In January 1974, the California Supreme Court, in Green v. Superior Court, decided that a residential lease between a landlord and tenant implies a warranty of habitability. Previously in California, a landlord had no obligation to maintain habitable conditions during the course of a lease. With the Green v. Superior Court decision, California joined seven states, plus the District of Columbia, which had adopted an implied warranty of habitability over the preceding decade.
The case first came before the San Francisco Small Claims Court due to a tenant’s nonpayment of rent because of deplorable conditions. The tenant admitted to nonpayment and the landlord did not deny the poor living conditions. Claiming that the tenant should have fixed the problems himself and deducted that cost from his monthly rent, the landlord won the case. The tenant appealed and won the case at the state Supreme Court level.
In its opinion, the California Supreme Court wrote, “under traditional common law rules, the landlord owed no duty to place leased premises in a habitable condition and no obligation to repair the premises.” The Court went on to assert that this old common law was rooted in an agrarian lifestyle. In modern society, tenants sign a lease not simply to find shelter but also to secure adequate electricity, plumbing, sanitation, and safety.
The Court also compared the implied warranty of habitability to the warranty of fitness implied with consumer products, writing, “In most significant respects, the modern urban tenant is in the same position as any other normal consumer of goods. Through a residential lease, a tenant seeks to purchase ‘housing’ from his landlord for a specified period of time. The landlord ‘sells’ housing…A tenant may reasonably expect that the product he is purchasing is fit for the purpose for which it is obtained, that is, a living unit. Moreover, since a lease contract specifies a designated period of time during which the tenant has a right to inhabit the premises, the tenant may legitimately expect that the premises will be fit for such habitation for the duration of the term of the lease. It is just such reasonable expectations of consumers which the modern ‘implied warranty’ decisions endow with formal, legal protection.”
Green v. Superior Court marked an important victory for advocates of affordable housing. Prior to the case, a shortage of low-cost housing left tenants with little bargaining power to gain a warranty of habitability. Due to the lack of affordable alternatives, renters had to settle for homes in poor repair. An implied warranty of habitability helps to ensure that affordable housing is adequate and safe for its residents.
According to the Cornell University Law School, “Most jurisdictions now read residential leases to include an implied warranty of habitability. This warranty requires landlords to keep their property ‘habitable,’ even if the lease does specifically require them to make repairs. Furthermore, the warranty conditions a tenant's duty to pay rent on the landlord's duty to maintain a habitable living space. This makes it easier for tenants to get landlords to make repairs. This warranty is usually coupled with rules prohibiting landlords from retaliating against tenants who complain about housing code violations.”
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