By Daniel Larios
September 3, 2014 – The Santa Monica City Attorney’s office is suing a landlord who is accused of using intimidation tactics to force three longtime tenants out of their rent-controlled apartments, according to a lawsuit filed last week.
The lawsuit against Barbara Bills – who owns the rental property at 2637 Centinela Avenue – and her company WIB Holdings LLC comes after tenants Patricia Barkley, Paul Aron and Curtis Failor alleged that Bills entered their respective apartments to document living conditions while claiming to inspect smoke detectors and leaky faucets.
“Unless the defendants are enjoined from conducting unlawful inspections and similar misconduct, the current and future tenants at the Property and other Santa Monica buildings owned by the defendants are likely to suffer irreparable injury in the loss of their legal rights as tenants,” the lawsuit reads.
During one of these inspections, Bills allegedly went into a tenant’s bedroom to take photographs of the room while the person was lying in bed, according to the suit filed Wednesday.
She also videotaped the apartment of another tenant while there to inspect a leaky facet.
“Bills then had her attorney send each tenant false and intimidating notices about their homes that threatened termination of the tenancy,” reads the lawsuit.
The landlord also falsely accused one of her tenants of failing to pay her rent and failing to renew expired license plates, the complaint stated.
The inspections began this year after all three rejected an offer made by Bills to buy them out of their apartments, which are rent controlled and below market rates.
According to the City's Rent Control Board website, rents in the building range from $616 to $2,195 per unit per month, with three units currently renting for under $700 a month (one unit for $616 and two for $690).
Under the 1996 Costa Hawkins Rental Act, which went into full effect in 1999, landlords can charge market rates for units voluntarily vacated or if the tenant is evicted for non-payment of rent.
The suit alleges that Bills violated her right of access and is “part of a scheme to influence the three tenants to vacate their apartments through fraud, intimidation or coercion” after they rejected the buy-out offer.
The actions also violated Santa Monica’s Tenant Harassment Ordinance, which was passed in reaction to Costa-Hawkins, according to the suit.
In July, city staff presented a report that showed an increase in tenant harassment complaints in Santa Monica. (“Tenant Harassment Complaints Up in Santa Monica,” July 21, 2014)
City staff attributes the increase to incentives to boost rents under Costa-Hawkins, as well as an increase of property values near the Expo Light Rail station.
Bills did not return calls or emails seeking comment.
The City Attorney’s Office is asking the court for an injunction that would ban Bills from entering a tenant’s unit for any purpose, require her to take a housing training course and prohibit her from violating the City’s Tenant Harassment Ordinance.
The City is also asking the court to award punitive damages and court fees for $1,000 per violation, which currently stands at ten, according to the suit.