CITYWIDE — As rents rise in the city by the sea so have claims by tenants who say their landlords are harassing them.

This fiscal year, Santa Monica City Hall is on pace to receive 43 official harassment complaints from renters. Last fiscal year they heard 38 and the year before it was 34. There have been 34 so far this year with more than two months remaining.

Deputy City Attorney Gary Rhoades briefed the Rent Control Board Thursday on the current state of tormented tenants.

City Hall’s ordinance on the subject, which was passed almost exactly 20 years ago, prohibits landlords from doing things like using lies and intimidation to get renters to move out, refusing repairs required by law, or intentionally disturbing the peace and quiet.

There are numerous reasons a landlord would be motivated to coerce a tenant to leave including rent control, which keeps units at stable rental rates so long as the renter doesn’t move out.

“Generally, we’re in a leveling off period,” Rhoades said. “(Another attorney) tells me that back in the ‘90s when the harassment law was first passed we had triple or quadruple the numbers we have now because we had a group of landlords that didn’t understand the law, didn’t know the law, didn’t know how we would enforces the law.”

During the last fiscal year, 22 of the 38 cases were “misunderstandings,” Rhoades said — instances in which the law was misinterpreted by the tenant or, after a phone call or letter, investigators were satisfied that harassment wasn’t occurring.

The remaining 16 cases were solved through “a series of phone calls, meetings, conferences in City Hall, discussions with the landlords and their attorneys, and with written settlement agreements,” Rhoades said.

The current law is sufficient, Rhoades said, and the Consumer Protection Unit, of which he is a part, is well staffed.

But some feel there is a disconnect somewhere in the process.

Several tenants got up and spoke about aggressive unfounded evictions or landlords who refused to fix glaring problems with their apartments.

Denise McGranahan, senior attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said that the tenants genuinely feel there is a lot of unaddressed harassment going on, particularly through what she called frivolous eviction cases.

“Maybe people aren’t really spending enough time with them,” she said. “I’m not quite sure what it is. But it seems like there is harassment that is going on that is not being addressed.”

Rent Control Board Chairman Todd Flora, and other board members, grilled Rhoades on specific policies.

“I want you to know that one of the reasons we’re asking a lot of questions is because we’re really hearing a lot that’s going on out here and a lot of people would tell you that they don’t get the feeling there are a lot of resources,” Flora told Rhoades. “I’m hearing from people who feel they are being dissuaded from continuing to pursue matter.”

“If it’s a new and growing problem that is surprising to me,” Rhoades responded. “I know there’s going to be a few folks not happy with our decision not to prosecute the landlord either in criminal court or civil court but the way you put it makes it sound like a new and growing and serious problem.”

Rhoades promised to take everything he’d heard back to his colleagues.

Per request of several council members he will make a similar presentation in front of City Council later this year.

 

dave@smdp.com

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