Chun v. Del Cid (2019) – Second District Court of Appeal Interprets LA Municipal Code To Find “Rooming House” No Longer Exempt as “Single Family Home” from Eviction Protections

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In Chun v. Del Cid, a landlord of a single family home in Los Angeles served 60-day termination notices on multiple tenants who were leasing individual bedrooms in a single family home. The Los Angeles Rent Stabilization Ordinance generally exempts single family homes from eviction protections, and without LARSO eviction protections, a 60-day notice under state law can often be served at any time, for (almost) any reason.

The tenants defended an unlawful detainer lawsuit on the basis that their use of the property as a “rooming house” took the single family home out of the exemption. The trial court and appellate division disagreed, finding that the property was designed as a single family home: that is, a detached dwelling containing only one dwelling unit – a group of two or more rooms, one of which is a kitchen. The Court of Appeal granted review, evaluating several interlocking definitions under the LA municipal code to reach a different conclusion.

In particular,
(1) a “Dwelling” is “any residential building, other than an Apartment House, Hotel or Apartment Hotel”.
(2) a “Dwelling Unit” is a “group of two or more rooms, one of which is a kitchen, designed for occupancy by one family for living and sleeping purposes”.
(3) a “Dwelling, one–family” (or single–family dwelling) is a “detached dwelling containing only one dwelling unit”.
(4) a “Family” is defined as “one or more persons living together in a dwelling unit, with common access to, and common use of all living, kitchen, and eating areas within the dwelling unit”.

While all occupants shared the kitchen (often seen as the essential characteristic of a divisible “dwelling unit”), the court focused on the definition of “family” as having access to all areas inside the unit. By this reasoning, the fact that the multiple families each had exclusive use of their own bedrooms disqualified the single family home from the definition of “dwelling unit” and therefore from the exemption.

By contrast, the appellate division noted a distinction in the municipal code between “living” and “sleeping” rooms. It reasoned that a particular group of “two or more rooms, one of which is a kitchen” could still be a single “dwelling unit” that is “designed for occupancy by one family for living and sleeping purposes”, even though “family” is defined as a group of persons living together in a dwelling unit “with common access to, and common use of all living, kitchen, and eating areas within the dwelling unit,” because this definition of “family” did not include “sleeping” rooms. (In other words, each member of the ensemble could have exclusive access to their own bedroom and still be a “family” as defined, which means that they could still be one “family” as used in “dwelling unit”, despite being able to lock their bedroom doors.)

The Court of Appeals disagreed, focusing on the phrase “designed for occupancy by one family for living and sleeping purposes”: each member of the “family” must actually be able to access each sleeping space. Otherwise, the Court reasoned, “the family could not ‘occupy’ the group of rooms forming the dwelling unit”.

The balance of the opinion focused on the teleological problem of “designing” a space for a particular use, when “renovations expanding a structure and permitting new uses” could change it to multiple family use. But this reads a bit like a solution looking for a problem. Ultimately, this is the seed of a dangerous line of reasoning.

The Court considered its charge – finding whether these circumstances presented an exception to a rent ordinance. It cited to Da Vinci Grp. v. San Francisco Residential Rent etc. Bd. (1992) 5 Cal. App. 4th 24 for the rule that these exemptions should be “construed narrowly”. Two important distinctions: (1) Da Vinci reviewed San Francisco’s exemption from its own rent ordinance (and at a time before the state law Costa-Hawkins exemptions were enacted), and (2) rent controls are different than eviction controls.

It is one thing to say that (as in Da Vinci) a rental unit isn’t “new construction” because residential use began before rent control was adopted. It is entirely different to say that a landlord cannot recover possession of a single family home because tenants are occupying it in a manner inconsistent with how it was “designed”. This opinion let the fact of individual leases for different bedrooms wag the dog of zoning and fire safety law. (For instance, this property man not have been zoned as a multiple family district, and one of the “families” (as defined) might need fire egress through one of the exclusive “sleeping” spaces in the event of an emergency.)