Updates on California Rent Control Laws

City-by-city rent control rules in California, with information on other protections for tenants.

In California, “rent control” in the narrowest sense refers to city or county ordinances that limit the rent landlords can charge. (Popular perceptions of rent control include restrictions on evictions, as explained below.) Rent control laws typically set a maximum percentage by which landlords can increase rent (for example, 5%) and specify how often landlords can raise the rent. Sometimes the rate by which landlords can increase rent is expressed as a percentage of the regional annual Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Here is a chart of California cities and counties that have rent control laws, with information on what those laws say. Information about limits on evictions and other protections for renters is below the chart. Keep in mind that the chart provides partial summaries of the law, and that additional details may be relevant to your situation. For more information on the many local ordinances that affect rent and evictions, including relocation assistance and owner move-ins, see our detailed Rent Control Chart for California.

Property Subject to Rent Control

Rent control laws apply to typical rental units, like an apartment within a complex. But not all rentals in California are subject to rent control. A 1995 state law, the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, says that local rent-control regulation doesn’t apply to single family homes, condominiums, and units built after February 1, 1995 (many ordinances also exempt properties built after their effective date). The Costa-Hawkins Act also allows “vacancy decontrol” of rent-controlled units, meaning landlords are free to raise rents to market levels when tenants move out (voluntarily or after being evicted for rent nonpayment).

Other properties exempt from rent control include owner-occupied buildings with no more than three or four units (depending on local regulation), short-term rentals (think Airbnb), government-subsidized tenancies (Berkeley and San Francisco excluded), and detached (“granny”) units that could not be sold independent of the main house.

Evictions in Rent Control Areas

A tenancy typically ends either when a fixed-term lease expires or after a landlord or tenant in a month-to-month lease gives notice. A landlord can legally ask a tenant to vacate the rental in either situation, without specifying a reason (but cannot do so if the reason is retaliation for the tenant having exercised a tenant right, or for a discriminatory reason).

But for rent control to work—especially because landlords can raise rent to market levels following a legitimate vacancy—the law has to restrict the ability of landlords to evict tenants. Otherwise, a landlord could simply (and repeatedly) gin up reasons to evict tenants when they want to increase the rent. To head off this possibility, most rent control ordinances require “just cause”—an acceptable reason, among a list that is specified in the ordinance—to evict. Typical acceptable reasons include:

  • violating a significant term of the lease—for example, failing to pay rent or allowing unauthorized roommates
  • engaging in illegal or prohibited activities like drug dealing, disturbing neighbors, or damaging property
  • the landlord wanting to move into the unit or have a family member do so, and
  • the landlord wanting to substantially remodel the property, which can’t be done with tenants living there. (Sometimes, landlords in this situation must offer tenants a similar unit that they own or the opportunity to re-rent the remodeled apartment at the same rent after the project.)

Landlords who violate these restrictions often face stiff civil and even criminal penalties.

Other Protections for Renters

Rent control ordinances often have additional rules that protect tenants. Check your local ordinance(s) to see whether protections like the following apply:

Buyout agreement regulations. Strict guidelines regarding negotiated landlord-tenant agreements for early move-outs.

Mediation services. Mediation services are designed to help landlords and tenants negotiate rent disputes and come to a resolution on their own. Some ordinances even make the parties undergo formal arbitration, where an independent third party makes a non-binding recommendation or a binding determination.

Minimum lease terms. Landlords can be required to offer written leases for a minimum amount of time, typically for at least a year.

Relocation reimbursements and moving expenses. In a growing trend, tenants forced to move because a unit is being remodeled, converted, or demolished are entitled to relocation payments and reimbursements.

Special notice requirements. The amount of notice required to evict or raise rent under a local ordinance may be greater than what state law requires. An ordinance might also give longer notice periods to certain tenants, like people with disabilities, senior citizens, and school-aged children. The landlord may also be required to provide tenants with a copy of the ordinance or with written notice about specific tenant rights under the ordinance (like rent review or mediation).

Source of income ordinances. Landlords cannot discriminate against low income tenants or recipients of government assistance.

Where to Get More Information About Rent Control

Rent control ordinances vary greatly. Here are some resources that can get you detailed information on the law that applies to you:

  • Nolo Books. Nolo titles for landlords and tenants – The California Landlord’s Law Book: Rights & Responsibilities, The California Landlord’s Law Book: Evictions, and California Tenants' Rights provide comprehensive summaries of landlord-tenant law. Each book comes with access to a page on Nolo.com that has detailed updates.
  • Your city rent control board. The rent control board should be able to provide a copy of the current local ordinance(s), and possibly a brochure with explanations (visit their offices or find them online). Your city or county government’s website should also have a section of codes and ordinances, which should include the law you’re interested in.
  • A local tenants’ organization. Virtually every city with rent control has at least one active tenants’ group. These organizations typically monitor the rent board, court decisions, and proposed ballot amendments that affect renters. They can usually provide a written explanation of the relevant law, and sometimes have volunteer staff available to answer questions. Some even provide free or low-cost legal assistance.
  • Local attorneys who specialize in landlord-tenant law. Getting a referral to an attorney from someone you trust is often a good option. Tenants’ organizations and legal aid offices can often provide references to attorneys specializing in landlord-tenant law. Also, you can see Nolo's Lawyer Directory for local lawyers who represent tenants.

October 3, 2019

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