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Eviction Laws and Tenant Rights in California

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In a Nutshell

Landlords in California can’t just change the locks, toss your belongings out on the front yard, or shut down essential utilities. A landlord must follow the eviction process in order to have a tenant evicted for any reason. Here's an overview of what this means for tenants in California.

Written by Upsolve Team
Updated September 28, 2023

When you’re facing eviction, it can feel like you have no rights. Fortunately, California has several eviction protections. This article covers how California’s eviction laws can help you. If you’re a renter in California and you’ve fallen behind on rent payments or if your lease is expiring and you’re at risk of eviction, this article can help you understand the process and what your rights are. 

What Is Eviction? 

An eviction is the legal procedure property owners must use to remove a tenant. The landlord needs to get a court order before evicting a tenant. If a landlord tries to get rid of a tenant without a court order, they’ve committed an “illegal eviction” or “illegal lockout.” 

California has five types of evictions. These will be explained below.

Who Can Be Evicted in California?

In general, eviction requires a landlord and tenant relationship, where a tenant has agreed to rent housing from a property owner through a lease or other rental agreement. People living with the tenant can also face eviction, even when they’re not on the lease. For example, if a tenant is living with their child, they will be evicted too.

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Why Can Someone Be Evicted in California?

There are three main causes of eviction:

  • Owing back rent/nonpayment of rent 

  • Paying rent late

  • Paying less than the full rent amount

You can also face eviction for violating the terms of your lease, such as having a pet that’s not allowed. Finally, if you don’t leave when the lease expires, you can get evicted. While the notice requirements for each of these reasons for eviction are different, the process is otherwise similar under state law.

Late, Short, or Behind on Rent? 

If you are late paying rent or short by any amount, your landlord can being eviction proceedings. The property owner just needs to provide you with a notice that states the exact amount of rent due, and that you must pay it in three days.

Lease Expiration or Termination

When you sign a lease, it will say how long you can live in the property before the lease expires. Once the lease expires, you no longer have the right to live in the property unless you get the lease extended or sign a new lease. This is true even if you were to continue paying rent. That said, your landlord doesn’t have the right to evict you immediately after your lease expires. They must give you 30 or 60 days’ notice, depending on the length of your tenancy. If you’ve been renting for less than a year, they only have to give you 30 days’ notice before filing an eviction lawsuit. If you’ve been renting for more than a year, they must give 60 days’ notice.

Having a lease terminated is different from a lease expiring. Landlords can terminate a lease if the tenant violates the lease terms. For most violations, a landlord will give you three days to fix the problem. For serious violations like a sublet violation, grave damage to the property, the creation of a nuisance, or illegal activity in the housing, the landlord will provide a notice that says you have three days to leave before an eviction lawsuit is filed.

The California Eviction Process 

This section gives a general overview of how eviction works for tenants in California.

What does a landlord have to do to begin an eviction?

Before filing a lawsuit, the landlord must provide you with notice. Notice requirements vary based on the reason for eviction. 

  • When you’re behind on rent, your landlord will give you an eviction notice that says you have three days to pay rent or you have to leave. 

  • If you’ve violated the lease, but the violation can be remedied the landlord will provide you with a notice that says you must fix the issue or leave in three days. For example, if you have a pet that’s not allowed, you must get rid of it within three days.

  • If the lease violation immediately impacts the property, such as seriously damaging property or doing something illegal on the premises, the landlord must give you a notice that says you have three days to leave. They don’t have to give tenants the opportunity to fix the issue.

  • If your lease expires, the landlord has to provide you with a 30-day, 60-day, or 90-day notice to leave, depending on how long you’ve been renting and if you’re in subsidized housing. If you’ve been renting for less than a year, the landlord only needs to give you 30 days’ notice. If you have been renting for over a year, the landlord must give you 60 days’ notice. If you live in a subsidized house, also known as Section 8 housing, the landlord must give 90 days’ notice.

What happens once the eviction action is filed with the court? 

