviction.

Some examples of landlord negligence supporting a Coronavirus/COVID-19 constructive eviction:

  • Landlord not enforcing shelter-in-place rules for known violators;
  • Landlord permitting trespassers to roam on private property, for example, by refusing to repair a broken gate that allows vagrants free rein on the property;
  • Landlord permitting delivery persons to use building elevators and make drops to individual tenant doors, as opposed to setting up designated delivery zone in the building lobby or requiring tenants to meet at the front gate;
  • Landlord refusing to close building amenities during Coronavirus/COVID-19 state of emergency;
  • Landlord refusing to outfit property manager and other employees with required PPE;
  • Landlord harassment via refusing to adhere to proper social distancing requirements; and,
  • Landlord substantially harassing the tenant following their lawful deferment of rent during the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, ordinary landlord misconduct continues to support a constructive eviction claim. Prior to vacating, California tenants should document the issues, complain to the landlord, and provide time for the landlord to cure the defects.  If applicable, the tenant should inform the landlord they are a member of a vulnerable population at heightened risk of contracting Coronavirus/COVID-19.  If the landlord addresses the issue(s), the tenant will not be able to claim constructive eviction.

Against this backdrop, vacating a unit due a constructive eviction is a serious decision with great legal consequences.  Before deciding to vacate due to constructive eviction, Astanehe Law recommends discussing your options with an experienced tenant attorney.

If you are a California tenant, living in cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles, Richmond, or Berkeley, with questions about your tenant rights during the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, or California Rent Control (AB 1482), contact Astanehe Law to speak with an experienced tenant attorney.