Over 800 residential methamphetamine (meth) labs have been reported in California since 2004, according to the real estate reporting service, Housefax. The counties with the largest number of meth labs were:
- San Bernardino, with 109;
- Los Angeles, with 97; and
- Riverside, with 68 meth labs reported over the past decade.
Half of residential meth labs are found on rental property, according to San Diego County’s Department of Environmental Health.
Operating a meth lab is a criminal offense punishable by significant jail time. [Calif. Health & Safety Code §11397.6]
Additionally, landlords, property owners, agents, employees, mortgagees or renters who knowingly rent out, lease or sublease a space which will be used to manufacture or store methamphetamines are subject to criminal prosecution.
Basically, if an individual knowingly arranges for space to be available to other individuals who will manufacture or store methamphetamine, the person in-the-know faces imprisonment of up to one year upon the first offense. [Health & S C §11366.5(a)]
A notice to quit for unlawful activity
If a landlord unknowingly leases their property or mobilehome to tenants, and later discovers the tenants are using the property to store or manufacture methamphetamines, the first thing they need to do is contact the police. The landlord should not attempt to inspect the property on their own, since:
- the landlord may only enter the unit to provide necessary repairs, show the property to potential tenants, in case of emergency or with a court order [Calif. Civil Code §1954]; and
- individuals exposed to methamphetamines can be unstable, unpredictable and possibly violent.
If the tenant is in fact operating a meth lab, the landlord may serve the tenant a three-day notice to quit, as they violated the lease by using the property for unlawful activity. [CC §1161; See first tuesday Form 577]
The landlord needs to arrange for clean up
Once it’s been determined a property has been used to store or manufacture methamphetamine, it’s the landlord’s responsibility to arrange for certified clean up. [Health & S C §25400.11(l); §25400.17(c); §25400.20(e)]
The Methamphetamine Contaminated Property Cleanup Act of 2005 requires former meth labs be cleaned by an authorized and certified contractor who has undergone the proper training for disposal and clean up of hazardous materials. [Health & S C §25400.40]
Once it’s determined that the property is contaminated, the landlord has 30 days to retain the services of an authorized contractor. [Calif. Health & S C §25400.25(c)]
The landlord and their authorized contractor need to make a preliminary site assessment (PSA) plan to clean up the former meth lab site. This needs to be submitted to the local health officer within 30 days of demonstrating the landlord’s retention of the authorized contractor’s services. [Health & S C §25400.26(c)]
As soon as the local health officer approves the PSA plan, the landlord needs to complete the clean up within 90 days. Once the local health officer determines the property has been properly cleaned and has fully met the details of the PSA plan, the officer will notify the landlord that no further action is needed. [Health & S C §25400.26(f); §25400.27(a)]
Once the meth lab site is cleaned, the surfaces are tested for methamphetamine levels. To be safe for habitation, the level of methamphetamine cannot exceed 1.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters. [Health & S C §25400.16(a)]
Finally, after the property has been cleaned and is again suitable for habitation, the landlord needs to keep records of the decontamination for at least three years. [Health & S C §25400.26(b)]
Landlords who do not comply with meth lab clean up laws may be fined up to $5,000 for each infraction. [Health & S C §25400.45]
Methamphetamine: the real estate effect
If the landlord leases or sells the property or mobilehome where meth lab activity has taken place before the local health officer notifies them that no further action is required, the landlord needs to disclose the presence of the former meth lab to potential buyers and/or tenants. This disclosure needs to be provided and acknowledged in writing. If the notice is not provided in writing, the tenant or buyer may void the lease or sale agreement. [Health & S C §25400.28]
This is unlucky for sellers, as former meth labs reduce the home’s selling price an average of 20%. What’s more, homes nearby former meth labs also experience decreased selling prices of around 20%, according to Housefax.
However, once the officer deems the property safe for habitation, the landlord is not required to notify future sellers or tenants of the former meth lab. A property research service like Housefax can tell buyers if local law enforcement has reported a meth lab on a property.
If the affected property is an apartment unit the local health officer may determine more than a single unit or living space is contaminated. Thus, more than one unit may be displaced.
The local health officer posts a notice in a prominent place on the property that a meth lab was seized. If the meth lab was found in an apartment building, this notice will include the effected unit number. The notice also prohibits anyone from entering the effected portion of the property until the local health officer or designated local health agency advises it is safe to enter. [Health & S C §25400.18]
Screen to reduce the risk of criminal activity
If a tenant operates a meth lab on the property, there’s not much the landlord can do after the fact except comply with clean up and disclosure requirements, even though this decreases the property’s attractiveness. The best thing landlords can do to is be proactive from the start and properly screen all potential tenants.
To reduce the risk of a tenant using the property for unlawful activity, screen each tenant by asking about:
- past evictions; and
- references from their previous landlords.
Landlords need to ask all tenants the same questions to avoid claims of unfair treatment or housing discrimination. Landlords who use a credit report to screen potential tenants should follow these tenant screening rules.