After the notice has expired, the landlord must file an eviction lawsuit in court. Then the landlord must serve you with a summons that provides the time and place of the court hearing. Anyone who is 18 years or older and not involved in the case can serve you these papers. The landlord has to make sure you are served the complaint within 60 days of when they filed the complaint. 

You have five days to respond to an eviction lawsuit if you’re served in person. If you’re not personally served with the notice, then you have 15 days to respond. If your landlord tries to serve you three times and isn’t able to, then they have a right to post a notice of eviction on your door.

You’ll need to reply to or “answer” the summons. To answer, you simply fill out a form. At this point, you can also list any defenses you may have. It’s important to file an answer and show up at the hearing. If you don’t respond, the landlord will file a request for a default judgment, and the court will likely grant it in 3-10 days. If a landlord gets a default judgment against you, it means they win by default since you didn’t show up.

Typically, the lawsuit will be held 10-30 days after you file your answer. This depends on how backed up the court hearing the case is. 

Telling Your Side of the Story: Affirmative Defenses and Counterclaims

The form that you fill out in response to a notice of eviction is your opportunity to present any defenses. They will usually come in the form of affirmative defenses and counterclaims. Affirmative defenses are facts you’ll raise in the answer to prove why you don’t qualify for eviction. Examples include:

  • The landlord made the property uninhabitable because they didn’t take care of infestations.

  • You legally deducted rent because the landlord didn’t make required repairs, so you had to pay for them.

  • The landlord didn’t provide proper notice.

  • The landlord has discriminated against you.

  • The landlord is evicting you in retaliation for you asserting your rights

You can also bring a counterclaim, which means you are suing for damages. Winning a counterclaim won’t prevent the eviction, but it could reduce the amount you owe the landlord or compensate you for damage the landlord did to you. You could bring a counterclaim, for example, if you paid rent that you felt you shouldn’t have had to pay. If you win, you’ll be able to recoup the rent.

Affirmative defenses will be filed in the answer form. The form lists every type of possible affirmative answer and gives you an opportunity to write out more of your answers. You’ll need to file counterclaims separately, but they should be filed when you respond. There is a separate form concerning counterclaims. So when you file your answer form, you should also file a form with the court that covers the counterclaims that you are going to raise.

What Happens After an Eviction Trial?

If the landlord wins the lawsuit they will receive a judgment. Then they have to file a writ of possession, which allows the local sheriff to remove you from the property if you don’t leave. The landlord can file this writ the day the judgment is issued. You have five days to move out once you receive notice of the writ. If you don’t leave voluntarily then the landlord can get the sheriff involved. In this case, it could take up to 25 days to completely evict you. 

You have a right to request a stay of execution which will give you a 40-day extension on moving out. You also have the right to appeal. You have either 90 days from when the judge enters the judgment or 30 days from when you receive a copy of the judgment, whichever comes first, to file an appeal.

Practical Tips for Tenants Facing Eviction in California

Beyond the legal specifics of fighting an eviction in California, there are many steps you can take to avoid eviction. 

  • Put together any evidence you have to back up your affirmative answers or counterclaims. These can include communications with the landlord, videos, photos, and anything else that might be relevant.

  • Consider having a municipal building inspector come by and give a formal report on the state of the property.

  • If you can’t make it to a court appearance, you should reach out to the court clerk and request a postponement. If you can’t get a postponement, you should ask if providing notice that you won’t be at the hearing will be enough to prevent a default judgment against you.

  • If you want to pay the unpaid rent to prevent an eviction, then do so within the period of notice and keep a copy of the payment.

  • Be proactive and communicate with your landlord. Try to make an agreement or work issues out directly, so you can avoid eviction. A formal filing of eviction can stay on your rental history and hurt your ability to rent in the future, so you want to avoid an eviction at all costs.

  • If your landlord does file an eviction case, try to negotiate. They might consider dropping the eviction if you agree to move out within a certain amount of time. If you come to any agreement with your landlord, make sure you get it in writing and that both you and your landlord sign it.

Tenant Resources in California

California Eviction Moratorium information, including when the eviction moratorium ends.

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