A photograph showing the interior of a home, probably a living room, that has been damaged by flooding. Two people are in the back of the photo, examining the damage.
Donnie Young (right) and Alex Munoz (left) inspect their flooded home on Jan. 11, 2023, in Planada. The Central Valley town was devastated by widespread flooding after a severe atmospheric river event moved through the area earlier in the week. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Renters: Was Your Home Damaged by Rain or Floods? Here's What to Do

Renters: Was Your Home Damaged by Rain or Floods? Here's What to Do

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This story will be updated.

In the past few weeks, California has been battered by a series of storms that have knocked down trees, flooded roads and damaged thousands of homes. Hundreds of thousands of residents have lost power at least once.

As of Jan. 17, the National Weather Service forecasts the chances of rain in the Bay Area dropping significantly after Wednesday, giving the region — and its residents — an opportunity to recover. It will take several weeks for officials to calculate the total cost of the damages in the region. But "because of the scope of the damage, we do estimate that [costs] will be substantial," said Brian Ferguson, spokesperson for the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

Some Californians have had floodwaters enter their homes. Others have seen their ceilings collapse, and many have had belongings destroyed by rainwater leaks.

The good news: If you are a tenant and your home has experienced damages, your landlord has state-mandated responsibilities to you, regardless of whether you have a lease contract or not.

The bad news: For some tenants, it could be difficult to contact your landlord or make sure that they move quickly to make the repairs your home needs.

KQED spoke to Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director for tenants rights group Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), to better understand what rights tenants have during and after the winter storms and how best to communicate with your landlord.

Jump straight to:

Storm damage: When and how should I report it?

Almost all of California has been drenched in rain since the start of 2023, with many homes across the state still flooded or without electricity. Some areas in counties like Monterey and Santa Cruz have even seen evacuation orders due to relentless storm surges.

But regardless of where you live in California, tenants are protected by a health and safety code in the state’s housing law that lays out how a home should be maintained.

This regulation requires landlords to ensure their properties have things like working toilets and sinks, but it also prohibits homes from having walls, ceilings and floors that are deteriorating or damaged, along with leaks, mold and lack of heating. "Those are all things that have impacts on people's health and are not considered lawful in California," said Simon-Weisberg.

If you believe the conditions in your home have become unsafe after the storms and your life could be in danger, leave the house immediately and call 911, said Simon-Weisberg.

After that, call your landlord and explain the situation. She specifies you should only call 911 in extreme circumstances — your roof has fallen in, for example — echoing what San Francisco officials have advised the public about when to call 911: On Jan. 3, Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson asked city residents to only call 911 when there are life-threatening emergencies. “So if you have a little bit of flooding in your home, call 311. If someone is having a heart attack or if someone is being swept by water, call 911,” she said.

But if it’s something smaller, Simon-Weisberg said, "something you can contain with towels or a pot, call your landlord" — not 911.

How should I talk to my landlord about flood damage?

"I really want to encourage people to have the courage to call their landlords," Simon-Weisberg said, adding that it’s understandable that some tenants may feel nervous about these conversations, especially if they do not have a lease contract — or are afraid of some sort of ramification for speaking up.

"First off, it's against the law to retaliate against a tenant for speaking about repairs," she said. "A landlord is always responsible for maintaining a unit so that it is healthy and safe for the tenant."

These tenant protections apply even if you currently do not have a written lease contract. California recognizes verbal agreements, and property owners cannot use damages caused by the storm as an excuse to evict tenants. "Once the landlord has accepted a dollar for rent, then you have a tenancy and [tenants] can't be evicted without using the legal process," Simon-Weisberg said.

Once you are ready to contact your landlord, keep in mind that a phone call works — but it's best to accompany such a call with written communication, like email or text message, to have a record of what you talked about. In that written correspondence, make sure to include photos of the damage, the time it occurred and details on your personal belongings that may also have been damaged. ACCE has created a sample email that shows one way to document when you contacted your landlord.

As these storms have shown us, water can do an incredible amount of damage very quickly — so make it clear to your landlord that repairs are urgently needed.

"The sooner someone is in there to make repairs," Simon-Weisberg said, "the safer you are and the less damage that's going to happen both to where you're living, but also to your belongings."

