Troubled tenant: Dealing with a rent increase in California
My sunny April day in San Diego, California immediately turned sour when a seven percent rent increase notice landed in my mailbox. Granted there are folks that have had bigger rent increases — 25 percent or more — but I was livid knowing I’d be paying more for the same busted bungalow.
After frantically Googling “what to do if your rent goes up” like a typical Millennial, I emailed my landlord armed with the Internet knowledge I’d procured:
“We just received the rent increase notice. I had a few questions to better understand what I’m paying for. Can you explain why you are increasing the rent? What do you plan to do with the increased funds, e.g. are you putting it back into bettering the property? If so what specifically?”
This spun off an annoying back and forth negotiation between my landlord and I. The results weren’t perfect for either side but speaking up and negotiating made the new amount a little more worth it on my end.
With a few exceptions, landlords can raise the rent of properties however much they want. This problem is felt nationwide, not just in California. Curbed reports the entire US is experiencing a housing crisis comprised of housing shortages, high rent prices, and a lack of renters’ assistance. It’s enraging, and I thought I might try to make a small win on my end.
When my initial message to my landlord went unanswered, I followed via email, then via text when the second email was ignored. Turns out he’s more of a texter (and into run-on sentences):
“You seem like nice people and are good tenants so even that I have no obligations to you or any tenant discuss with you or your roommate what I do with my money I will respond to [your] email next week.”
“I don’t care what you do with your money either. I just want to know why you’re price gouging this dumpy apartment,” was what I wish I could have texted back. Instead, I tried to remain calm and wrote back assuring him that I’m not asking about his money but rather why is he increasing the rent. That, of course, went unanswered.
If he had bothered to back up his rent increase, his defense might have mentioned the following: Appfolio’s blog post says landlords might raise rent to cover increased property taxes and fees, higher utility costs and an increase in costs for maintenance. They might also want to cover rising costs of living or just want more cash. (Capitalism, baby!)
If you choose to negotiate, you might try to compare your rent price to others in your neighborhood. There are online resources like Rentometer that’ll tell you what your rent is compared to other units in your area. (Mine was considered “reasonable” for my area.) You could also talk to your neighbors about what they pay, says Apartment Therapy. If you’re finding numbers much lower than what you pay, you can approach your landlord with it.
Other tactics might include negotiating a longer lease and researching your tenants’ rights. A longer lease can avoid multiple rent increases throughout the year. Rent increase laws vary from city to city, but some laws apply throughout my home state of California. California Tenants — A Guide to Residential Tenants’ and Landlords’ Rights and Responsibilities says that landlords must give tenants a 30-day notice for increases lower than 10 percent and 60 days for any higher.
My landlord had done that but his lack of communication annoyed me. After another week without a peep from him, I countered with another email:
“We’re completely aware that you have every right to raise the rent as much as you want. California provides very little protection for tenants and I’m painfully aware of that. As you’re probably aware, rents are rising much more rapidly than incomes. It’s scary for renters and we can’t easily just ‘leave if we don’t like it.’”
I then proposed signing a longer lease with a smaller rent increase (we were on month-to-month) or making the numerous repairs needed to the property before the new rent price would take effect.
I got a message 22 minutes later from Mr. Landlord (possibly his fastest response time ever!) proposing a year-long-lease at the new rental price and to look into any repairs I requested. We’d still be paying more but this is considered a major win to the fellow California renters I know.
As I write this, some of the repairs I requested have been completed and a few remain pending two months after my initial request. But things could be worse — these repairs aren’t impeding on the habitability of the apartment. I would legally be able to withhold rent under California law if they were.
If you can’t personally negotiate with your landlord, you can move, pay the price, try unorthodox methods like Uplift (a lender that provides renters with loans), or make a personal plea describing financial hardship. Beyond that, the best you can do is make sure they do things by the book and speak up when necessary. Remember: Squeaky wheel gets the grease.