By Gary Rhoades

On St. Patrick’s Day last week, the City Attorney’s Public Rights Division received by telephone a housing complaint that was similar to many from past, more ordinary times.

Alicia, a senior tenant in a twenty-unit apartment complex in Santa Monica, reported that her property manager had given her notice that he and his maintenance man needed to enter her Santa Monica apartment to make some repairs and check the smoke detector. Alicia told the manager that she was a senior with an underlying health condition—one that subjected her to a heightened risk of COVID-19 and serious complications—and that she was in self-isolation. She had not requested any repairs, she told him, and she did not want anyone entering her unit at this time.

But a repair person representing the owner came anyway and made their way into her home. In fear of being infected by a stranger, she fled to her bedroom and shut the door. They were in her home for some time, told her through the bedroom door that they would be back soon, and left. That’s when she called the City Attorney’s Office for help.

There has been and always will be tension between a tenant maintaining the sanctity of her home and the landlord trying to maintain his property. That tension will always create situations like this that are, in ordinary times, annoying and harassing to tenants like Alicia.

But in these extraordinary times as the world and our community deal with the COVID-19 crisis that includes a state-wide shelter-in-home order, Alicia’s experience was beyond annoying. It was harrowing. She understandably believed they were putting her health and even life at unnecessary risk. Other situations include tenants who are now teleworking or tenants who are homeschooling their children—or tenants who are doing both—and need absolute quiet and privacy in their home.

Even before the crisis, California and local law put strict limits on when a landlord can enter a tenant’s home. Under California law (Civil Code Section 1954), unless there is an emergency (such as a burst water pipe), consent or a court order, the landlord may only enter with 24-hour written notice in five situations:

1. To conduct necessary or agreed upon repairs;

2. To show the unit to mortgagees;

3. To show the unit to workers or contractors;

4. To show the unit to prospective tenants or purchasers; or

5. For a pre-move out walk-through to evaluate damage at the tenant’s request.

Santa Monica’s Tenant Harassment Ordinance (THO) cites Section 1954’s limited right of entry, and then states that landlords may not abuse it. For example, even though a landlord may, with written 24-hour notice, enter to show a unit to a prospective purchaser, the landlord may not do it an unreasonable number of times or in a way that unnecessarily interrupts the tenant’s life and work and harasses her.

The THO also prohibits landlords from doing anything from threatens the tenant with physical harm. That prong of the ordinance is rarely alleged but these are rare times. In the midst of a virus pandemic, all tenants will be especially keen to keep everyone out of their units. And tenants like Alicia who have age, poor health, or compromised immunity factors will understandably believe there is a threat of physical harm.

After our review of guidelines from the Center on Disease Control, public health orders limiting work to what is essential, and recently published best practices from the service industries and the apartment owners associations, here are some general guidelines and best practices.

  • COVID-19 is highly contagious and the virus can last for days on several types of surfaces. Therefore, do not enter homes, especially without informed consent of those with COVID-19 risk factors, unless it is for a critical repair or emergency involving a condition that makes the apartment uninhabitable. Uninhabitable conditions for these purposes include but are not limited to the following: lack of running water, lack of hot water, lack of heat, infestation of insects or vermin, inoperable toilet, serious water leaks, and lack of electricity.

• If an entry is necessary, the person entering the unit should do the following: 1) Maintain social distancing of at least six feet from the tenants (and their children); 2) Wear personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, mask, and safety glasses; 3) Wash hands for 20 seconds before entering the unit; 4) Do not enter the unit if you have the three COVID-19 symptoms recognized by the CDC—fever, cough, or shortness of breath; 5) Do not touch your face; 6) Sanitize the gloves and any equipment being brought into the unit; and, 7) Before leaving, wash or sanitize any surfaces touched during the entry.

• If an entry is necessary, the tenant herself should do the following: 1) Maintain social distancing; 2) Wash hands for 20 seconds before and after the entry; 3) Contain any pets or service animals from the work area during the repair; and, 4) Make sure that either you or the repair person has cleaned or disinfected the area in which work was done.

• Exchange all phone numbers and email addresses along with emergency and vendor contacts.

With a call from our office, Alicia’s landlord quickly agreed not to disturb her again unless she needed a critical repair. The solutions to these issues will come on a case-by-case basis, and all parties will have to communicate better than ever before, even though that communication will come under trying conditions. And that cooperative communication is already happening here in Santa Monica as more and more of us see that we are all in this together.

Further guidance on entries, construction work, and the City’s eviction moratorium may be forthcoming in the coming days. If you have additional questions, please email consumer.mailbox@smgov.net or call 310-458-8336.

Please note that during this public health crisis, most city staff are teleworking.

Gary Rhoades is a Deputy City Attorney in the Public Rights Division of the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office. For her privacy, Alicia is a pseudonym for the tenant described in this article.

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