An emergency worker with a fluorescent yellow hazmat suit wades in knee-deep flood water on a street as a car drives by behind him.
A rainstorm causes a flash flood in San Carlos, on Dec. 31, 2022. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

I'm having problems getting my landlord to make repairs

What to do if your landlord pushes back and refuses to fix the damage caused by a storm?

In some instances, Simon-Weisberg said, landlords do push back and argue that it is not their responsibility to make repairs, claiming a natural disaster exemption. She rejects this argument and affirms that "what we're experiencing right now is not a natural disaster." The natural disaster exemption can only be used when a natural phenomenon, like an earthquake or a tsunami, affects all houses in a city or region.

"If people's houses are flooding, it's because they're not being properly maintained," she said.

A landlord should let you know what repairs will be made and give you a time frame. If you’re still being rejected or not hearing back at all, that’s when you call the government, Simon-Weisberg said.

Option: Call your city's code enforcement agency

Your city’s code enforcement agency is the office responsible for making sure all homes follow the state’s housing law. You can let them know about your situation and that your landlord has failed to resolve it.

A code enforcement team should visit your home and then contact the landlord if they find a safety code violation. Simon-Weisberg adds that this will put pressure on your landlord to make the repairs as soon as possible.

Below is the contact information for code enforcement agencies for several Bay Area cities. We'll be constantly updating this list to add the contact information for more cities in the region. If the situation in your home has worsened and your life is in immediate danger, call 911.

Option: Take legal action

If code enforcement has already come over but your landlord is still not getting back to you, Simon-Weisberg said the next step is to take legal action. If you live in the Bay Area, there are several tenants rights groups that can help you in these situations:

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I can no longer live in my home because of the damages. What can I do?

If your landlord has scheduled repairs that require you to live somewhere else in the meantime, they are required to pay for your housing, which could be a hotel or another property.

"That being said," Simon-Weisberg added, "you will probably need to be paying rent while they pay for those other things. You can't both withhold rent and have your hotel paid."

However, cities and counties can differ on how long a landlord has to pay for this temporary accommodation. ACCE has partnered with the group TechEquity Collaborative to create TenantProtections.org, a website where you can input your ZIP code and learn which additional local- and county-wide protections you have available.

Simon-Weisberg does note that there’s a loophole in many California cities that allows landlords to evict tenants if they have to make substantial repairs and the tenant cannot live on the property while these repairs are being made. In these instances, many Bay Area cities with protections against no-fault evictions, like San Francisco and Oakland, require landlords to offer tenants relocation payments.

If you are afraid this could happen to you, reach out to a tenants group for legal advice.

What if my belongings also were damaged by water?

Is your landlord responsible for damage to your belongings if you're a tenant? The answer is not always cut and dried.

Janet Ruiz, director of strategic communication for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry group, told KQED that “your landlord is not responsible for your belongings” and that instead, "renters insurance or flood-renters insurance … would cover your belongings."

But Simon-Weisberg says that property owners can be held responsible for damages of tenants’ belongings — and that your landlord may push back on this depending on the situation.

So what should you do? First of all, if water damage has destroyed your belongings, like a computer or furniture, make sure to document this and include the information when communicating with your landlord.

If you have renters insurance

Check in with your agent to understand what your policy covers and what costs you (or your landlord) may have to cover.

If you don't have renters insurance

If you believe that your belongings were damaged due to your home not receiving necessary repairs prior to the storms, whether or not you have renters insurance, this may be something you bring up when talking to a renters rights group or legal aid clinic.

(If your heating, electricity or plumbing broke down and your rent payment includes any of these utilities, let them know this as well, including how long this happened for. You may be able to negotiate a temporary discount on your utilities payment.)

If you don’t have renters insurance and you are considering getting it after the storms, it’s important to mention that most policies come with a 30-day wait period for the benefits to begin — so a policy would not cover damages caused by past storms. Additionally, some tenants may have to pay higher premiums due to where they live, how old their home is and even how many floors there are in their building.

What if I lost food during the blackouts?

For families who receive CalFresh benefits, you can receive replacement funds on your EBT card if you lost food due to flooding or a blackout.

To do this, contact the case manager or social worker who's managing your CalFresh benefits within 10 days of losing your food to let them know.

KQED has confirmed with California’s Department of Social Services that this does include having food spoiled or destroyed due to the winter storms.

This article includes reporting from KQED’s Kevin Stark, Brian Watt and Spencer Whitney.

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