Santa Monica is known nationwide as a liberal, tenant-friendly community. “60 Minutes” once referred to us as “The People’s Republic of Santa Monica.” Anyone would believe that having a rent-controlled apartment here, Main Street adjacent and only blocks from the beach, would be a little piece of heaven. Well, think again.
In 1995, I moved into a perfect two-bedroom apartment with my 4-year-old son. It had a private backyard perfect for mud pies, dirt clods, gardening and water fights. Our elderly landlord was thoroughly friendly and as solid as his handshake. We shared easy, positive communication. Unfortunately, in 2000 he sold the building to an investment company. Suddenly repairs became difficult to get, and we got an untrained, unlicensed manager.
Overshadowing that, in 2007 I had a major stroke. It left me temporarily blind and paralyzed on one side of my body. My son was sent out of state to be taken care of by extended family and finish high school. My life was forever changed.
Requiring rest and recuperation, I notified the property owner of my health status. But, for reasons I’ve never understood, our manager became confrontational. When I would get visitors or caregivers, he would frequently interrogate them, and on occasion even send them away.
And then I started getting frequent “Notices to Enter.” If I questioned the repairs, it led to innumerable “3-Day Notices to Quit.” It was now very clear that a pattern of harassment had begun. Repairs were often done incompetently. In one instance I was prevented from using my bedroom for almost a month.
When it became obvious I needed a full-time caregiver/roommate, my landlord wouldn’t approve one. Finally, after six attempts failed, I had no choice but to go to the Rent Control Board. In January, the board voted unanimously to allow me one.
I then submitted to the landlord’s office via fax the name, address, telephone number and photo I.D. of a potential roommate. The property manager claimed he “could not see it” although he wrote a letter referring to her by name and address.
Seeing that my landlord was extremely difficult, my potential roommate, understandably, went elsewhere. While the board ruled unanimously in my favor, who will enforce that ruling? I realize that to outsiders each one of these incidents might seem trivial. But since they’ve gone on for six years, I can’t help but conclude that they’re designed to get me to move. They even hassled me over my having a “service dog.” They sent me harsh letters demanding a “pet deposit,” even though I had a dog here 15 years and no deposit was ever mentioned. They finally relented, but only after causing me considerable emotional distress.
Their motivation seems simple. If my landlord could get my unit back he might be able to double the rent. Given that potential payoff, landlords can easily afford legal maneuvers as the cost of doing business. I constantly see ads in the paper, “We do evictions for $499.” All a landlord has to do is win once and he or she is financially ahead of the game.
And as my landlord’s lawyer told the media, “The landlord has millions, and it’s not likely they will run out of money fighting this battle.” It’s quite the opposite for a disabled, rent-controlled tenant who barely gets by.
So what is there to do? I obviously can’t force my landlord to consider a potential roommate. However well-intentioned the City Attorney’s Office, their perception is that this is an individual problem. They’re concerned with bigger, more widespread issues involving large numbers of tenants.
Since I clearly can’t afford a private attorney, and since the Rent Control Board doesn’t have attorneys available to tenants, my only option is to return to the board. But that takes time and hearings, and there are still no guarantees as the landlord can appeal the board’s decisions seemingly forever.
You might say, “Landlords can’t do that! It’s illegal!” What you may want to ask instead is, who are landlords accountable to? Not City Hall, the Rent Control Board or police. And even if they want to help, with government agencies’ budget cuts, they may not have the resources. So low-income, elderly, and the disabled are vulnerable. Therefore landlords are empowered to behave as they choose.
Just when you thought you had saved enough for retirement, think again. Tenants had better save up for costly legal battles or tuition to law school. I have talked to a number of other tenants at other buildings to know I’m not alone. Rent-control residents need to get together to form a “Tenant Union” and protect their rights.
These days, given all the development and landlords’ power, “60 Minutes” might want to rename our fair city “The Landlord’s Republic of Santa Monica.”
Cynthia Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.