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Tenant Harassment Complaints Up in Santa Monica

Phil Brock For Council 2014

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and MarkHarding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

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By Daniel Larios
Staff Writer

July 21, 2014 -- The number of complaints filed under Santa Monica’s 1995 tenant harassment law has almost doubled -- from 28 in 2009 to 61 complaints filed in the fiscal year that ended last month,  according to a staff report that will be presented to the City Council Tuesday.

City officials attribute the increase in complaints to “increased awareness and public discussion about tenant harassment in recent months," as well as incentives to boost rents under the 1996 Costa-Hawkins law, which allows landlords to charge market rates when a tenant voluntarily vacates a unit or is evicted for not paying rent.

“A combination of economic factors have resulted in increased incentives to remove below-market tenants,” Deputy City Attorney Adam Radinsky, the City’s head of the Consumer Protection Bureau, wrote in the staff report. “These factors include a rising real estate market and rising rental values in the City.”

According to the Rent Control Board’s 2013 Annual Report, median market rental rates for two-bedroom apartments in the City have increased by 25 percent in the past three years.  In 2010, the median rental value was $2,000, while in 2013 the value rose to $2,495.

This creates an incentive for landlord to remove lower-rent tenants – including those who have lived in their units since before Costa Hawkins and sometimes pay a third or less than tenants in the same building who pay market rates, according to Rent Control Board records. 

The report cites a recent case in which a landlord offered more than two times the legally required relocation payment to tenants if they vacated their units.

While the offers are legal, they can violate the law if threats and intimidation are a part of the tactic.

The report also takes into account the increase in transfers of ownership, saying that many new property owners are unfamiliar with the tenant protection laws in Santa Monica. 
The report also tracked the number of eviction complaints received by the City, which has remained fairly constant in recent years.

Reported evictions averaged between 59 and 106 each year since 2009, with the exception of 2011 when there was a drop to 58.

However, the report makes it clear that rise in the number of complaints does not mean that there are more violations of the harassment laws. 

“Many tenants have filed complaints based on their evictions, although there was nothing illegal about the evictions,” Radinsky said. 

“In all, of the 45 tenant harassment complaints processed by staff in the past year, 30 involved complaints about owner conduct that did not implicate the THO.”

The number of units withdrawn under the Ellis Act, which allows landlords to get out of the rental business by vacating their building for five years, fell from 41 units in 2012, to 29 units in 2013.

“Staff is aware of individual cases where Ellised properties are alleged to be re-rented (presumably at far higher rates) after controlled-rent tenants have been evicted,” said Radinsky.  “Such cases are unusually difficult to investigate and prove.”

The update will conclude with future plans to expand outreach efforts, which includes mailing a fact sheet and summary of the THO and conducting a citywide forum in the Pico Neighborhood, where tenants paying low rents are being displaced to make way for condominiums.

The update also will explore ways the Police Department’s Neighborhood Resource Officers can increase public awareness.

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