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Santa Monica City Council to Consider Ordinance to Protect Tenants' Right to Protest Developments

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By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

December 9, 2013 -- The Santa Monica City Council Tuesday will consider a new ordinance that would prevent landowners from making deals with tenants to limit protests against pending developments that would displace them.

The new ordinance, if approved, would stop landowners from requiring tenants to promise they won't testify at public hearings against pending projects -- or otherwise petition the City -- in exchange for relocation benefits.

“The law provides two specific examples of process that must not be limited: speaking at a meeting of the City Council or any City Commission, and submitting written comments to the City,” staff said.

“The law includes a broader category of examples to include any communication with the City as part of the protected public process,” they said.

According to City officials, there have been at least two attempts by landowners to get their tenants to sign agreements that would curtail their right to protest in exchange for relocation benefits.

In one instance, staff said, a landowner got tenants living at a property slated for redevelopment to sign a “non-opposition” agreement.

That agreement, staff said, “prohibited tenants from speaking against the development project at any City meeting.”

It wasn't until after the City Attorney's office intervened that the landowner agreed not to enforce that provision.

“A second landlord and company circulated a similar agreement among its tenants, but the City and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) intervened before any tenant signed the agreement,” staff said.

City officials drafted the ordinance at the request of Council members Kevin McKeown, Tony Vazquez and Ted Winterer on April 23.

McKeown, speaking at the April 23 meeting, claimed that these types of agreements were “an ongoing problem” in the city.

The California Civil Code requires that if tenants are evicted through no fault of their own -- for example, if the landowner wishes to take the property off the rental market in order to redevelop it -- they are entitled to money to help offset the cost of moving.

As a result, McKeown said he didn't think any agreements making relocation benefits contingent on a tenant's silence would pass legal muster.

Still, such clauses could intimidate tenants not aware of their rights into forgoing any protests, distoring the public process, he said.

The City Council unanimously supported directing staff to draw up the ordinance in April.

Should the ordinance pass, staff said, enforcement would be folded into the responsibilities of the City Attorney's Office.

The City and the Rent Board would be charged with educating the public about the ordinance, staff said.
“Additionally, tenants would be authorized to bring actions or use the law’s voiding section to protect their access to public process,” they said.

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