Santa Monica City Hall (File photo)

CITY HALL — When tenants complain in a city that’s majority renters, elected officials listen.
Tenant harassment complaints nearly doubled in the last fiscal year, which ended earlier this month, city attorneys told City Council on Tuesday. Councilmembers gave the attorneys a list of suggestions for potentially solving the problems.
“In the previous four years the number had stayed fairly constant other than one large case (Village Trailer Park) that doubled in the previous fiscal year,” said Adam Radinsky of City Hall’s Consumer Protection Unit.
Changing market forces, Radinsky acknowledged, are part of the problem.
“There are undoubtedly greater pressures than we’ve seen in many years due to the real estate market rebounding,” he said. “Rents are going higher than they have in quite some time and there are also a consistent number of owners coming into the city purchasing rental properties, many of whom aren’t familiar with the laws.”
City attorneys are not sure if the spike is an aberration or the beginning of a trend, Radinsky said.
While complaints are up, that number does not correlate directly to the number of violations.
“One of the classes of cases that we’ve seen increasing in the past year are cases where there’s an owner who is looking to remove tenants from a building legally, whether it’s by enforcing lease provisions that have not gone enforced for some time and in some cases, cases that would constitute violations of the harassment ordinance, trumping up charges against tenants,” Radinsky told council.
Landlords might pretend not to have received a payment and use that as a means of eviction. They might pretend to serve notices that haven’t actually been served.
“Those are the kind of cases that we consider most serious and that we put the most resources into in terms of larger scale investigations,” Radinsky said.
Radinsky assured council that they look into every case, no matter how large or small.
A representative from Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, who monitors their tenant hotline, said he no longer refers callers to the city attorneys, stating, among other things, that they take too long to investigate a complaint. A representative from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles concurred.
When council asked if bolstering the Consumer Protection Unit, which is currently staffed by one half-time and two full-time attorneys, would speed things up, Radinsky was unsure.
“We do applaud the effort of council recently to fund an additional attorney position with Legal Aid because, whether these actions by landlords always violate the law or not, there’s no question that tenants who are facing eviction, especially those who can’t afford an attorney, are often facing an uneven playing field,” he said.
Councilmember Kevin McKeown suggested that attorneys look into the point at which ongoing construction should be a means for temporary relocation of a tenant.
“Because otherwise it’s used as a means for harassment for the tenants,” he said. “Homeowners complain all the time about how it took a contractor 15 months to finish the work but when that happens and you’re a renter, you have no recourse at all and you’re living with a wall that’s been torn open from plumbing and stays that way for months.”
Councilmember Gleam Davis suggested several options, including a City Hall-funded advocacy group for tenants, a requirement that tenants’ rights be posted in common areas within apartments, and a requirement that all relocation offers are provided in writing.
City attorneys promised to address the suggestions within 60 to 90 days. They will hold an informational forum about tenant-landlord issues in that fall and will pen a monthly column in the Daily Press.

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