CITYWIDE — A bill that extends renters’ rights passed a crucial hurdle at the State Judiciary Committee last week, and will now move onto the Assembly floor.

The bill, called AB 265 and authored by San Francisco Democrat Tom Ammiano, would allow tenants who have been served a three-day notice to “pay or quit” to keep their homes if they pay back rent, new rent costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees during their eviction proceedings.

Tenants’ responsibility for attorneys’ fees would be capped at $350 for pre-trial proceedings, although that cap goes out the window should the process move ahead to formal trial.

The legislation would give renters the “right of redemption,” a protection that homeowners going into foreclosure in California already enjoy.

“Rents in California are the second highest in the nation, second only to Hawaii,” said Dean Preston, executive director of Tenants Together, a tenants’ rights group based in San Francisco. “We think this is a good time for the state of California to pass a right to redemption, which would prevent unnecessary evictions.”

Tenants Together worked with Ammiano to draft the legislation, which Preston characterized as friendly to both tenants and landlords.

Landlords don’t necessarily agree.

“This bill really only protects potentially nasty tenants as opposed to helping the down-and-out tenant that only wants to pay the rent, because the landlord will accept it,” said Carl Lambert, of the Action Apartment Association in Santa Monica.

Most of the time, landlords want to keep tenants that are capable of paying rent, even if they’re a little late. If a tenant is a “problem tenant,” however, the new law would divest landlords of one method of evicting people that might harass other tenants, Lambert said.

“Eviction could take upwards of 90 days, during which landlords will often accept back rent from the tenant,” Lambert said. “If it’s otherwise an OK tenant, it’s about getting the money.”

The new bill would put an undo burden on landlords who might get saddled with a tenant that just tries to run up attorneys’ fees and pressure the landlord into submission, Lambert added.

Tenants’ rights groups, and the author of the bill, find the landlords arguments specious, pointing out that the bill caps the tenants responsibility for attorneys’ fees to $350 only for pretrial hearings, not for the formal trial.

“It’s difficult to respond to almost persistent cries of wolf regarding almost any tenants’ rights bill that comes through Sacramento,” said Quintin Mecke, spokesman for Ammiano’s office.

The specter of the “evil tenant” is thrown around a lot in these conversations, Mecke said.

“Can you always present a worst case scenario of an evil tenant who would run up fees? Of course,” Mecke said. “Is that the reality of what happens day to day in California? I don’t think so.”

The bill codifies the informal process that both sides of the argument acknowledge is already in place — giving tenants more leeway to keep their homes if they can make rent, even if it’s late.

“We don’t pass laws to regulate the landlord for acting in good faith, we pass them for the landlord acting in bad faith,” Preston said.

Often, the targets of “bad faith” landlords are those with the least recourse, particularly rent-controlled apartment tenants because landlords can raise rents on the incoming occupant.

Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights co-chairs Patricia Hoffman and Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein drafted a letter in support of the bill earlier this year. Since that letter was signed, however, the content of the bill changed considerably.

In its original form, the bill extended the “pay or quit” period from three days to 14 days, which would give renters more time to come up with back rent or make other accommodations rather than go to court.

That provision changed on April 26 to the current version of the bill, according to the legislative history.

“I don’t think many tenants would be able to come up with past rent, court costs and next month’s rent. The law as changed, I don’t know if it would be that utilized,” Hoffman said, acknowledging that she hadn’t been able to speak to legal counsel about the changes in the bill.

The right of redemption versus pay or quit extension are two sides of the same coin, Preston said. “Overall, it remains a strong bill. It just approaches the same issue in a different way.”

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