With an increase in the number of complaints of tenant harassment in Santa Monica regarding the strong-arm tactics of landlords hoping to get more money from their properties by ousting occupants, Santa Monica City Council passed two motions Tuesday night to increase renters’ rights in affordable housing units.
The City’s Tenant Harassment Ordinance (THO) will now expand protections to tenants by modifying the state-of-mind requirement, clarifying the scope of certain prohibited conduct, and increasing penalties, according to the City.
Attracting a long-line of speakers to the special City Council meeting Dec. 18, public comment regarding the ordinance to adopt the City’s recommendations saw harassment stories aplenty fill the chamber.
Local resident Crystal Anderson said that tenant harassment was a big issue at the recent Pico Neighborhood Association meeting.
“Landlords said that they want to see one thing and then looked in the closets and took pictures which is not called for,” Anderson said, citing a common example. “It’s also important that tenants are informed of their rights and where they can go to get help.”
Opening the staff presentation, Adam Radinsky, Chief Deputy of the Consumer Protection Division at Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office, announced the appointment of a new part-time community liaison officer to assist the office with housing-related issues. The officer will be available every morning at City Hall from 8 am to midday to field inquires.
The move is “most timely given some of the developments we have seen in landlord-tenant problems in Santa Monica,” according to Radinsky.
He then explained how the proposed ordinance would amend the THO in the following respects: modify the required state of mind for violations of the THO from “malice” to “bad faith”, clarify the scope of prohibited conduct as to improper entries into units and invasions of privacy, increase the maximum potential civil penalty for violations to $10,000, increase civil penalties for violations committed against senior or disabled tenants, and add new notice and reporting requirements for owners who engage in buyout negotiations with tenants similar to those recently adopted in San Francisco.
Following public comment, council discussed the legalities of the ordinance at length.
Mayor Kevin McKeown said that the work completed during the session would make a real difference in people’s lives.
“I’m proud of the City Council,” he said.
Council members debated several variations of adopting the ordinance before deciding on a two-pronged approach.
Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich moved to adopt the ordinance with staff direction and two additions regarding wording: “That ‘bad faith’ read an intent to vex, annoy, harass, provoke, or injure, adding the word ‘provoke’,” and that “the penalty shall be in the sum of at least $1,000 and up to $10,000,” for tenant harassment.
The motion was seconded by Councilwoman Gleam Davis.
Davis then moved to add the two staff directions, seconded by Councilwoman O’Connor: One to add a rebuttable presumption that the number of inspections by a landlord not exceed three times a month and a rebuttable presumption on the number of times that a landlord can claim that they did not receive rent over a given period.
“Also give consideration to the filing of buyout offers, as well as the agreements, in order to determine whether in fact they’re a pattern, if the whole building is attempted to being bought out,” Davis stated. “I would like to figure out whether we do have to have the ‘unlawful conduct’ language in there,” she added, explaining that harassment and vexation can also come in lawful forms.
Davis said the City needed to get the idea of retaliation included as well.
“We heard about that tonight and I think what happens is that sometimes you have tenants who assert issues about the livability of their unit and then they are retaliated against for making that assertion,” she said.
Both motion and directions were voted in unanimously by City Council.
The City Attorney’s Office will now take the directions and provide feedback and revisions to Council in the near future.