CENTINELA AVE — City Hall is going after a landlord they say harassed tenants through sham inspections executed under the guise of checking smoke detectors.
City attorney’s filed a lawsuit against landlord Barbara Bills and her company WIB Holdings for her alleged harassment of three long-term renters in a Centinela Avenue apartment building.
Bills did not respond to the Daily Press’ request for comment by press time.
According to the lawsuit filed Wednesday, Bills offered to pay the tenants — each of whom have lived in their rent controlled apartments for more than 20 years — to give up their apartments. The tenants — who, according to city attorney pay “extremely low” rental rates thanks to rent control laws — declined the offer.
Shortly thereafter, city attorneys said, Bills got the tenants to agree to inspections by claiming they were to check smoke detectors or fixtures.
Once inside, they say, she immediately began inspecting everything.
In one case, city attorneys said, Bills took photos of a tenant’s bedroom while the tenant lay resting in bed.
On top of serving numerous fraudulent inspection notices, city attorneys said, Bills served notices to this same tenant, Patricia Barkley, based on “untenable facts” about her failure to pay rent and her expired license plates.
Bills also entered Barkley’s home under the guise of a faucet repair, the lawsuit states, and then proceeded to perform a videotape inspection of the entire home.
Barkley and the other tenants in question, Paul Aron and Curtis Failor, were served warning notices that threatened to terminate their leases, according to the lawsuit.
City Hall is asking for injunctive relief that prohibits Bills from entering tenant’s units for any reason and requires that she attend housing training that covers the Tenant Harassment Ordinance.
Additionally, they are seeking punitive damages, actual damages, investigative costs, attorneys’ fees, the cost of the suit, and statutory damages in the amount of $1,000 for each act of harassment.
City Council and the Rent Control Board have each heard testimony about the recent rise in tenant harassment complaints received by the city attorneys.
As the Expo Light Rail gets closer to opening in Santa Monica and property values near the stations rise, the incentive for landlords to evict or harass tenants out of their rent controlled apartments increases.
Some landlords, tenants say, have repeatedly and falsely claimed not have received rent checks. Many tenants claim, as is alleged in the lawsuit, that landlords enter their homes and perform inspections without permission. Some tenants say that landlords have trumped up reasons for evictions, which can be costly for tenants to fight in court and, if successful, have big payoffs for the landlords. Some of these cases are being heard outside of Santa Monica, where judges are unfamiliar with the city’s rent control laws.