The City is hoping the Code Enforcement Team can add some additional teeth to tenant harassment rules.
Next week, code enforcement officers will undergo training so they can begin pursuing tenant harassment violations May 1. Under the previous system, the City Attorney’s Office was solely responsible for reviewing and possibly prosecuting all allegations of landlord harassment. Harassment can be any action intended to upset the tenants and make them move out like taking away services provided in the lease, lying, threats or intentionally disturbing a tenant’s peace and quiet or privacy. The law stipulates the landlord must be acting in bad faith.
“It means they are doing it with the state of mind to make life more difficult for the tenant,” the City’s Chief attorney in the consumer protection division, Adam Radinsky, said,
The City has received 74 written and sworn complaints alleging harassment since July of last year. The fiscal year before that yielded 117 complaints. Because many of those cases were either dismissed or settled out of court, Radinsky says it’s difficult to put a number on how many tenants received relief after the process.
To the head of the City department that oversees code enforcement, the current system is failing some tenants who struggle to show bad faith.
“This is in direct response to experiences that we we’ve had recently where it seems on the face there is harassment taking place but it is difficult for the City Attorney’s Office to find enough evidence to initiate litigation,” The City’s assistant director of planning and community development, Salvador Valles, said at Thursday’s Rent Control Board meeting. The harassment ordinance applies to the entire City, not just buildings under rent control.
Valles thinks code enforcement will be more effective at getting results for tenants. As opposed to an official court setting, code enforcement hearings are more efficient, have more relaxed rules when it comes to evidence and can thus get tenants results faster.
However, the new system will immediately face a significant drawback: without the City Council stepping in, any citations they give out will default to a general fine of just $75.
The City’s code enforcement manager is counting on the Council to raise the fee.
“Certainly, everyone knows this has been a priority for the City Council, so as of July 1, the fines will go from $75 – we anticipate – to $1,000 per day,” Sharon Guidry said.
Even with the greater fee, Rent Control Board member Nicole Phillis hopes the City Attorney’s Office will still actively prosecute cases.
“I don’t want it to be an alternative to the city attorney actually prosecuting these actions,” said Phillis, who is a media and tech attorney by trade. “They should be complimentary but it can’t replace prosecution. Because that’s where you really start to see an impact.”
That’s because actual prosecution can end with a criminal misdemeanor (up to six months in jail) or a civil violation (a $10,000 fine for each violation) and possible punitive damages.
Phillis says with escalating market-rates for rentals in Santa Monica, landlords have a natural incentive to displace long-term tenants, adding that sometimes the method can be surreptitious: such as prolonged construction that makes for uncomfortable living conditions.
“Ultimately we need to see how they train code enforcement a far as what they need to find in order to impose a citation,” Phillis said. “We just need to see the track record. It’s premature to speculate what the outcomes will be because we don’t have these cases happening yet.”
Radinsky pointed out Code Enforcement will need to meet the same criteria as the City Attorney’s office – finding a landlord acted with intent.
“The municipal code has the same standard regardless of who is bringing the case,” he said. “It is always a challenge to prove bad faith. That’s a fair thing to say, but we very often get it.”
As for the City Attorney’s Office, they will continue to pursue cases regardless of code enforcement’s actions.