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Renter’s handbook: Here’s how to navigate the top 6 tenant housing issues

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Renter’s handbook: Here’s how to navigate the top 6 tenant housing issues

Picture of Courtney Teague
A row of new housing units at Register Square in Napa
Courtney Teague, Register
Napa Valley Register
Sunday, September 29, 2019

Editor’s note: This article is part of an occasional series that takes a look at how Napa County’s high housing costs affect local residents and workers. Read the first and second articles in the series. RSVP for the Register’s town hall and resources fair on housing here.

Finding the right place to call home is difficult.

It’s partly a matter of luck, but also of finding a place that fits personal needs and financial constraints, said Pablo Zatarain, executive director of Fair Housing Napa Valley.

For some tenants, the struggle doesn’t stop after they move in. Lease or landlord troubles may threaten their housing security.

Tenants may be confused by technical leases, face discrimination, struggle to receive accommodations for their disability or not know the terms of their lease because English is not their first language, according to local organizations who work with tenants. Some landlords don’t give tenants a lease at all.

Tenants may stay in unfavorable situations because they can’t afford to leave or worry that they won’t find another acceptable place within their budget, Zatarain said.

When tenants encounter such problems, that’s where Fair Housing Napa Valley comes in. Napa’s Fair Housing branch receives federal funding to enforce the Fair Housing Act of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibits housing discrimination. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded $38 million to more than 100 organizations nationwide and more than a dozen in California, such as Fair Housing Napa Valley, in the past two years.

Fair Housing Napa Valley works with tenants and landlords across Napa County, where nearly four in 10 residents are renters, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

More than four in five tenant households that Fair Housing Napa Valley assists are low-income, Zatarain said. The organization also frequently works with renters who are Latino or those with disabilities.

“That’s the overriding theme to vulnerable communities in Napa,” he said. “A lot of it is based on their income.”

Records requested from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing show the department has closed 18 housing-related cases in Napa County between January 2015 and May 2019. In 14 of those cases, tenants with disabilities claimed landlords were discriminating against them for matters such as failing to make accommodations for their conditions and harassment. One tenant claimed their landlord retaliated against them because of a disability-related request.

In another case, a 59-year-old African American female residing in an independent living facility claimed management failed to address racist remarks and harassment directed at her. Another tenant claimed her landlord discriminated against her by making comments about her tattoos and a domestic violence incident involving her spouse.

Zatarian said he encourages anyone dealing with a housing predicament to contact Fair Housing.

This article was inspired by community conversations on housing, where the Register heard from renters who said they wanted more information about local housing resources. Keep reading to learn more about how to get help if you’re affected by the top tenant issues that Fair Housing Napa Valley encounters.

Have you received a notice to vacate from your landlord?

If you’re worried about being displaced from your home, Fair Housing Napa Valley can review the landlord’s notice, discuss the facts of your case, and advise you of your options, rights and responsibilities, Zatarain said.

Spanish-speaking tenants, for example, may receive English leases and not know all of their requirements.

If you receive a three-day notice to pay rent or leave, pay the rent if possible and contact Fair Housing as soon as possible. Other agencies, such as Bay Area Legal Aid of Napa County, can help, too, Zatarain said.

Fair Housing Napa Valley prioritizes keeping tenants in their home and will try to make eviction or vacating the last option.

Are you living in substandard conditions?

Common problems that fall under this category include: mold, malfunctioning heaters, inconsistent water or electricity connections, exposed wiring, broken appliances that prevent someone from using their kitchen, increased exposure to the elements or overcrowding.

Overcrowding has become more common since the 2014 earthquake, Zatarain said. Because of the tight housing market, tenants are now becoming more vocal about substandard conditions they’ve long tolerated, but want addressed. The earthquake also caused an uptick in mold issues because of cracks in walls or unseen damage to homes.

During the summer, pests such as cockroaches, bed bugs or mice can be problematic. Those spread more quickly from unit to unit in multi-family housing, Zatarain said.

Overcrowding can also hasten the spread of an illness. The county had to remove a person with tuberculosis from their overcrowded housing to avoid exposing roommates, said Karen Relucio, Napa County’s public health officer.

It may be necessary to vacate the unit if problems are serious enough. Fair Housing Napa Valley may also contact code enforcement officials in your city, Zatarain said.

Serious problems that are also code enforcement issues include: broken windows, windows or doors that don’t lock, illegal units, exposed wires, units maintained without permits or a lack of heat or hot water.

Code enforcement can reach out to your landlord, notify them of any violations and work with them to resolve issues.

Do you feel that your landlord may be discriminating against you?

More than a third of the households that Fair Housing Napa Valley assists include a disabled tenant, Zatarain said. Most of their cases involve the denial of a reasonable accommodation.


The Fair Housing Act requires landlords to make reasonable accommodations (adjustments to rules policies, practices or services) and reasonable modifications (structural changes) for tenants with disabilities.

Landlords may fail to provide reasonable accommodations by prohibiting service animals, or denying a tenant’s requests to secure a parking spot near their unit or change the rent due date to work with the schedule of their social security payments.

It’s still fairly common to see the denial of reasonable modifications. Fair Housing Napa Valley has access to a grant program that can fund the installation of grab bars for bath or shower safety, lowering a shower’s threshold, and ramps or wheelchair lifts.

Fair Housing Napa Valley also sees discrimination cases related to gender and race, Zatarain said.

Are you a tenant of low-income or government-subsidized housing?

You may have questions about recertification or what to do if your income has changed. Fair Housing Napa Valley works closely with the Napa Housing Authority to address those concerns, Zatarain said.

Will you have to leave your housing soon?

California law allows landlords to evict tenants without cause, so long as they give appropriate notice — 60 days for tenants who have lived in the unit for at least a year and 30 days for tenants who have not. Tenants receiving Section 8, the federal rental assistance program, must receive notice 90 days in advance.

Fair Housing Napa Valley can advise tenants in such a situation based on the details of their case. They can also review the tenant’s lease and ensure they’re meeting all requirements, as some may be asked to leave because they aren’t complying with the terms of their lease, Zatarain said.

Do you have a question about your housing situation?

Fair Housing Napa Valley may not be able to give legal help to tenants who are dealing with eviction, but employees know of people who can, Zatarain said.

Fair Housing Napa Valley aims to ensure that anyone who can’t be helped in-house have a solid resource to turn to next. The agency partners with attorneys, all Napa service agencies, family resource centers, legal aid services, and city and county government offices.

Courtney Teague reported this story as part of her University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Health Journalism 2019 California Fellowship. The Center’s Interim Engagement Editor Danielle Fox contributed engagement support to this article.

[This article was originally published by Napa Valley Register.]